This is our idea for a new, virtual political party. It’s called Open Source, and the name implies as much. Why a new political party based in social networking? The political situation in the United States is out of balance. Insiders control a system that is held in low esteem by most citizens. The two major political parties are essentially soft-money conduits and hardly a voice for grassroots participation. Organizing for change has traditionally been the way to reign in the abuse of power. Social networking is connecting people as never before. The key with the party is to fuse two similar concepts — social networking and political association. The latter, in its traditional form, could work well in the Information Age and let us tell you how.
Social media is a group process where, “much of what we hope to produce and accomplish can be done only through collective action” (Kassin, et al. p. 295). Political association is also a social medium and one would think that it would have blossomed on the Internet? This is not the case. Grassroots political association in Washington State is still an off-line medium consisting of a few stalwart party leaders heading their local Democratic or Republican committee. While these groups may have joined millions of others with a Facebook page or Twitter account, the awesome power of social networking has yet to be harnessed for structuring these traditional political organizations. In this article I will look at; empirical studies of how the internet is impacting the psychology of political participation, a classic treatise on political parties and then apply these concepts to a traditional structure of a political association. I will conclude by theorizing that the traditional party structure is well suited for the demands of the digital age.
In their 2008 book Millennial Makeover, generational theorists Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais predict a political realignment for the United States that will soon be spearheaded by the Millennial generation – those born between 1982 and 2003. The authors state this cohort will determine the relative standing of the two [major] political parties for the next thirty to forty years (p. 203) This tech-savvy “civic generation”, as the authors call them, have collective attributes that will drive them to adhere to one of the US major parties. The book shows how political realignments in our nation have always been centered in transitions between media technology. (The progression from telegraph, telephone, radio, television to Internet.) Winograd and Hais make a compelling case about the history of communications technology and its impact on politics. They look to the respective Democratic and Republican parties as potential beneficiaries of any realignment initiated by Millennials. To the authors, the future will belong to one of the lucky major parties, however, as stated above, these two groups are hardly using technology as an organizational tool.
The parties in the US are not alone as research shows political associations in other countries are also failing to merge social networking within their organizational structures. An analysis of the use of the internet in the 2010 United Kingdom elections cites international studies finding, “[P]olitical parties and candidates tend to use the internet as a top-down channel for information or party propaganda” (Baxter et al. 2010 p. 464). This seems to be changing with the research group DEMOS identifying an emergence of web based mobilization:
The size, diversity and dynamism of social media platforms allow people to connect and form social movements outside the existing political channels far more quickly and easily than ever before. New social movements are emerging using social media, and challenging existing parties in a way unthinkable a decade ago. The English Defense League in the UK, the Pirate Party in Germany, and the Occupy movement are all examples of movements that have employed social media to grow rapidly and create a significant political and social impact – all in the last three years. (Bartlett et al. 2013 p. 11)
Psychology researchers Xenos and Moy point to an alternative dimension of the effects produced by the internet on politically minded individuals (2007, p.706). On one end, the internet is a low cost tool that individuals rationally choose to acquire information from. On the other side, there is a psychological approach, “in which the motives, characteristics, and social contexts of users play a greater role” (706). The researchers tested these two competing theories finding in the psychological approach that, “[T]he effect of Web use on these behaviors appears to be enhanced for those with greater levels of self-reported interest in the politics surrounding the campaigns.” These motivated people aren’t just gleaning inexpensive and readily available information, they’re willing to participate in politics. While we find that information drives civic participation among some, the study never articulated what percentage of respondents of this group were motivated. For an answer we can look to a seminal study of political parties.
Roberts Michaels tells us in his seminal study Political Parties, “[T]he majority is really delighted to find persons who will take the trouble to look after its affairs” (1915 p. 53). Whether the majority is loafing or free-riding, it could be, as Max Ringelmann found, the politically motivated small minority are just tugging harder to get things done (Kassin et al. p. 304). Since personal values are central in political association, the collective effort model points to the desire of the motivated to try harder to achieve the outcome. A political party needs to throw these motivated people a digital line and once hooked, I contend the traditional structure of a party can accommodate this type of personality.
When people work in virtual teams, special attention must be paid to them to offset problems in web-based social groups (Kassin et al. p. 321). The traditional structure of a political association can speak to the social challenges produced by technology. Political parties organize by electing leaders, passing resolutions / platforms and nominating candidates for office. Parties also disseminate information in what has been traditionally known as the party press. This structure meets the criteria to deal with the problems that can affect virtual teams by keeping roles clear, sharing information and maintaining a transactive memory. As far as socializing new members, “membership and participation in a relevant virtual group can become a central (and very real) part of one’s social life” (Bargh & McKenna 2004 p. 582). There is no need to reinvent the wheel of traditional organization; the trick is to apply this established form of organization to social networking technology that is abundant and already in use.
Early enthusiasm over the political potential of the Internet has given way to sober or pessimistic assessments (Davis 2010). It is one thing for a party to use social media in promoting its policies and candidates; it is another to structure an organization around social media. Nevertheless, as the Demos report stated above, web-based political participation is starting to take hold with various “startups” emerging outside of the two-party structure. However, these efforts tend to shy away from the traditional political association articulated in this paper. Now is the time to find other motivated and informed individuals to assemble a new party. I have by-laws for such a party drafted. Think technology “startup” venture meets a political association. If the timing is right, as the generational theorists claim it is, the majority of voters could be delighted to have a social network of motivated people to spearhead this collective effort so candidates emerging from a new process can actually get elected.
Bargh, J.A. & McKenna, K.Y.A. (2004) The Internet and Social Life, Annual Review of Psychology. 55 573–590
Baxter, G., Marcella, R. & Varfis, E., (2011) The use of the internet by political parties and candidates in Scotland during the 2010 UK general election campaign, Aslib Proceedings, Vol 63 Iss: 5, 464-483
Bartlett, J., Littler, M., McDonnell, D., Froio, C., (2013) “Social media is changing politics across Europe…” New Political Actors In Europe: Beppe Grillo and the M5S DEMOS
Davis, A., (2010) New media and fat democracy: the paradox of online participation, New Media Society 12(5) 745-761
Kassin, S., Fein, S. & Markus, H.E., (2011) Social Psychology 8th Edition, Wadsworth Cengage Learning
Michaels, R., (1915) Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, The Free Press, Reprinted 1949
Winograd, M. & Hais, M.D., (2008) Millennial Makeover: Myspace, YouTube & the Future of American Politics Rutgers University Press
Xenos, M. & Moy, P., (2007) Direct and Differential Effects of the Internet on Political and Civic Engagement Journal of Communication, International Communication Association 57 704–718