Opinion

Stop waiting for Washington

If Americans hope Washington will create jobs or cut the deficit, they're in for a long wait. The onus lies on citizens. We need to change what it means to participate. We should treat politics like social media. Become our own politicians, just like we're our own digital-content producers.

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There’s an extremely good chance that you, dear reader, are fed up with Washington. To be precise, that chance is about 91 percent. According to a CBS News Poll conducted last week, only 9 percent of Americans say they approve of the job Congress is doing. That’s the lowest approval number since they began asking the question more than 30 years ago.

And yet we keep waiting for Congress to come up with solutions to our problems. Right now, we’re waiting for them to do something to spur job growth. We’re waiting for a Super Committee to find at least $1.2 trillion in budget cuts. Many are waiting for the political Messiah to appear in the form of a Republican candidate.

We might as well be waiting for Godot.

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To be fair, not everyone is merely waiting. Some are occupying public squares and parks. Or having tea parties. A large number of us are still voting. We’re trying to participate, but the problem is we’re doing all the same things we’ve always done and expecting different results.

To actually do things differently, we should change what it means to participate. We should treat politics like we treat media. We should make it social.

As Clay Shirky points out in his excellent book, “Cognitive Surplus,” media have been turned upside down by this phenomenon. Not long ago, media were completely top down: a select few decided what the many would see, read, hear. Now everyone is a potential media producer. You can shoot a video and broadcast it on YouTube. Can’t get a job as a columnist? Start a blog and publish columns as often as you like. The means of production have shifted. We are all photojournalists, filmmakers, writers, publishers.

But the Internet has done more than democratize media. It’s also made it social and collaborative in ways that were never possible before. Imagine that 20 years ago someone told you there would be an encyclopedia that was updated minute by minute by hordes of volunteer editors, and it would be as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica, only much bigger. Even if you could grasp the idea technologically, you’d still have scoffed at the notion that so many people would collaborate without a monetary motive.

Apparently, we’re more social and collaborative than we thought. And Wikipedia is only one example of human nobility and cooperation on the web. There are jillions of others, including the global microloan site Kiva; the open-source software system Linux; Webcanvas.com, a worldwide collaborative painting; countless electric car forums where people help each other convert gas engines to electric, and the list goes on.

We’ve socialized media, software, knowledge, and philanthropy but not politics – or at least, not to the extent that it could be. In the political arena, we do the same things we’ve always done, even if we use new tools. Occupy Wall St. might have a Facebook page and a Twitter feed, but it’s still a good old-fashioned protest.  MoveOn.org on the left and TheVanguard.org on the right make it easy for people to spread the message, but it’s still a message crafted by the few for the many. 

We can do better. We have the tools to create a parallel government, a Congress of the people, that lives online, transparent and open to all. 

Imagine a wiki for cutting $1.2 trillion, something that starts where, for instance, YouCutTheBudget.com ends. That site lets you do the exercise individually but not collaboratively. Or imagine a jobs bill online, one that Americans write. We can vote on provisions and proposals. We can post suggestions. We can have a real participatory debate. And politicians would be free to ignore us at their peril.

There might have to be several of these wikis to accommodate different points of view, but Americans could in effect vote with their mouses on which they prefer. Locally, we might be able to better manage road construction projects and school textbook decisions by making these things truly transparent and done together.

If we can collaboratively create an encyclopedia of all the knowledge in the world and constantly edit it and moderate disputes, how hard could it be to create a better jobs bill or a better budget online?

Let’s use the tools we have to do more than spread messages around – let’s send a message: America needs a new political system, a social one, where participation means more than voting or donating to a campaign. In this new politics, we’ll create the platform and politicians will embrace it, rather than the other way around. It’s time to make participatory democracy mean something again.

Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.

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