The Citizens' Advisory -- A Manifesto
The Citizens' Advisory is working to take the money out of politics. The Advisory system appeals to voters because it's convenient. It appeals to social activists and their organizations because it levels the political playing the field and empowers them with a stronger political voice.
by Eric Armstrong
The Citizens' Advisory is working to take the money out of politics.
It appeals to voters because it's convenient. They can get voting recommendations from all the people they trust, on all the candidates and issues they're eligible to vote on, on local and state matters, as well as national.
It appeals to social activists and their organizations because it levels the political playing the field. As advisors, they are empowered with a stronger political voice that can serve as an effective counter-balance to corporate lobbying. In effect, the Citizens' Advisory takes the media out of politics, so that corporate money becomes irrelevant.
The Citizens Advisory is currently in the conceptual stage, and is seeking help to fund, organize, develop, and promote this important tool for democracy. We're in a race against time, and the need is urgent.
The Need is Urgent
Wealth is concentrating in ever fewer hands, global shortages loom for water, food, and energy, the middle class is disappearing, and corporate power--both economic and political--is rapidly growing overwhelming.
When manufacturing jobs migrated overseas, America was supposed to transition to an information economy. But corporations are now using the Internet to transfer information-processing jobs. By 2015, the Forrester Research Group estimates that 3.5 million information jobs will go overseas in areas as diverse as accounting, legal services, telephone support, and software development. Right now, in fact, it is impossible to get venture capital funding for a software startup unless the programming is done offshore.
But that move to the third world is not raising wages there. In real terms, it's suppressing them. Ostensibly, they provide a marginal increase. But by privatizing everything they put a price tag on necessities that used to be free, like water in Bolivia. In the resulting economy, it costs more to live, and real wages have gone down.
Corporations have a free hand in third world countries marked by weak democracies. But the "international" trade agreements they've concocted have given them a tool they're using to make even strong democracies irrelevant--including Canada, where a cigarette-labeling policy was reversed, and in the United States, where environmental laws to protect turtles and dolphins have been overturned--all in closed tribunals.
The impending scarcities, concentration of wealth, disappearance of the middle class, and rise in corporate power all point to one thing: a new feudalism--a Corporate Feudalism--in which political processes are dominated by corporations and wealthy interests, while people work more and more for less and less.
We Need Something Better
To create an alternative, sustainable future, we need to institute a new system of Progressive Capitalism. To do that, we need a decentralized democracy that provides adequate representation to ideological minorities, as well as racial, religious, and cultural minorities. We need better monetary systems and long-term outlook that puts the needs of our children above those of ourselves.
As a culture, we know these things. Potential solutions abound, and there are many spending their time and energy trying to make a better world. But each solution faces impenetrable obstacles in the current political environment. None of them become feasible until we can take charge of the political system we currently have---a system in which:
A Lack of Unity
To combat those forces, we need unity. But how do we create a semblance of unity, when social activists currently constitute so many splintered factions, each of which is focused on a particular (albeit important) aspect of the problem?
Each individual concern is valid, certainly. Action in each area is necessary. But unless those forces work together in a concerted way, they will be run over piecemeal. As Benjamin Franklin so famously said: "We must all hang together, or we shall assuredly hang separately."
But, desirable as the goal of unity may be, how can it be achieved? In Europe, the answer lies in multi-party politics. The resulting democracy ensures full representation, which produces multiple political forces. The resulting system does not legislate as efficiently as the American two-party system, but it's less easily dominated by corporate money, and it's more truly representative of what people want.
In that political system, social activists form coalitions. Coalitions are required, in fact, to get anything done--because there is no dominant party. And coalitions are rewarded because, by working together, social activists achieve political influence. In other words, social activists in Europe have incentive to form coalitions, and even the major political forces can only govern by resorting to coalitions.
But in America's two-party, winner-take-all political system there are no such incentives or requirements. Accordingly, there is little in the way of unity.
Media Impact on Politics
The lack of unity, coupled with the impact of the media on politics, means that politics in America consists, in effect, of two giant propaganda machines at war with one another.
A tremendous amount of money is required to generate polished, professional propaganda, and even more is required to repeat it often enough to take hold--especially given the media's proclivity for raising prices during campaign seasons. (Giant media corporations license the airwaves for free, yet extort enormous sums of money from anyone who wants to participate in the democratic process.)
Because of the need for money, Democrats no longer represent a progressive agenda. On the surface, they are still the "voice of the people". But a deeper inspection of their legislative record shows that in the last couple of decades they have been as responsible as Republicans for the increase in corporate welfare and the dismantling of legal restrictions on corporate behavior. (For examples, see David Cay Johnston's Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich -- And Cheat Everybody Else.)
The Situation in a Nutshell
To deal with these issues:
How then, do we generate the political force necessary to counter-balance corporate greed and excess?
There is a Way
The situation we face is not new. It's as old as mankind's history. On the one hand, we have selfish interests who want to maximize what they have for themselves and their family, regardless of how it affects others. On the other hand, we have the concept of love--a concept of giving and sharing that has been at odds with the forces of greed and aggrandizement since the world was young.
Today, though, we have a tool that has never existed before, at any time in mankind's recorded history. We have the Web.
But the Web only represents potential. Unless we harness it constructively, that potential will go unrealized. If we use it properly, we can--and we must--make money and the media irrelevant to the political process.
The Citizens' Advisory represents a way to unlock the potential of the Web. On the surface, the concept is simple. We make it incredibly convenient for voters to get voting recommendations they trust.
Beneath that simple concept, however, lies a powerful capacity for change:
The Citizens' Advisory will greatly magnify the political voice of independent organizations. But perhaps even more importantly, it will make it easier for organizations to find each other and work together to institute political change.
In effect, the Citizens Advisory allows organizations to create powerful, election-influencing coalitions in cyberspace so they can begin making the political changes that will eventually lead to more pluralistic representation in the seats of government.
For example, Greenpeace has 2.5 million members worldwide, and probably something like a million or a million and a half nationally. But membership is only part of the story. How many people would listen to Greenpeace's recommendation on a local ballot measure? (I know I would, but I'm really bad about sending in my membership check, so I may not find out what they're recommeding.)
And since public outreach is so expensive, it takes a lot of money for Greenpeace to make a recommendation using traditional media. But with the Citizens' Advisory, the cost of outreach drops to virtually nothing. It guarantees virtually 100% penetration, reaching everyone who ever decided that Greenpeace was trustworthy. And it makes it possible for Greenpeace to know how many voters are listening to its recommendations.
To take another example, consider the Center for Science in the Public Interest. How many people would listen to them? But here's where simple membership numbers really break down. What's their overlap with Greenpeace membership? What is their combined impact, in reality? Together, do they have enough votes to determine the outcome of a state or local election? Is there a larger coalition that would?
The Citizens' Advisory will make it possible to answer such questions, all while preserving the anonymity of its users.
Of course, to get Greenpeace recommendations, a voter can always go to the website. That will be easy for the national issues. It will be somewhat harder for the small, local issues--assuming that Greenpeace has invested the time and energy to make that sort of thing possible. But it will be possible, if the voter is diligent.
Then the voter can go to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and hunt around there to see if there are any national or local issues they're concerned about. They can then go to the site for every other organization and columnist they trust, collect their recommendations, and mark their voting pamphlet. It shouldn't take more than a day or so. And everyone will do that? No, they won't. And they don't.
Of course, there is always the voting information pamphlet. The recommendations of the large, well-known organizations are listed. But it's not easy for a new voice to emerge and become large enough to make it onto that pamphlet. And those recommendations are often shown only for ballot measures. Candidates who write a three-paragraph synopsis of themselves may forget to mention endorsements, may not have realized that some influential advisor was willing to endorse them, or may not even understand how important endorsements are to many voters.
The Citizens' Advisory, in contrast, represents one-stop shopping for voters. It brings voters and advisors together in a marketplace of ideas. The result will be a true democracy---a stronger, decentralized democracy---characterized by greater participation and legislative decisions that truly reflect what people want for themselves, rather than what corporations want for them.
Fortunately, much of the technology we need already exists. In fact, most every part of the system has been the subject of talks at Planetwork, as described in Advisory Technologies. People are already doing the things we need to do, and building the tools we need to use.
We only need the unity to bring those efforts together. We need fund raisers, organizers, open source software, and developers. That won't be the end of the process, either. To raise awareness of the system, we'll need vigorous and sustained promotion. And we'll need ongoing maintenance.
But in the end, our reward will be the construction of a true democracy---a thoughtful democracy---that puts the needs of people ahead of corporations. And with that tool in hand, we'll truly be able to build the future of our dreams. The alternative is simply unthinkable.
About Eric Armstrong
Eric Armstrong is computer systems designer, writer, and philosopher. He is currently working on a book that uses the principles of General Systems Theory to explain how America's epidemic of obesity and disease stems from profitable, but unhealthy, ingredients in the food supply; how the corporate financial system (and our own retirement plans) are complicit in the problem; how the American political system allows it to happen; and how our problems with the environment, a dwindling standard of living, and even our problems with the global economy all stem from the same constellation of systemic interactions. At www.treelight.com/health, he focuses on nutrition and fitness. At www.citizensAdvisory.org, his forming non-profit is working to get the money out of politics. At www.artima.com/weblogs, he writes about software, web technology, and development tools.
About Citizens' Advisory
Corporate money has hijacked the ballot box. The Citizens' Advisory aims to take it back. Our goal is to put people in charge of the political process. The voting-advice system recommended by the Citizens Advisory lets people choose advisors they trust. Done right, that system will enable multi-party coalitions in cyberspace. The system appeals to voters because it's convenient. It appeals to social activists and their organizations because it levels the political playing the field and empowers them with a stronger political voice.
Copyright © 2004 byCitizens'
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