January 21, 2010

Massachusetts election outcome shows dangers of incumbency

On Tuesday, I wrote that the Democrats would be the victims of incumbency. In Massachusetts, a strongly Democratic state, the Dems control the state Legislature, most or all of the Congressional seats, and now all but one of the Senate seats. With Obama in the White House, and the Democrats controlling the US Congress and Senate, the Mass. election seems to me to be a strong reaction against incumbents. I am also of the opinion that the Gubernatorial race in Democratic Virginia, that saw the Democrat candidate defeated, was a triumph over the incumbent party.

I’ve also been pondering about how social networking and online campaigning favours “outsiders” and oppositions. While the party of government is bound by the straight-jacket of actually running the country or state, a strong opposition can innovate, and take risks. Governments must be responsible, held to higher levels of accountability by the media, and are trapped by the ruts of institutional inertia. They are dragged towards old messages, old media and old policies, because of tidal forces that are inherent to governing. They are risk averse, because they have more to lose.

This was the case (in my view) for Obama, and we are seeing it for David Cameron in the UK. It was the case in Virginia and now Massachusetts.

Over at TechPresident, they’re dissecting the Massachusetts election. The view expressed there is that the Internet enables “insurgent” voices. Insurgents by their nature are oppositional.

The Internet has suggested again and again that it loves an insurgent candidate (Howard Dean, Ron Paul, Barack Obama…) , and Brown’s surge seemed in many ways to be a perfect match for the Internet’s particular metabolism.

Their point is that online campaigning doesn’t replace traditional campaigning, but amplifies and legitimises marginal voices. The Tea Party “movement” is a good example of an oppositional force being elevated both in size and stature, due to the megaphone of the Internet.

Micah at TechPresident also muses that perhaps the Internet is a force that promotes the status quo:

So far, the Internet’s ability to alter the dynamics of US politics–given the existing hard-wiring of the rest of the political process–seems to be far better tuned for “stop this” than “do this.” I doubt anyone thinks this is good news. Gridlock is hardly going to get us moving forward.

Online campaigning certainly empowers oppositional movements. If that opposition successfully stops a government initiative, then it depends on your point of view whether that is “gridlock” or “democracy”. Afterall, conservatives in Australia would view the Rights At Work campaign as “stop this”, while the labour movement would see it as “do this”.

More on the Mass. election at Larvatus Prodeo.

Also worth reading: FiveThirtyEight on why the Internet is really important for elections.

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