Many years ago, Henry Ford famously said that customers could have their cars painted any color they wanted so long as it was black. This sentiment, that the company should dictate the purchaser’s choice, seems absurd in today’s consumer-driven society. Unyielding industries like Detroit automakers and the record label owners are suffering from their foolish struggle to control individuals’ preferences rather than responding to them.
Ironically this mentality still dominates the one company that no one can refuse to do business with: the U.S. government. The two national political parties continue to subscribe to a top-down approach to dealing with constituents.
On both sides of the aisle, party bosses further the careers of well-connected friends, allies and backers. The principles and moral fiber of the candidates take the back seat to the concerns of party leadership, namely strengthening the party. Morally questionable incumbents, like Senator Chris Dodd, D-Conn., or former Senator John Ensign, R-Nev., remain party leaders because they are too connected to be replaced.
As the corruption in Washington grows, voters are shedding their party affiliations in droves; the number of registered Independents grew from 16 to 24 percent of the electorate between 1987 and 2004. Sadly, when these new independents have sought an alternative to their former parties, they’ve found none. With the short-lived exception of Ross Perot’s Reform Party, alternative parties have not been able to raise the millions needed to inform voters of their existence and platform though the national media.
Today, however, a quiet revolution is taking place. The rise of new information technology has given common citizens the unprecedented means to actively participate in the national debate. While a national advertisement might cost a small fortune, viral marketing through Web sites like YouTube can provide comparable coverage for the cost of a computer.
This new media is the first serious threat to the half-century long dominance of well-funded, centralized and hierarchical national organizations. Media outlets that once had few competitors are finding that their consumers are turning elsewhere.
Now, the forces that are driving the traditional mass media to extinction are coming to bear on the entrenched two-party system. The Internet is magnifying the once-silent voices of those who couldn’t have purchased exposure previously.
Nowhere is this more evident than in New York’s 23rd district.
On Nov. 3 a special election will take place in the district, which has been represented by one of the two national parties since 1857. At its outset, the contest seemed like any other, but it was soon clear it would be much different.
This summer, Democrats nominated Bill Owens and local Republican leaders anointed state assemblywoman Dierdre Scozzafava.
Voters soon realized, however, that the selection of Scozzafava had nothing to do with her principles or her ability to accurately represent the conservative district. For starters, her party affiliation was merely a matter of personal convenience. Her husband held discussions with local Democratic leaders and discussed the possibility of having her switch parties if it would increase her chance of winning. Moreover, her voting record of uncontrolled spending does not represent the fiscal responsibility of the rural district.
In response to Scozzafava’s nomination, the Conservative Party, which is unaffiliated but normally endorses the Republican candidate, nominated accountant Doug Hoffman. Initially meant primarily as a statement to local Republican leaders, Hoffman’s candidacy soon attracted the attention and support of the Internet-organized “Tea Party” activists. Then bloggers and Internet pundits got a hold of the story. A contest that might have remained an embarrassing local spat quickly became a national topic. The Internet continues to raise Hoffman’s profile, boosting his fundraising and drawing endorsements from high profile politicians across the country. By any measure, Hoffman’s campaign seems to be working. His Tea-Party supporters have provided the on-the-ground manpower to compete with the entrenched national parties. According to polls, Hoffman closed in on his competitors, and an Oct. 27 poll revealed he had taken a five-point lead.
For those of us who have long been dissatisfied with the political status quo, with the choice between bad and worse, this campaign fuels the hope that the Internet can level the playing field between Davids and Goliaths.
Regardless of the outcome, Hoffman’s unexpected success shows that a campaign with the right message can generate enough exposure to compete with that of national party. The hope is that Hoffman’s success will encourage voters across the country to stop looking at politics as red versus blue and take a chance on something truly different.
Previous third party bids failed primarily because they asked voters to replace one centralized party with another, untested one. These movements fed off of dissatisfaction but lacked a base or staying power. Whereas they couldn’t build from the Presidency down, Hoffman and others like him might be able to build from the House of Representatives up, sustained by national fundraising and coverage courtesy of the Internet.
Here’s wishing Doug Hoffman all the best as he tries to upset a 140-year-old political oligarchy. Now that’s change we can believe in.
John Scrudato is a junior in Morse College.