Sunday, October 12, 2008

Get the Word to the Streets

Politics is a collective work of art. Politicians need to elicit expression from as many voters as they can to win, yet besides organizing and voting, the place for user-generated expression has mostly been limited to parody.

What's missing from the '08 campaigns is uptake of political discussions from the general population. We know the polls, and we've seen the comedy, but discourse within our communities is limited to pleasantries. I find it difficult to argue either Obama or McCain's positions past what we hear in the debates, and from looking at their plans on their websites I'm not in much better shape.

In swing states like Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania, the issue that seems to be the Obama campaign's key differentiator is Healthcare - or at least that's what the printed talking points I was given tonight stressed.

I've never campaigned before, but after getting a call from a friend I took the C train to Lafayette and soon after I was on the phone to swing states. Prep time was short since many of the undecideds were above 65 and it was pushing 8pm, and I had a long phone list in front of me. Before tonight I really had only watched the debates, read about the financial crisis in the NyTimes and WSJ, but I had a few minutes to read the blurbs on barackobama.com.

Here is what was given for the benefits of the Obama-Biden Healthcare plan:

Reduce Costs and Save a Typical American Family up to $2,500 as reforms phase in:

  • Lower drug costs by allowing the importation of safe medicines from other developed countries, increasing the use of generic drugs in public programs and taking on drug companies that block cheaper generic medicines from the market
  • Require hospitals to collect and report health care cost and quality data
  • Reduce the costs of catastrophic illnesses for employers and their employees.
  • Reform the insurance market to increase competition by taking on anticompetitive activity that drives up prices without improving quality of care.
After getting a few hangups, proud supporters and those who'd rather keep their position private, I called someone from Ohio who asked me to put Obama's healthcare plans in context. I mentioned that Obama was prepared to offer a $2,500 benefit to families. 'What are Palin and McCain are giving me?' I knew the answer, I had seen the debates, watched Colbert, Stewart and SNL. I spoke quickly 'Well, $5,000 but that benefit is taxed...' and by the time I had said that it was over. Before I could get any more out, the response was 'Well, then, I'm not interested.' What a perfectly fair comment coming from someone who just received an unsolicited call from a campaign volunteer at 8:16pm on a Sunday night!

I did think if I could put the healthcare issue in the correct context the person I called might have thought differently. But really, if you are already leaning McCain, there is no reason to think too hard, 5,000 > 2,500. Start photoshopping a Failwhale with Obama O's for me.

Here's a dreamscape of what the call felt like: I was carrying an original of one of those nice looking, red and blue painted Obama 'Hope' posters. I was carrying the poster in front of me down the street, and then because I didn't hold it at the right angle couldn't see where I was walking and bumped into a voter from Ohio whose hand poked a hole right through it.

I get the same feeling when I think about how the above picture, from Jef Aerosol (see arrow at photo's bottom left corner), the artist who sprays great, layered, B&W, photo-realistic art of 60's and 70's cultural figures, in public places all over the Upper West Side. The spraypaint used to be an homage to Woody Allen, but is now nearly ruined and more confusable with a violent album cover. The once subtle portrait now has a graffitti tag and Woody with half his ass eaten off and a lascerated head. On the surface Jef's art was just a public message, no different than fliers that say 'Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar'. One day you have art that represents the cultural history of the upper west side, then someone adds '9-11-01 :)' in magic marker to that and 15 other things all over the neighborhood. It's all vandalism, but now Jef's message will undoubtedly get lost in translation.

If there is art to Barack Obama's Healthcare plan it would require voters who've understood it to cultivate it, fill in the blanks, and make the arguments fit the community. I could have done that more artfully on the phone. But how should I have explained quickly that a $5,000 credit is not as good as a $2,500 savings? Explaining that the average healthcare plan costs anywhere from 8-14,000, and that McCain's 5,000 credit was insufficient would have been a good start.

The same problem exists for the Obama-Biden tax plan, McCain's plan says he's lowering taxes for everyone, which no one would think to argue with unless they had a good understanding (much better than mine) of how much money his budget requires, and what that budget leaves out. In this case work was done to visualize the treatment of each income bracket from each tax plan, and the traditional media with the help of some bloggers actually improved upon the candidates' explanations:


The Washington Post's graph helps people do the following: look at your own bracket and either sigh relief or shriek in freakonomic terror. The blogger tweaks, (graphs 2 and 3) actually enhance overall readability of the tax plans. If more analysis were done here, such as a chart that showed the full revenue of all the taxes collected by the government and how much more is gained from Obama's plan, then compared with both campaigns' plans for military spending, healthcare spending, education spending etc., maybe I would have had an easier time explaining my talking points.

But then again, I'm calling someone after dinner on Sunday, and I'm talking on a mobile phone to their mobile phone or landline. I'm not taking control of their TV with a mouse-pointer. Discussion with undecideds is always going to be difficult because of limited time, however it seems to not matter when we start the campaigning, there's never enough time.

The candidates have the technology but not the desire to support open discussion about how hard it is to get the word to the streets effectively. Their websites say so little, yet are seen by so many. That's not a good policy for teaching hopeful organizers, but it is a safe bet so that arguments are not turned against you. Much like how religious groups are organized, questioning the faith is not done in public. Bulletin boards or chat rooms on mccainspace.com or barackobama.com are used to post flickr and youtube, which are just snapshots, not interactive discussion tools. Elections.twitter.com site performs beautifully, but moves very fast, it's actually a re-skinned Summize.com that emphasizes election keywords, which is less geared for discussion than for recording and containing negative sentiment.

But maybe there should be somewhere that goes further toward incorporating all the relevant documentation for real discussion. Maybe offering better tools for understanding is just as good as campaigning for your side. A wiki that just informs for the sake of informing would go a long way toward articulating the best candidate's positions, and it would do a lot better than Hulu at organizing all the parodies we love to watch.

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