Can The DNC Breath New Life Into An Old Institution?

At every major shift in media technology, there’s the stubborn temptation to mimic the technology that’s being subverted.

At the advent of talkies, producers attempted to use actor inexperience in voice, sometimes with hilarious results as lampooned in the stage play Once In A Lifetime and later in the film Singin’ In The Rain. Enter the actor from Broadway, schooled in elocution, but tethered to spectacles that made little use of the more interesting elements of acting in the new medium. And when radio gave way to TV, producers attempted to replicate the old radio play, high on elocution, low in visual production values. Then, in the nineties, when the Web first became a staple of corporate marketing, Web pages were little more than digital brochures. And the rule applies to technology forced on us at times of major disruption or crisis. Before the Coronavirus, the average person was not familiar with the Zoom platform. In short order  it was fully embraced as a medium to replace all kinds of meetings — work groups, classes, theater, music, conferences and the results were predictable. With a few standouts (we are getting so much better at this), video meetings attempted to replicate the old thing and failed to engage people. Within months, people were grumbling about “Zoom fatigue.” 

I mention conferences, for two reasons. I am actually in the business of creating virtual experiences for businesses, NGOs, and theater organizations. But I also see conferences as the Great White Whale of meetings. They are bigger and badder than practically anything else, and there are so many ways to miss the mark by replicating conventions of the past, which were already hindered by limitations imposed at an earlier time. But there are at least three ways to excel in the new medium, and each of them can advance democracy. I’ll summarize them here, and go further into them as the first of this year’s convention, the DNC, progresses. In late August, I will write about the RNC.

Beyond the walls of the National Convention

“At a virtual convention, practically anyone, from anywhere, can attend the caucuses and councils that are the meat and potatoes of coalition-building and GOTV (get out the vote). While it remains to be seen how much the average Josephine can truly participate in these meetings, the technology is available to hear her voice and enable her to participate in these initiatives. The DNC convention this year will be televised … by Zoom.”

First, getting to participate in the Democratic National Convention of old was not an easy thing. While a small number of passes were distributed to the public, it was a lot easier for journalists, elected officials, and delegates. Then there was the not so small matter of travel, which disenfranchised a great number of people. At a virtual convention, practically anyone, from anywhere, can attend the caucuses and councils that are the meat and potatoes of coalition building and get out the vote (GOTV). While it remains to be seen how much the average Jo can truly participate in these meetings, the technology is available to hear her voice and enable her to participate in these initiatives. Which is not to say that this year’s DNC won’t have a smoke-filled back room where no one but the honchos are invited. But that will not be the only room where democracy gets done. A big part of the DNC convention this year will be televised … by Zoom.

Beyond the sloganeering

“While the DNC has always had slogans to capture the head of the beast in voter distribution, there are eleven poles to the DNC’s 2020 Big Tent. But with the number of talented people that can walk into a Virtual Big Tent, the DNC can transition from positioning and branding to meaningful program development.”

Another thing that two-way video conferencing brings to the table: the ability to support many more causes where active voters can make or break an election in the battleground states. Technology people will grok this phenomenon instantly: it’s the longtail of party politics. While the DNC has always had slogans to capture the head of the beast in voter distribution — one of this year’s slogans is “build back better, derived from a 2015 UN program aimed at disaster risk reduction in Sendai, Japan — according to the draft DNC platform issued in July, there are eleven poles to the DNC’s 2020 Big Tent including Protecting Americans And Recovering From The Covid-19 Pandemic, Building A Stronger, Fairer Economy, Achieving Universal, Affordable, Quality Health Care, Protecting Communities And Building Trust By Reforming Our Criminal Justice, Healing The Soul Of America. Specifics on these causes are light. But with the number of talented people that can walk into a Virtual Big Tent, the DNC can transition from positioning and branding to meaningful program development.

Beyond Convention Week

One might ask whether it’s important to develop actual programs before Election Day. Can’t all this wait? I’d argue that it cannot wait. In key battlegrounds, the margins may be wafer thin, and the ability to mobilize GOTV programs may depend on substance more than slogans. And if Biden in fact wins the election, his administration may need the momentum required to “build back better” before Inauguration Day. To do that will require many arms, legs, and heads in a new body democratic made possible by digital because the convention and its assets can live on well past Convention Week.

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