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August 17, 2003

Dean vs. Gephardt

I was interviewed on New Hampshire Public Radio last Friday about the different styles of the Gephardt, Edwards, and Dean presidential campaigns (see an imperfect and incomplete text transcript or listen to the audio here.) Actually, the reporter, David Darman, asked a very interesting set of questions (which didn't come across clearly in the broadcast radio segment) about what conception of the role of citizens is implicit in each campaign.

My quotes suggest that I'm biased in favor of Rep. Gephardt, which is not really true. I do believe that if he fails, it will be symptomatic of the collapse of mass mobilizing institutions, such as unions and political parties, that used to multiply the power of ordinary people and connect them to Washington. I do not believe that the Gov. Dean style of campaigning, which is very "21st century," offers an entree to people near the bottom of the socio-economic heap. They won't be mobilized by listservs, blogs, and Meetup.com. This is not only because they lack Internet access and interest in politics. It's also because of the basic logic of collective action, which tell us that people won't take costly action in the public interest unless they are assured that others will also contribute. Voting is always partly an altruistic act, because even if one votes in one's own self-interest, it's more "rational" (meaning self-interest-maximizing) not to expend the energy. Disciplined organizations such as unions overcome this problem by guaranteeing that not only you will vote; so will many like-minded people. Meanwhile, they lower the "cost" of voting by providing free information. Wealthy and well-educated citizens find that the cost of voting is relatively low, because they already have much of the necessary information. Thus they don't need unions and parties; and they are adept at using voluntary resources such as listservs or blogs. Poor and poorly education people are at a disadvantage in this environment, and their disadvantage is worse than it was fifty years ago.

Posted by peterlevine at August 17, 2003 12:17 PM

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