Aside from voting every couple of years, most Americans have little impact upon the political processes in Washington D.C. and in their respective state capitals. One could argue that the overall effect of the democratic selection of government officials pales in comparison to the impact of lobbyists and other representatives of special interest groups, who make a profession of exerting influence upon politicians, on a daily basis.
It is not known exactly how many special interest groups exist in Washington, DC alone, but it has been estimated to be over 100,000. More than 300 of the major groups reportedly spend in excess of $1 million each, every year. The Center for Responsive Politics has estimated that lobbyists as a whole, during 1999, spent $1.42 billion dollars in our nation's capital; this works out to $2.7 million for each of the 535 members of Congress at the time. No doubt the total amount of money has increased since 1999, if only from inflation.
These groups spend these tremendous amounts of money wining and dining politicians, contributing to their (re)election campaigns, promising future support in exchange for favorable votes, drafting legislation to support their interests, and presenting their views as "persuasively" as possible. In the face of this well-moneyed juggernaut, it would seem that the average American citizen would be powerless in influencing federal and state laws.
But that is beginning to change, at an increasing pace, courtesy of the communication potential of the Internet. Americans are discovering that by combining their efforts online, sharing news and other information, voicing their opinions, planning activist events, raising needed funds, and expressing their views, we the people are becoming a greater force to be reckoned with.
Active on the Web
One political website where a prospective activist could get started, is Protest.Net, which has an up-to-date calendar of future political protests, meetings, and conferences, as well as major upcoming events. The events are organized by region, issue, and city. One advantage to this website is that it is not U.S.-centric, but instead shows entries from many major countries, in Europe, Australasia, and the Americas.
For those individuals who would prefer emailing their messages to Congress rather than painting them on placards to be carried at a protest, there is a wide range of such websites. For instance, Progressive Secretary is designed to facilitate sending letters to the U.S. President and members of Congress, in a cooperative manner. Visitors to the website can suggest issues that they feel strongly about, then decide which issues the group should focus upon, and then start a concerted letter writing campaign. The topics chosen typically fall within the areas of peace, ecology, and civil rights.
If the power of the fax machine is more to your liking than pen and paper, then take a look at Politifax.com, which has made it easier for American citizens to fax their opinions to members of Congress. While the service is not free, it is intended to avoid one of the major weaknesses with using email for contacting Congress: Studies have shown that email messages are typically deleted by Congressional staff members, long before the intended recipient sees the messages. From my own personal experience, every email message sent to a bureaucrat within the Beltway receives nothing more than an automatic response, with no indication that the message was or ever would be read by anyone.
At the other end of the effort spectrum, there are websites devoted to peaceful civil disobedience, and other more active forms of activism. For example, the Ruckus Society aims to provide "environmental, human rights, and social justice organizers with the tools, training, and support needed to achieve their goals." NetAction's Virtual Activist Training Guide is apparently a full and free training course, teaching the reader how to develop group membership, raise funds, and utilizing available technology to communicate one's political views, including email.
Getting at the Roots
As any experienced gardener will tell you, eradicating weeds from a garden requires much more than simply lopping off the visible portions of the unwanted plants. Rather, one must literally get to the root of the problem. In the world of political activists hoping to counterbalance the influence of powerful lobbyists and special interest groups, the analogous strategy is to identify the fundamental sources of the problem, and work at that level.
Online political organizations employing this approach argue that the primary reason that lobbyists and their ilk are attracted to Washington, DC, is the prospect of gaining larger slices of the political pie, i.e., more of your tax dollars. These activists believe that the underhanded influence peddling and costly pork barrel waste will not end until the attraction of free money is removed or significantly reduced.
One organization working towards this end, is Downsize DC, run by the American Liberty Foundation. It holds that "the [U.S.] federal government has grown too large, too intrusive, and too expensive." Ever bigger federal budgets attract ever more special interest groups to our nation's capital. Downsize DC hopes to reduce the size of the public trough by making it easier for visitors to their website to petition the President and members of Congress, urging them to oppose those laws which will clearly put more of our tax dollars up for grabs.
Beginning of the End?
The aforesaid websites, and countless others, serve as encouraging signs that everyday citizens can utilize the Web for finding those groups that represent their own special political interests. However, there is the possibility that our freedom of online political speech may not last forever — at least within the U.S., which is supposedly the "land of the free".
On 18 September 2004, a federal judge ordered the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to draft regulations governing political communication on the Internet. Given the high costs of compliance, these regulations are expected to constrain individuals wishing to express their political views online, such as bloggers. Established corporate news media, on the other hand, will be effectively exempt.
Such regulations from the FEC would constitute a direct attack upon the growing power of individuals in the U.S. to compete with the conventional media, through blogs and other grassroots Internet activity. For instance, if your blog were to contain a link to a candidate's website, and many people were to visit that website as a result of your link, then the FEC could rule that the monetary value of that additional traffic exceeds the particular candidate's campaign contribution limit — and thus you would be breaking the law. Downsize DC as more details.
Perhaps the next bit of political activism we should all perform is to learn more about — and take steps to oppose — this impending threat to freedom of speech on the Internet… while we still can.