The Washington-based Center for American Progress (CAP) and Stockholm's Prime PR teamed up to present their report (photo) on "The First Tech President" in Brussels last Thursday. It gathered a good mix of Brussels' growing community of European Union types: communication consultants, bloggers, journalists, and of course EU Commission and other functionaries. On his return to the States, CAP Senior VP Andrew Sherry mentioned it in his own blog, (r)evolution.
The question at hand: can we do this too? "This" being President Barack Obama's spectacular harnessing of support (monetary to be sure, but equally important, the creation of a vibrant network of people) through innovative use of new technologies. Europe's national political parties, and their equivalent groups in the European Parliament, are studying the Obama case for clues on this vital new democratization tool.
Howard Dean may have been the First Tech Candidate, but Barack Obama probably does deserve the title of First Tech President (check out the Personal Democracy Forum for their excellent techPresident site). As Europe does not yet have its own president, it's up to the only popularly-elected European officials - Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) - to take notes from the Obama book.
Vice President of the European Commission, former Swedish minister Margot Wallström, addressed the group and put her finger on a key difference between US and European political campaigns:
First: money. This is the key to success in any US election campaign, whether Presidential or Congressional. Congress men and women wanting to be re-elected have to spend a great deal of time traveling the length and breadth of the country to attend fund-raising events.
Presidential candidates tend to get large slices of their campaign funds from major donors, especially from big business and wealthy individuals. President Bush, for example, was famously supported by the oil industry. And of course they want something in return.
What's interesting about Barack Obama in this respect is that he raised most of his finance not from a few big donations but from millions of small ones, via the Internet. This makes him much more independent, which I think is an excellent thing for America – and the world!
Wallström's EU portfolio includes Communication, and her stress is on the non-tech side of the word: emulate Obama for his engagement with the citizenry. Serious Europhiles always point out the struggle to communicate the message and meaning of the European Union to their publics, and as Wallström herself says, guaranteeing a half century of peace and prosperity on a continent that previously knew war and privation is the essential EU "message." But it is not as sound-bitey as "Change" or "Yes We Can."
I for one would not wish the "permanent campaign" aspect of American politics on Europe. As it stands, the typical EU Parliament campaign kicks off a mere 5 weeks before election day. Compare that to the US, where Presidential campaigning starts almost two years before elections, and where, just to get re-elected to a two-year seat in the House of Representatives, members of Congress have to raise tens of thousands of dollars per week during each term for their campaign expenses. Where's the time for legislating?
So we don't want Europe to emulate gargantuan American campaign spending, where the 2008 elections probably cost in excess of $5 billion. We can argue over whether this is a "value for money" proposition, and I am no one to complain about the way these elections turned out. But just like the American health care system situation that results in mucho SiCKO citizens at the world's highest cost, I am not convinced that the US needs to outspend the world, and take two years to do what others do in five weeks, in the electoral realm.
I'm a participant in, in my own little blogging way, Obama's techification - and democratization - of politics. But I'll give the last word to Ms. Wallström:
Whether online or face to face, whether in the old media or the new, both in the EU and the US, what democracy needs is a real conversation, in plain language, between the people and the politicians. A conversation that shapes policy. Politics from the bottom up rather than top down.