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.

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