This week I received two emailed requests to blog on particular topics. First, Jed Miller from the ACLU asked people to blog about reforming the Patriot Act. He and the ACLU have provided “tools for bloggers,” including a “news feed” for the latest relevant information, a set of background facts (from the ACLU’s perspective, of course), a blog, and a means of contacting your local ACLU affiliate. I’m happy to link to this material.
Then Nick Beaudrot sent me a PDF of a recent report entitled, “Communicating with Congress: How Capitol Hill is Coping with the Surge in Citizen Advocacy.” According to the report, the total volume of messages received by Congress has quadrupled since 1995. Email and other electronic communications are responsible for the entire increase. Members of Congress and their staff say that they like the new avenues of communication and believe that relationships with constituents have improved as a result. However, most of the people who email Congress are heavily involved in other ways, so it’s unlikely that total levels of political participation have increased much because of the Internet. Also, Members of Congress are very concerned about the difference between authentic expressions of individual citizens’ opinion, on one hand, and various covert mass campaigns, on the other. (For example, groups broadcast emails that citizens are supposed to forward to the Hill without necessarily caring much or understanding the content.)
As the volume of messages to Congress increases, beyond a certain point we would expect the value or impact of each message to decline. Congress can only make a finite number of decisions. If 5 million people try to influence it from different directions, they must each have less impact than if only 500 people weighed in.
The two items in this post are connected, of course. The ACLU is trying to generate pressure on Congress through electronic means. I linked to their site without having a deep knowledge of the Patriot Act, and without having explored alternative positions in any detail. Nevertheless, I like the ACLU’s approach, because: 1) it supports civic creativity by providing tools for bloggers, who can do what they want with the ACLU’s materials; 2) it’s fully transparent; and 3) it potentially links people to the ACLU’s system of local chapters, where they can get an authentic participatory experience.