By Siegel, Hanna
Kennedy School Review , Vol. 12
The American political system is exhibiting cracks. The approval rating for Congress has reached a record low of 13 percent, and more than 2.5 million voters have left the two major parties since the 2008 election (Washington Post-ABC News Poll 2012; Wolf 2011). Yet many Americans want change, and they are organizing to affect it.
The Tea Party movement, born in 2009, galvanized conservatives against taxation and helped elect more than sixty-five Congressional candidates during the 2010 midterm elections (Liasson 2010). On the other side of the political spectrum, the Occupy Wall Street movement has spurred protests in dozens of major U.S. cities, and its slogan, "We are the 99 percent," has infiltrated American culture and politics. Several Democrats in Congress have invoked the Occupy movement to push for legislation including President Barack Obama's jobs act and Internet access regulation reform. Meanwhile, less ideologically aligned organizations, including Americans Elect, a nonpartisan nongovernmental organization working to create a platform for an alternative presidential ticket, are also challenging the political status quo. All three of these groups have used technology to help them organize around a growing climate of discontent, and all three of these groups demonstrate the impact that political networks organized via the Internet can have on the American political process. Under the right conditions, these alternative networks could someday lead to a president who is not a Democrat or a Republican and eventually to the transformation of the American political system as we know it.
THE LONG TAIL
Central to the development of these new networks is a concept called the long tail. The long tail is the idea that the aggregate total of small, niche markets (the tail) is greater than the sum of the few mainstream ones (the head). Originally put forth by Chris Anderson in the October 2004 issue of Wired magazine, the long tail describes how industries, unencumbered by the pre-Internet costs of mass production, advertising, and distribution, can customize their services to individuals and make money at the same time. As Anderson describes it: "By overcoming the limitations of geography and scale ... [businesses] have discovered new markets and expanded existing ones" (Anderson 2004).
Before the Internet, devising a cost-efficient way to aggregate all of these smaller markets had been a near insurmountable challenge. But now, with obstacles like geography and communications costs reduced, a self-organizing marketplace of people has been able to form. This ability to connect has created a new customer base that, in many cases, has proven to be more profitable than the traditional base. The classic example of a long tail market model is Amazon.com, which has become a one-stop shop for every person who has a taste for Swedish documentaries or an obsession with Dziga Vertov movies. In effect, business models like Amazon's mean that everyone with non-mainstream tastes now has a place to shop.
Like the long tail of consumers, there is also a long tail of voters, ready to be tapped and mobilized if they are given the right options. The head of the political system is clear: the Democratic and Republican parties, along with the major donors who fund them. These groups monopolize campaign donations and set the rules for the American electoral process as they have for the past one-hundred years. Then there is the tail. This begins with the millions of eligible voters who do not participate, which in 2008 amounted to 37 percent of the voting population, but it also includes the millions of other voters who begrudgingly choose among the Democratic and Republican nominees because those are the only realistic options on the table (AU News 2008).
THE NEW WAY TO ORGANIZE
Many Americans do not participate in politics, discouraged by what they see as an ineffective system that is unresponsive to their needs. …