Salsa Scoop> Congressional Email and the Myth of the Platonic Grove

Congressional Email and the Myth of the Platonic Grove

With Capitol Hill a ghost town as members scramble to retain their peerages, the lull in legislative activity offers welcome pause to step back from the e-mail deliverability fracas of recent weeks.

A great many of the unmet expectations and bad feelings that have become bundled up in online write-your-rep actions ultimately trace to the unspoken assumptions various parties have about the communicative framework in which the action takes place.

That point was underscored in the live chat with Washington Post reporter Jeffrey Birnbaum the day his column ran Capitol Advantage's deliverability study. In response to a question about how to differentiate grassroots campaigns from astroturf, Birnbaum opined, "I'm afraid if an interest group incites a flood of e-mails, that's Astroturf lobbying by definition."

I've contested this breezy definition of "astroturf" in this space before. Ordinarily I'm not one to dicker over semantics, but the word "astroturf" appears to be undergoing an Orwellian inversion f its meaning. What initially meant "a false display of grassroots support" whose purpose is to fabricate or xaggerate the real constituency for an issue has now been appropriated to indicate "any orchestrated citizen activity" -- which is to say, actual grassroots advocacy that does not spring forth spontaneously and fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus.

Needless to say, it's a definition entirely contemptuous of actual social change movements, to which organizing is intrinsic rather than foreign. It treats the coinage of Cesar Chavez no better than that of Jack Abramoff.

The notion of ideas and opinions conjured out of air by the Herculean rationality of their exponents roots deeply in bourgeois liberalism: politics as a public sphere where citizens commingle in rational discourse and Great Men chart the courses of history with the furrows of greying brows. And no doubt it's a deeply self-satisfying perspective for all sides of the transaction to suppose themselves engaged in some rarefied consideration of the Great Issues of the Day as opposed to processing 8.5 x 11 widgets or dancing in front of one's mirror.

That Congress entertains this image of its own deliberations seems preposterous on its face, but anyone living in the ambit of the Beltway must be well aware that hauteur is the principality's distinguishing characteristic.

As the very vehicle of the Enlightenment, the written word -- on the template of, say, the Adams-Jefferson correspondence -- is implicitly part and parcel. An epistle projects the author's self, forays into reasoned conversation near if not in the public sphere ... and by extension, epistles that ape words written by another are travesties because they blur the self supposed to be manifest on the page. Imagine receiving birthday cards from a dozen friends and relatives each of which used the exact same text: what would one make of the "authors'" intentions and the truth of their sentiments? And would there be any difference between a dozen such cards and a million?

It's a compelling point. The flaw, of course, is to imagine that constituent messages to Congress initiate a relationship in any way analogous to that of Adams and Jefferson in their correspondence or oneself and one's grandma. Habermas has explored eloquently the cooptation and commodification of the "public sphere" -- if indeed such a thing could be said to have ever truly existed -- under the sway of industrial capitalism. And indeed, pre-email, a letter to Congress would be processed through mail slots, shunted to a junior staffer for a mealy-mouthed cut-and-paste reply, and "signed" with an auto-pen contraption.  Ceremony aside, constituent relationships with Congress have always been mediated.

Just so the opinions that inspire people to set the auto-pen in motion. In the real world, people form their ideas not through dry reasoning but organic associations with others, and act on those opinions less often as prime movers than as agents motivated by external stimulus -- a push poll, a focus-group-tested talking point, some sudden news event -- just as legislators themselves don't introduce a bill for every conviction in their head, but build coalitions behind the scenes, grandstand for public opinion, horse-trade votes, and respond to the executive bully pulpit. Indeed, the ability of constituents in their thousands to communicate mediated ideas en masse to representatives is (in mechanics if not in effect) a sort of funnel-flipping of the usual elite manufacture of public consent.

So the way out of the box, ultimately, is to let go that myth of betoga'ed dialogue, kick Congressional e-mail out of the written manifesto genre to which it's been wrongly assigned, and find another template. It's closer, in most cases, to a petition -- resolved, vote no on 123, one undersigned at a time -- if one must choose among our preexisting advocacy models, but of course even that fails to access the capacious power of electronic communications for abstracting, recombining, and wholesale servicing of inputs.

The future is calling, 110th Congress. Will you accept the charges?

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