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Intimate democracy

Nicholas Lemann has a terrific piece in the Jan. 26 New Yorker that says that personal characteristics are not enough to make someone a great president. To achieve that status, Obama “has to create institutions that will outlast him.” His examples are the United Nations, NATO, and social “legislation and regulation that affect very large numers of people and are built to last politically and economically…”

One could certainly point to health care as possibly being of that status, especially if Daschle steps up the game so that it’s more than reform ‘n’ extend. It’s also possible that building a new world role for America could put Obama in the Hall of Great Presidents even if no official institutions come out of it. Likewise if his action on global warming and all around greenness changes not just our policies but our assumptions. But let me suggest another place Obama could do something monumental. Yes, the Internet. And, yes, I do understand that this is not as important as world hunger and poverty. Nevertheless…

There are two basic ways a government can use the Internet. First, it can automate and improve existing processes, greasing the gears of government. From this, one gets efficiencies, cost savings, shorter lines, and occasionally frustrated citizens who can’t find anyone to explain to them why nothing happens when they click on that link…

Second, the government can use the Internet as a way of increasing the intimacy of government. This itself can be divided into three parts: Intimacy among members of the government, among the citizenry, and among the government and the citizens. (Note: All of these divisions are messy and overlapping. What else would you expect?)

Intimacy implies three things: We know one another better, we trust one another more, and we care about one another more deeply. (And even though talking about intimacy among government workers is somewhat creepy, I’m going to stick with the word.)

The first category — intra-government intimacy — is the least interesting and least urgent. It would entail taking advantage of the various social networking technologies, and perhaps thinking anew about the trade-offs between security and knowledge, as is happening in the intelligence community … [added a few minutes after posting] as with social software experiments already underway throughout the government. Maybe Hillary Clinton can experiment with letting some branches of State twitter. [Note, minutes later: Micah Sifry points out that people at State are already twittering, and there is a social network in place.]

More interesting are the ways in which democracy can become more intimate among citizens and between citizens and government. Intimacy there both provides new tools for action and reinvigorates democracy itself.

I am not suggesting that we set up a Bureau of Intimacy that comes forward with a 94-part plan. Rather, if we recognize that we have this opportunity, our government and we ourselves can start doing some stuff. Like what?

The lowest hanging fruit at the moment is WhiteHouse.gov. It’s a big step forward from the previous occupant’s version (and, by the way, where is the link to the archive of that version?), but it’s trying to convince us that Obama is swell. Ack. The White House is ours, not any president’s, and WhiteHouse.gov ought to be ours as well. That doesn’t mean we get to write it ourselves. Rather, it ought to be thought through from the point of view of what we, the citizens, want and need.

One easy change: Get the blog right. Right now it’s press release stuff. No comments. No links. In other words, it’s only a blog because it says it is. How about hiring a couple of bloggers who will take the point of view of citizens writing from a unique vantage point: The freaking White House. What’s it like? And how about some vigorously argued pieces from officials? And, why not stir in guest bloggers for a week at a time, people who actually know how to blog? (The rules might be something like: It has to be family-friendly, and it’s about the White House, not about the individual blogger.) As the blog gets more confident, it could start engaging more with what the blogosphere is saying. They could even turn on comments at some point.

Another relatively easy change: Start allowing officials to engage in the blogosphere.

Slowly, the administration might want to introduce social networking services designed for citizenry. This doesn’t have to be on the scale of Facebook. And it probably wouldn’t be introduced by the government because we’re more likely than the government to come up with the right system. (Disclosure: I’m on the board of advisers of the Open Resource Group which is offering open source conversation software for each Congressional district. Who knows?)

But we don’t have to wait for a good citizen networking site to open. We can make our democracy more intimate through many small steps. Intimacy can become pervasive. For example, transparency is usually touted as a requirement for accountability. But it also can be seen in the light of intimacy: Transparency leads to intimacy if we have the tools by which we can make sense together of what we now can see.

Intimacy sounds like it’s about feel-good democracy. It’s not. Real intimacy is built on truth, and truth worth a damn requires trust. This is not the trust of a buyer and seller but of people who care about one another. Truth, trust and caring are in a reciprocal relationship. They are, one might say, intimately related. And, if they do result in our feeling good about our democracy, literally only the most cynical will object. [Tags: ]

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