Someday, Tech Will End Our Dumb Two-Party System
I never thought I’d run for public office.
Of course I never thought I’d found an irreverent news site called Fark.com, run it for 16 years and counting, write a book, fight off a patent troll, go to business school at age 38, and do dozens of other things. But even two years ago I would have considered myself the furthest thing from a politician.
Nevertheless tomorrow, when Kentucky voters head to the polls, they will see my name on the ballot, as an Independent candidate for governor.
My friends thought I was insane to do this—why take on a year’s worth of tedious work to fight for a job taking on problems that likely can’t be fixed? Well, like pretty much all of us, I feel like the political process isn’t representing our interests. A couple of parties dominate the process, limiting choice and grappling for power instead of trying to solve real problems. But at Fark, I have seen how effective the Internet can be at taking down entrenched gatekeepers and empowering regular people. So this year, I decided to see if I could harness that power toward changing politics.
I based my run on a theory: that the Internet and social media have finally made it possible for a third party candidate to win. Regardless of how things turn out, I’m convinced I was absolutely correct. And I’m also convinced you’ll see more candidates like me in the near future. As a matter of fact you should consider being one of them. To help you in your run, here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way.
The Media Still Matters
Part of the reason I ran for governor was my belief that I’d need less money than ever to launch a credible political campaign. Now that the mainstream media no longer serves as the sole gateway for getting information out to the public, I wouldn’t have to spend as much on ad campaigns or press-friendly events.
I still believe this, for the most part. I don’t think it makes sense to spend a huge amount on ads. Very few people see them, and even those that do hardly pay attention. A media friend told me that TV ads were the only way to reach older voters, and maybe I half-agree, but even that will be gone in five or ten years, when video viewership patterns are dominated by DVRs and Netflix-style streaming services.
I based my run on a theory: that the Internet and social media have finally made it possible for a third party candidate to win.
But it turns out that the media does still matter, more than I’d appreciated. I wasn’t the only one surprised by this. I had lots of conversations with political journalists across the state, and even they don’t feel they’re influencing the race much. They think that social media and the Internet in general have replaced the job they used to do.
That may be true when it comes to introducing candidates, or conveying information about them. But the media is still the only way for a third-party candidate to gain credibility. I saw this firsthand when I appeared on stage with the other two candidates during the first televised debate and held my own. Even if nobody had watched the debate, just the fact that I was invited signaled that I was a credible candidate. Conversely, not being invited to debates diminishes credibility, regardless of whether the reasons are legitimate or not. Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way; I wasn’t invited to the final debate because I needed to register 10 percent support in a poll before October 9. A week after that deadline, a poll dropped that showed me at 11% percent, but it was too late to matter. To be honest, my campaign never really recovered from that setback, arbitrary though it was.
Ideology Is Overrated
Most politicians start with a theory, and then use that to determine their policies. For example, candidates are routinely asked to weigh in on charter schools. Most start by stating their theoretical approach—I’m broadly in favor of or opposed to charter schools. That immediately tells voters where you stand, but it does nothing to find actual solutions. As soon as you’ve signaled which camp you belong to, both sides start yelling at each other, accomplishing nothing.
I always tried to answer questions on issues pragmatically, either: 1) I’ve seen an implementation that works and we should copy it or 2) I have yet to see an implementation that works but do you have one you could share with me? If you read a campaign 101 primer it will tell you not to do this, but I found that voters responded very strongly to this strategy. It allowed people who didn’t agree 100 percent with my viewpoints to realize that even though we weren’t entirely aligned, all ideas had a place at the table. Any idea that was provable was worth looking at, regardless of the source.
If you understand technology at all, you have access to new tools and ways of thinking that might change the discussion around public policy.
The good news is, if you understand technology at all, you have access to new tools and ways of thinking that might change the discussion around public policy. For example, in northern Kentucky there’s an argument around tolling on a proposed bridge between Kentucky and Ohio. One idea is to charge locals $1 and everyone else $5. Right now, everyone is arguing about who should be considered local—how far out are we talking? My solution is to use technology to decide. Offer transponders and give drivers the opportunity to buy them. People who drive over the bridge regularly will pick them up. (I have a transponder for Chicago even though I don’t live there, because it makes my twice-yearly visits much more manageable.) Others can get charged a higher rate using license plate photo technology, like they have in Denver. Throw in Los Angeles-style fast lane surge pricing on top of this. Then turn all the tolls off once the bridge is paid for.
The advantage here is you get a huge leg up on the career politicians by demonstrating you’re thinking outside of the box, when in reality you’re just taking decades-old technology and applying it to government. Which I guess actually is thinking outside the box from a public sector perspective.
Reach Out to Voters—When They’re Ready For You
Let’s face it, having a stranger knock on your door is weird. Randomly walking up to people in public freaks them out. And “hey, I’m running for governor” is maybe the worst pickup line ever. You have to let voters come to you. I found that just being available in a public place was usually enough; people interested in saying hi did, and they in turn told their friends about their experience.
On the Internet I was used to speaking discursively and being intentionally provocative. It doesn’t work so well when people are looking for weapons to use against you.
This is even more effective when you apply it to the Internet, essentially a limitless public space. I’d wait for someone to mention me on their Facebook page or Twitter feed, and then post a public response to them. Popping up on someone’s social media page is like paying them a visit in their living room. The trick is you have to be smart, answer questions directly, and be ready for some level of occasional abuse. Remember—you can’t win everyone’s vote, you just need more than the others get. If someone’s a jerk just accuse them of being an eliza program.
Be Candid, but Not Naive
I didn’t want to be a candidate who dodged questions because like all of us I find it annoying. However, it turns out some questions are traps.
During the second debate I made a huge mistake when the moderator asked who I’d vote for in the presidential election. I answered Trump. This was dumb. I was trying to make a point about Trump’s outlandish promises, but it didn’t come across. I made a full apology the next day, but it was too late. The Democrats now had something they could use to scare voters away from considering me over their candidate.
It was a real lost opportunity for me. The Democrat strategy was to go GOP-lite — they figured that in a two party race dissatisfied liberals would be unwilling to consider the Republican and could be ignored during the campaign. However it was now a three party race, and if I were seen as a reasonable alternative that would have wrecked their plans. But I helped them out by giving them an opportunity to scream the word “Trump” over and over again, which effectively prevented that portion of their party from even glancing at my policy ideas.
I’m not really sure what to make of it, honestly, other than if it’s your first campaign you’re apparently only allowed to make one mistake.
So if anyone asks you who you support, don’t say anything because whoever you say will automatically brand you with the worst attributes of the candidate you mention. I was particularly susceptible to this because on the Internet I was used to speaking discursively and being intentionally provocative. It doesn’t work so well when people are looking for weapons to use against you.
Now, when anyone ask me who I want to be president, I say Neil Degrasse Tyson, because he’s kind of awesome. No one hates that guy.
Can I Win?
Do I have a chance to win the race tomorrow? To be honest, it’s probably slim. It’s kind of a tragedy because everyone says they want a candidate like me, who doesn’t bow to ideology, who looks out for society instead of selling government to the highest bidder, and most of all is smart enough to handle the unknown challenges ahead. But I ran into a strategic problem I couldn’t overcome. The other two candidates are barely average. Even their supporters don’t really like them. I can’t tell you the number of times people have told me they like me better than their own party’s candidate.
But the problem is, the Democrats in particular really hate the other party’s candidate. Democrats may dislike their own candidate but they are downright terrified of the Republican. They are primarily voting to keep him out of office, and that makes them unlikely to take a flier on a third-party candidate; they’d rather pick the second-best candidate than vote for me. Meanwhile, I’ve been picking up GOP support no problem because they don’t seem as afraid. That tells me that if the GOP candidate had been more adequate, I’d have pulled this off.
Here’s the thing though: It’s a democracy. If everyone who ever said “government doesn’t work for me” comes out and votes on Tuesday, I’ll win in a landslide. Stranger things have happened. I never thought one million people would call the FCC to demand net neutrality. We overturned SOPA/PIPA almost overnight, solely because regular people, powered by the Internet, stepped up and took action. I would have said these things were impossible, and pre-Internet I’m pretty sure I would have been right about that.
In the Kentucky Republican primary, there was a candidate named Will T. Scott who didn’t toe the GOP line—he favored judicial reform for drug offenders instead out outright punishment and didn’t think the anti-union Right To Work movement made much sense. I can’t tell you how many people have told me they wish he’d won the GOP primary. So many in fact that I can’t figure out how the guy actually lost. I guess not enough people showed up to vote for him.
If I lose, I’m sure that for the next four years people will be telling me, over and over, that they wished I’d won the election, that I was the better candidate. I’m not looking forward to it. Maybe I should give Will T. Scott a call. He can probably tell me how to cope with it.
Will I ever try this again? I’m not sure. I might not.
Or perhaps I’ll start my next campaign on November 4th… 😉