Personal Democracy Forum 2010: Losing Faith in Obama and Big Government

It's not hard to tease out the implications of turning America into a geography of city-states. So why did some of the speakers and attendees take the possibility seriously?
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The most telling inflection point (to use buzzword currency) at the 2010 Personal Democracy Forum conference in New York was the way attendees engaged with John Perry Barlow and began to build upon his suggestion that the renaissance of the city-state may be the saving of American democracy. I discover in reviewing my PdF tweets that I was piqued by Barlow's idea, too. What could I have been thinking, for a tweet-second? As someone who closely follows the Afghanistan story, I know what happens to a network of city-states with a weak central government.

Closer to home, we PdFers had before us the ongoing saga of the oil spill in the Gulf -- an event that would be a mortal blow to a city-state. Imagine for a minute that the North American continent was indeed a collection of city-states. Imagine an affiliation of powers known as Gulfia. What would be the fate of Gulfia? Right now the neighboring state of Texas would be poaching its resources. City-states to the north would also be moving in for the kill, picking off territory and trading partners.

It's not hard to tease out the implications of turning America into a geography of city-states. So why did some of the speakers and attendees at one of the most prestigious yearly internet/government/organizing/media gatherings take the possibility seriously? On the left (PdF is known, if not quite accurately, as an enclave of liberals) as well as on the right (the Tea Party Movement), disenchantment with big government has set in. In this loss of faith, in their disappointment with President Obama specifically and the idea that government can effect change generally, some of the country's best-known liberal voices rang the notes that created the anxious zeitgeist of dDF 2010 and led to a consideration by otherwise intelligent people of a city-states of America.

Both Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake and Huff Post's own Arianna Huffington personified this new weariness with the political process. Hamsher talked about "the Progressive crisis of faith." For Huffington, "Government right now is so broken." "I get really depressed about what's happening." The conference confirmed the consensus we have seen building in Leftist country at-large: The current administration personifies business-as-usual. Our government still sleeps with big corporations. Cronyism continues. Everybody and everything without access to "the fix" is screwed. Barlow, perhaps because he is not a classic liberal, put this view best: "There is a circle of fat around the Beltway that is unbelievably thick." He observed that most of the 89 billion the federal government targeted for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina "turned around for" D.C. (Watch all the PDF sessions here.)

Ever-incisive Clay Shirky summed up the dominant opinion at PdF of Barack Obama. Shirky's rhetorical: "Is he going to govern like he campaigned?" Shirky did not have to answer his own question. Earlier the legendary Daniel Ellsberg excoriated Obama. "He lied in his State of the Union." (About leaving Iraq and Afghanistan.) Ellsberg and PdF co-founder Micah Sifry were speaking via Skype with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who called out "the free speech puppet of the United States" and who, according to Sifry, was only virtually present because he had been afraid that if he left Australia for New York he would be arrested. And so the Assange-Ellsberg-Sifry opening keynote set the dark tone for the conference.

Two years ago, I was a panelist at the more-spirited, indeed ebullient, PdF 2008, and in my remarks about the conference for Huff Post I predicted the left's disenchantment with Barack Obama. And so the day has come. I find no pleasure in it -- not even a kind of grim satisfaction, since I took a lot of heat for my view in June 2008. To hear Sifry at PdF '10 sums up the Obama style of grassroots organizing -- "it gives people the illusion of decision-making" -- merely made me sad. Why? Because even as our country needs skeptic chroniclers like me (PDF speaker Howard Rheingold memorably described teaching journalism as "a class in crap detection 101"), we need believer activists like Sifry and Hamsher who put themselves out there for change. The PdF theme this year: "Can the Internet Fix Politics?" The early consensus: No. Sifry held one of the best conversations with Evgeny Morozov, asking him to delve into the possibility that organizations like PdF had been indulging in "cyber-utopian hype." This was not the same Sifry who spoke happily about "the wisdom of the crowd" in 2008.

If there is one thing I have learned about think-meets, it is that panel discussions are largely a waste of time. Given only an hour to engage, at best five speakers can each get in only a few words. A conference panel never moves beyond a roundelay of blurb-speak. The plenary panel that closed PdF 2010 was the exception that proves the rule. Saul Anuzis, Nick Bilton, Cory Booker, Arianna Huffington, Tim O'Reilly and PdF co-founder Andrew Rasiej as moderator drilled down to confrontation level. Is there hope for change through the tools of government? Republican tech guru Anuzis (yes-and-no), media entrepreneur Huffington (doubting), internet entrepreneur O'Reilly (can-do), Newark Mayor Booker (believing), New York Times journalist Bilton (crap-detector). The dialogue wove together the best and the worst of our current political dialogue. Inexplicably, Anuzis tried to top a comment about the birther delusion: "Do you have the birth certificate?" He was roundly booed -- and let me ask straight out: Why have so many Republicans in our time unleashed themselves from norms of taste and propriety?

Because Anuzis's lame joke is representative of what passes for political dialogue now, I mention it. But to do so is a misrepresentation of the conversation, which was thoughtful and rigorous. O'Reilly argued that change comes incrementally; he pushed back against the belief that the federal government is broken. Within it, he has found here and there "an intense passion among people trying to make change." He asserted that change is coming not just from individuals and outside groups using the tools of social media, but from inside government itself. Huffington was skeptical. She asked O'Reilly to give an example. And he came up with one: The Department of Health and Human Services, "building a smarter health system" through better utilization of Medicare data.

If there was a quiet confidence and clarity charging O'Reilly's remarks, Cory Booker's were a symphony of optimism. Building on O'Reilly's example for Huffington, Booker praised the policemen and teachers in his city of Newark. "There are so many powerful government workers." He described the way Newark has dramatically lowered the recidivism rate for parolees. He sees his job as solving problems every day, in ways that " are not left or right, but forward or back." He mentioned his gift from New York City Mayor Bloomberg: a clock that counts down the time. Terms are brief, Booker said; his team and he knew they had only so much time to see "how best we can change the world." On the other hand, he was realistic. "We won't be called to storm the beaches of Normandy." For our generation it is a call to a series of small actions. "My only fear," he said, "is that people won't engage, use the power they have."

"I am a prisoner of hope," Booker said.

The paradoxical twist to this year's Personal Democracy Forum is that for all the talk of losing faith in big government as a locus for change, for all the considerations of re-locating change in smaller city-states or in even smaller units powered by the tools of social media, the full expression of everything PdF is about rested in Booker. The mood in the large hall, near wonder, was palpable, as many attendees were seeing this man in the flesh for the first time. The Twitter feed is threaded with observations like this: "One day Cory Booker will be President of the United States."

The obvious parallels with Obama lead to this observation: There is something in our nature that craves leadership on a grand scale. And that scale requires a large platform. And sometimes that large platform is big government.

For more on PDF 2010 and a bit of the tick-tock, go to my blog at

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