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(Gregory Ferenstein)

American politics used to be fun: frequent political carnivals in the 19th century would mix parties, parades, and political speeches in an endless stream of local civic life. As a result, America had an astonishingly high turnout, between 70-90%, in presidential and local elections. Yet, the Internet has never quite captured the emotional gravity of real-life engagement, and keeps tripping up multi-million dollar campaigns designed to inject life into an otherwise passive electorate.

For example, take two technology initiatives that were widely predicted to dramatically increase democratic engagement: Obama’s 2008 campaign and Americans Elect. Despite the hype, Barack Obama’s juggernaut of a online campaign only boosted youth turnout by a meager 2%.

Americans Elect, a crowdsourced online platform for a third party presidential candidate, was supposed to be the digital savior of American democracy. The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman prophesied, “Americans Elect. What Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what drugstore.com did to pharmacies, Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life.”

Americans Elect promised to allow citizens to vote directly online for a third party candidate, uncorrupted by corporate donations, and finance the winner’s national campaign. Today, despite massive media attention, the bankroll of a Wall Street billionaire, and the promise of direct democracy, Americans Elect failed to garner its own minimum threshold of 10,000 votes to field a candidate (less than 1% of those who turned out for the Republican primary).

The Obama campaign, Americans Elect, and other election startups all promise empowerment. But, if empowerment inspired voting, female and African American suffrage would have sustained high rates after they were given the right to vote. In Switzerland, arguably the most democratic country on earth, citizens vote directly on every major law, upwards of 7 times a year–yet turnout floats around a very low 30%.

So, what caused super-high voter turnout over a century ago, if not empowerment? Mark Lawrence Kornbluh, explains, in the deliciously informative Why America Stopped Voting, that democracy used to be a part of everyday American life. Frequent carnivals and parades would accompany political debates, as citizen-revelers would schmooze with local politicians, to discuss issues that they had direct control over. As a result, Americans were not only incredibly engaged, but well-read: a higher proportion of people read Thomas Paine’s political philosophy than watch the Superbowl today. They also patiently listened to presidential debates that last 6 or more hours at a time.

Then, technology crashed the party, “By the 1920′s, radio broadcasts had replaced mass meetings and all-day orations,” writes Kornbluh. “As the role of voters became increasingly passive, it is little wonder that their enthusiasm for electoral politics waned.” Attention turned away from local issues, and Americans sat by as government reformers centralized power and held elections less often. Political parties had no incentive to subsidize the good times, given the more efficient ways of mass communication at their disposal. So, with the additional burden of new laws restricting how political parties could directly fund voters (i.e corruption), the big civic party ground to a halt.

Ultimately, the motivation to vote has to overcome one very big problem: voting is irrational, since no one person can make a difference. No democracy in history has ever sustained high levels of engagement on the hope that citizens are willing to sacrifice their free time to make a marginal difference. The Gilded Age party machines overcame this dilemma by intermixing politics with fun (albeit in often unethical ways).

The need for enjoyment in politics is perfectly illustrated in an unlikely pair: Estonia and American Idol. While Estonia became the first country to permit the convenience of voting by both cell phone and over the internet, the moderate boost in turnout rates did not even come close to 19th century America. Yet, American Idol, which also votes through SMS, is one of the largest democracies on earth (and, no one is losing health insurance over the outcome).

Though the Internet promises greater democracy, virtual engagement is every bit as disembodied as the couch potatoes of the 20th century who passively engaged politics through TV and radio. Until someone figures out how to create a rocking good time on Facebook, don’t bet money that the Internet is the savior of elections.

by : Gregory Ferenstein