Occupy Wall Street (OWS) raises the issue of emerging oligarchy, based on wealth inequality, taking control of democracies worldwide through a small global elite composed of the very rich, powerful corporate executives in financial multinationals and other global conglomerates, and their allies in international financial organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the Bank of International Settlements (BIS).
To get out from under the domination of these elites, the 99% have to counter the influence of extreme wealth in manipulating perceptions and constructions of social, economic, cultural, and political reality, and electoral processes. Enter new web-based platforms as a possible democratizing force that could provide the ability to defeat manipulation and self-organize without recourse to massive financial resources. But do the new platforms offer a way out of oligarchy and back to democracy or do they just reinforce the emerging oligarchy?
This is the fourth in a series of posts on some of these new web-based platforms and how they relate to this central question of oligarchy vs. democracy. The first, “A System-Changing Solution for the OWS Movement?”, which I co-authored with Nancy Bordier, compared and contrasted two alternatives available to OWS, the Interactive Voter Choice System and Americans Elect (AE). The second focused on AE. The third analyzed No Labels (NL). This one will deal with Ruck.us.
Ruck.us’s web platform is more explicitly targeted at social networking than either Americans Elect’s or No Labels’s. The developers of Ruck.us say they are concerned about American democracy. They say that institutions hold more power than people, and also believe that our two political parties:
“. . . have outgrown their usefulness and become a distraction. The result is less participation, poorer dialogue, and an unhealthy democracy.
“We believe that we can do better, and the trick is simple – give you more power. No matter who you are or what your political ideology is, Ruck.us will 1) match you to politically like-minded people; 2) enable you to exchange information; and 3) take collective action on the issues that matter most to you. It’s that easy: Connect. Engage. Change your World.”
When engaging with Ruck.us you begin by answering questions about your views, politics, and values. Based on your responses, you are matched with others who have similar views to your own and are assigned to “a ruck” by the web site, automatically.
“. . . You can follow your Ruck’s political activity across Ruck.us, facebook and twitter, see what issues they’re discussing, and which petitions they’re signing. Ultimately, Ruck.us is about taking action. Think of your Ruck as a megaphone that lets you super-charge your ideas by instantly getting them into the hands of people who are most likely to be passionate about them.“
A “ruck,” a term from Soccer, is:
“. . . an informal and spontaneous coming together of people, of no fixed duration, for a strategic purpose. Applying that concept to politics, a ruck is a group of like-minded people who have come together to create change on the issues they’re most passionate about. What’s interesting about Ruck.us is that your ruck is in constant flux; as more members join the site and we learn more about them, your ruck will be automatically shifted and refined to match you better. Rucks give you an innovative way to act collectively with people who think like you.”
Members of rucks can exchange information via open forum and dialogue on various issues. They can also plan and take collective actions of various kinds.
A person can join Ruck.us anonymously, according to the web site. A user can also specify on her/his settings page what part of his/her survey answers or other personal information she/he wants others to see. In addition, the ability to communicate with other users of Ruck.us, one-on-one, was added in early November 2011.
”As between you and Ruckus, you shall retain all of your ownership rights in and to the User-Generated Content. However, by submitting User-Generated Content to Ruckus, you hereby grant Ruckus a worldwide, non-exclusive, irrevocable, royalty-free, sublicensable (through multiple tiers) and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, edit, modify, translate, reformat, prepare derivative works based upon, display publicly, perform publicly and otherwise exploit (including but not limited to over the Internet, broadcast television or any other uses or media), the User-Generated Content, in whole or in part, including future rights that Ruckus (or its successor) may otherwise become entitled to that do not yet exist, as well as new uses, media, means and forms of exploitation throughout the universe exploiting current or future technology yet to be developed to the maximum extent permitted by applicable law. . . .“
The principals of Ruck.us are:
— Nathan Daschle, CEO
— Ray Glendening, Chief Strategy Officer
— Assaf Weinberg, Chief Technology Officer.
Its Board of Advisors includes:
— Mark McKinnon – Senior Advisor, George W. Bush for President (2000, 2004); John McCain for President (2008)
— Joe Trippi – Chief Strategist, Dean for President (2004)
— Bradley Tusk – Campaign Manager, Michael Bloomberg for Mayor (2009)
— Rich Tafel – Founder, Log Cabin Federation
— Doug Ulman – President and CEO, LIVESTRONG
— Peter Choharis – Attorney and former Executive Director, 2004 Democratic Platform Committee
— Tom Davidson – Founder and CEO, EverFi
— Aaron Earls – Co-Founder and VP, New Media Strategies
The principals and advisors are a centrist establishment group, some slightly left of center, some right of center. No one is associated with the emerging politics of OWS and the 99%, and none are associated with opposition to the current Washington consensus on austerity, as OWS appears to be. Both Bradley Tusk and Mark McKinnon are closely associated with partisans of fiscal sustainability/responsibility, which appear to be euphemisms for austerity and deficit reduction, as these ideas are viewed, but never really defined, or fully explicated, in the Washington consensus.
Like AE and No Labels, Ruck.us reflects the common view that the two-party system has failed us. Unlike them, however, its primary emphasis is on on-line social networking. Like the precedent-setting Interactive Voter Choice System, it involves a continuous effort to bring together like-minded groups of people and to facilitate their collective action.
The founders of Ruck.us believe that political parties in general aren’t needed today and that political organizing through social media and related technologies can replace them. But Ruck.us doesn’t explain how political parties can be replaced as institutions that aggregate diverse interests into policies, and they are also unclear about how people can move from their Rucks, which are relatively small groups of hundreds of people, to a critical mass large enough to counter the electoral and legislative influence of the two major political parties.
Further, they haven’t considered at all how the protections for democracy that are present in the current party system’s primaries and caucuses can be transferred to an online environment in which unregulated private corporations such as AE, No Labels and Ruck.us may become dominant. The rules and laws governing intra-party participation have evolved painfully, over many years, through countless progressive efforts to open up political parties to the influence and will of the people.
Do the current flaws of the two major parties justify the loss of the benefits of these hard-fought past victories by giving over control of our electoral processes, to private, unregulated, web-based corporations? Somehow, I doubt that when people find out that this is the kind of trade-off that Ruck.us is envisioning, that they will find it an attractive alternative.
In addition, the ability to self-organize in ruck.us is fairly limited and one’s initial engagement is top-down. When you sign up, you’re given a set of issues to rank according to their priority. You begin by selecting your important issues from the set. The issues are defined so vaguely (e.g. The Economy, Children, Taxes) that only a few stand out as unimportant. Then you rank order the issues, but you have no way of indicating how important you think the issues are, apart from your ranking.
You’re also given an opportunity to add issues you think are important, and then to rank them in the context of the others. The issue or issues you add, aren’t added to the standard issues list presented to everyone. So, ruck members aren’t determining the list of important issues. Ruck.us management is doing that — top-down.
Then there are many specific questions presented to members to get at their “political DNA.” These questions were initially formulated by Ruck.us, and each question is multiple choice. Many reflect a progressive framing, and such a framing is much more frequent than one finds at AE or No Labels. But, there are also questions that incorporate conservative or tea party framings, either in the over-all question, or in the choices offered.
These different framing biases don’t render the set of questions objective. What they do is to ensure more diversity of bias in the set of questions, but each question carries its own bias by excluding certain choices and imposing a frame on respondents that may differ greatly from their own ways of thinking about an issue.
Bottom-up influence is allowed here. Members can add possible answers to the questions and these answers are shared with other members of one’s ruck. You can add and share with your ruck additional questions that other members can answer. But it’s not clear from the web site whether the new questions are shared with everyone going forward, or only with one’s ruck.
This is important because one is assigned to a ruck based on one’s answers to questions. It’s important that a person can’t choose a ruck based on his/her sharing views with others, because even though a person’s membership in a ruck is initially based on their answers to questions, the assignment to a ruck is automatic. It’s not up to the person involved.
It’s based on the Ruck.us profile similarity algorithm selected by management. Different similarity algorithms, based on different assumptions can lead to different results. Why did Ruck.us select the algorithm it uses in preference to another? We don’t know, because that information isn’t provided on its site.
In other words, once you’re assigned to a ruck, then you can trim its membership by following some of its members and unfollowing others. You can also add members from a list suggested by Ruck.us by following them. You can also search for Ruck.us members, and by following them, add them to your ruck
Even though this is a bottom-up element in Ruck.us, it is a bottom-up element that may well lead to the proliferation of unstable and constantly changing rucks rather than to building one’s own ruck. Or it may lead to adding people to one’s ruck whose political preferences don’t really agree with one’s own. In short, there are no tools in the platform to counter instability and possible political fragmentation. It’s just assumed that social networking in rucks will lead to political integration, but this view is unrealistic, as any substantial experience with Facebook and/or Twitter, makes clear.
Finally, the “political DNA” metaphor doesn’t fit here. People’s positions on policy issues are not fundamental and unchanging the way DNA is. And they haven’t evolved the way DNA has. Instead, people’s positions on policy issues are learned, and sometimes unlearned, as people encounter different life experiences.
Learning is a lot quicker than evolution, and the political beliefs expressed on a site like ruck.us can change much more quickly than DNA. What we’re talking about here isn’t DNA, it’s the political beliefs and ideologies people hold. And it’s very doubtful that when they fully understand what personal information organizations like AE and Ruck.us are gathering from them, that many people will want to reveal their personal ideology to a third party like Ruck.us, which reserves the right to use these revelations in many different ways.
Ruck.us is most clearly understood as a tool for giving people with similar issue and answer profiles a chance to create social groups and exchange political opinions with members of these groups while joining together with some of one’s own ruck members to take small scale actions, such as having meet-ups, signing petitions, and coordinating visits to representatives. It has only very limited facilities for going further down the road of political organization than that.
Unless its current capabilities are greatly magnified and diversified, then, Ruck.us will not revolutionize politics in the 21st century, as it claims it will do. So the question is, will it operate as an alternative by itself, or will it work in collaboration with others? And if it does work in collaboration with others what does it have to offer to them? I think the answer to this question is that it can offer identified, already formed, but artificially constituted social groups that other organizations can use for their own purposes.
Consider, what are the key ingredients of a powerful political party? First, there’s membership and delegates who will participate in a nominating convention. Second, platforms, and individuals willing to volunteer and provide “boots on the ground.” And third, social networks that can hold the volunteers together in common efforts organized around group identity.
The questions then are, which social movements/parties may be interested in co-opting these rucks and how? Will Ruck.us make user-generated content available to outside parties? Will these outside parties then choose to use that content to co-opt or recruit from the rucks? If so, will these outside parties represent the 1% or represent the 99%? Or will these outside parties just acquire Ruck.us and then co-opt the rucks for their own purposes?
How these questions are answered will determine whether Ruck.us ends by reinforcing the emerging oligarchy, or whether it accomplishes its stated purpose of making people more powerful by connecting them with other people who have similar views, and creating the conditions which enable them to retain that new-found power without it being co-opted/aggregated by a movement representing the 1%.
In my next post in this series I’ll explore in more detail the question of the relationships among AE, No Labels, and Ruck.us, and explicitly consider the possibility of a merger of the three organizations. I’ll also discuss the likely implications of such a merger for the American body politic.