Ethan Riegelhaupt is senior vice president for corporate and public affairs at Edelman. Previously, he served as vice president for speech writing and internal communications at The New York Times Company. He was also a senior staff member for New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.
We love the Internet because it supports our overwhelming desire to have a larger influence over what happens in our lives. This fundamental longing to control our destiny has inspired every successful political movement in the last 250 years, whether it was the American Revolution or the fight against Communism in Eastern Europe.
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Now, a few decades later, our need to exert real influence over the larger activities of life continues. We see countless examples of individuals, much like ourselves, employing digital tools to create sparks, ignite fires, and shine bright lights on alleged injustices, misdeeds, or desired changes. People all over the planet use their computers and smart phones to confront organizations, forcing them to pay closer attention to what they are saying, thinking, and doing.
The Trayvon Martin tragedy is an excellent case in point. As Brian Stelter reported in The New York Times, the story gained traction when people started talking on Facebook and Twitter about what George Zimmerman, the alleged shooter, did on the night of February 26 in Sanford, Florida. It took a few weeks before the mainstream media began to pay attention. But they did, and the case became a national fixation.
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In a recent piece, Paul Krugman, a Times Op-Ed columnist, referred to Richard Hofstadter's famous 1964 essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics arguing that people in this country see conspiracies everywhere. While this dark mindset still exists, the Martin case demonstrates that the Internet can serve as a sane political and social counterbalance.
Far more importantly, the Internet has become a catalyst for concerted behavior, enabling individuals throughout the world to make the transition from commenting and speaking to doing and acting. This has exponentially enhanced anyone's ability to alter and shape the course of events.
Out of all this activity, we see the emergence of what may well be the most important political development of the 21st century: digital populism. It is global in scope with a flavor of the New England town square and speaks to the intrinsic need for personal expression, mass action, and ongoing engagement.
It is worth noting that digital populism is a hotly contested concept, generating lengthy exchanges regarding what it means, what it has already achieved, and whether it will be a truly disruptive political force. Naturally, this debate became quite heated in the midst of the Arab Spring when the Egyptian and Tunisian governments were overthrown.
To avoid becoming overly utopian or romantic about this era, we must maintain a historical perspective. After all, mass action around a common objective is not a new phenomenon. Nevertheless, it is abundantly apparent that the Internet is profoundly shaping a new politics of inclusion that invites all to contribute to the ongoing narrative.
It is something that will certainly shape the U.S. political narrative this campaign season, and it won't be the first time. In 2008, then-presidential candidate, Barack Obama, provided a textbook example of how to use online tools to rally supporters, raise money, and convey his positions.
Four years later, the President’s campaign is undoubtedly becoming even more proficient at using the web to mobilize its millions of supporters and to engage in old-school grassroots campaigning, providing another example of the Internet fusing the old and new.
But candidates will not be the only ones relying on the web to create change; citizens will too. The public is no longer content to sit and watch what is happening. Instead, they will continue to use the Internet to learn more about positions, question candidates, and become far more involved in issues that affect their lives.
This is the essence of digital populism and the new politics of inclusion. It makes sense because personal empowerment is what we have wanted since the dawn of time. Call it human nature.
This story originally published on Mashable here.