Web class campaign finance

by Sebastian Benthall

Sean Tevis, journalist-turned-information-architect, is running for Kansas State Representative for District 15.  Brilliantly, he posted this webcomic about his campaign in the style of XKCD, asking for donations to reach his goal of raising $26,000.  Last Wednesday, it hit Boing Boing.  Shortly thereafter, the web site was down due to mass traffic.  By two days later, the donations far exceeded his target, and people across the country are following his progress.

Guys like Paul Newell should learn from this guy about how to run an intern et campaign!  So what’s his secret?

A simplistic answer would just be that Tevis “understands the internet.”  He understands the power of an honest, witty, conversational blog.  He knows that people on the internet will self-organize around a good cause if it appeals to them.  This explanation totally ignores the mechanism of his success though.

Tevis’ campaign funding is ‘grassroots,’ but grassroots campaign financing works by harnessing class or identity interests.  Obama’s grassroots funding comes largely from the disposable income of his wine-track supporters.  Tevis’ funding comes from a narrower base.  It comes from readers of Boing Boing.  It comes from people who are turned on by an homage to XKCD.

Sociologist Manuel Castells has argued that as governments lose the ability to provide for the needs of their citizens, people will organize around other, non-national identities that give their lives meaning.  Somtimes these identities are tied to a particular region, like the Basque ethnic identity. But other identities, like the global feminist movement, and radical Islam, are indifferent to regional and state boundaries.

Tevis’ campaign funding illustrates the mobilization of the bearers of a new identity like these others–the identity shared by lots of the people who are active in the most forward-point parts of the web.  There is a strong culture there, with its own communicative style, aesthetic sensibility, and core politics.  I will call the bearers of this culture the ‘web class’ (although I don’t love the term and welcome alternative suggestions).

Don’t believe me?  Perhaps you think that the majority of the donors were rallying around a general progressive agenda, accessible to all?  I think the title of Cory Doctorow’s explosive shout out says it all:

Progressive geek looking for 3,000 people to help him win Kansas election against dinosauric anti-science/pro-surveillance dude

Yes, progressivism gets a mention.  But the clinching trifecta is:

  • Tevis is pro-science.  The web class loves science, because they know the internet owes everything to science and see the improvements science can make in their lives each day.
  • Tevis is anti-surveillance.  The web class is sensative to issues of surveillance and privacy because their day-to-day life is both highly exposed and at risk of digital attack.  The web class is constantly renegotiating what is public or private, and is loathe to lose control over that aspect of their lives.
  • Tevis is a geek.  “Geek” is entirely an identity label, that denotes a shared outlook of creative practicality, as well as an independence from/rejection by “the mainstream.”  The web class is largely constituted by geeks, and in this context the label is an honorific:  “He is one of us.”

Like Obama’s supporters, the web class is made up largely of young professionals and students who can spend their parents’ money.  I’m pretty sure a subset of them were what kept Ron Paul’s campaign alive for so long.  In addition, because geography is comparatively irrelvant to the web, it is just as irrelevant to web class politics.  (Several potential donors to Tevis’ campaign–for a Kansas state government position–were legally unable to because they weren’t U.S. citizens.)  This makes them an excellent base for remotely financing elections.  And if this sort of thing keeps up, then the web class will have some serious political clout across U.S. for the years to come.

Is this a good thing?

I’m ambivalent.  On principle, I object to the heavy role of money in politics, even if that money is ‘grassroots.’  In this case, the fact that most of Tevis’ donors are likely from out of state gives me additional worry.  On the other hand, I appreciate Tevis’ politics, and believe that, for example, the project of science and scientific education is one that transcends and supercedes the project of democratic legitimacy.  Part of me feels strongly that the web class should not hesitate to take politics into its own hands.  I will likely donate to his campaign anyway.  What do you think? Comments are very welcome.