Truth vs. Power: Buddy Roemer, SOPA, money in politics and liberation technology

by Sebastian Benthall

Buddy Roemer is a former Governor and Congressman of Louisiana who is running for president as a Republican. He has so far not been allowed to take part in any televised debates, and so is relatively unknown. The television stations say that he is not eligible to debate because he has not raised sufficient campaign contributions. This is a problem for Buddy, because he has refused to accept Super PAC money and caps individual donations at $100.

Whatever else one may say about Roemer as a candidate, there is something wrong with this picture. Putting aside the other tools of the modern campaign (advertising, for example), the debate is the cornerstone of rational politics. In these events, we pretend for a moment that we are lead by those who are able to persuade us to follow them. This is only a fantasy when reasonable candidates are barred from entry.

Of course, politics is not a fair fight for our approval as citizens. Citizens are pawns. Or, perhaps more appropriately, ants ready to swarm to any greasy slick of propaganda spewed from the orifices of power. So must we be viewed by the billionaire Super PAC donors who have been investing in the Romney campaign, shareholders ready to instate their loyal CEO.

Is it going too far to say that these Romney shareholders aim to turn a profit on the presidency? We could consider the alternative: that these are philosopher-king oligarchs, who have spent their lives earning their billions through honest business only to turn their attention to national politics and endorse Mitt Romney. Out of selfless benevolence, they seek a consistent champion of middle and lower classes. Some of them think Gingrich would be a better one.

No, that seems unlikely.

If there is any iron law of politics, it is that those in power aim to keep themselves in power. Companies that succeed will try to maintain their market power, even when their products face obsolescence. Unions that triumph will shift demands from workers rights to the excluding the unorganized. Non-profits that form out of genuine selfless action contort themselves to chase funding and become whatever will justify their existence. Prison systems will fight to incarcerate more people. Political parties will try to maintain control of political messaging to keep out political diversity. And so on.

Truth erodes the grip of power. By recognizing these patterns as what they are, we can choose to deny them. We can liberate ourselves by holding institutions of power to account.

However, truth is something we transmit to one another. Truth travels as information. In our era, that means the spread of truth is controlled by mass media and information technology. But media and IT are themselves part of our economy and politics. Herein lies the problem.

SOPA is a good example of this. Media companies that want to use the power of the state to enforce monopolies on their works (Hollywood, the RIAA, etc.) are battling with Internet companies that profit from easy sharing of information across networked users (Google, Facebook, Twitter) over control of the Web. The media companies have been playing politics for much longer than the internet companies. One friend of mine explains to me that the Hollywood lobbyists are physically older than Google’s. They have been on K Street longer. They have better connections with legislators and other lobbyists. So they are winning.

Buddy Roemer is trying to expose this truth about how politics works–that policies are determined not by citizens but by lobbyists paid for by the rich and powerful. He has other politics but he has ripped this plank from his platform and sharpened it into a spear fit for the head of Mitt Romney.

But the media companies by and large control the spread of truth. These media companies are in their tangle of alliances with powerful political parties and corporations, they have no incentive to let in a candidate who is so eager to blow the lid off the whole complex. So they raise the requirements of debate eligibility to exclude anyone who isn’t playing their power games.

So Roemer has turned to non-mass media to launch his campaign. Roemer has been working hard on his Web campaign, using social media (especially Twitter) to get his message out.

Perhaps Roemer’s faith in this alternative structure is due in part to his witnessing of the Occupy movement. I believe it can be uncontroversially said at this point that social media was necessary (though not sufficient) for the successes of the Occupy movement, whether in organizing, gaining publicity, and in responding tactically to suppression. Its success in raising the issue of inequality in national politics has been due largely to its independence from centralized media. It continues to use the Internet to organize itself over the winter in order to plan its next moves for 2012. Perhaps Roemer can raise awareness about political inequality through similar channels.

It is worth watching and studying these events because the question of whether and under what conditions information technology can be liberation technology will determine our future. Is it possible for a message that is true but unpopular with power to spread? Under what conditions? This is not just a question of theoretical interest. It is a strategic question for those concerned with their own freedom.

We have many clues to this question already. We have the efficacy of the open Web, as opposed to centralized media channels, in assisting politics of truth. In SOPA, we see how the centralized hub of the Internet, its DNS system, is where it is most vulnerable to attack by powers that are threatened by it.

On the other hand, open data programs by governments show that there is also a politics of mutual empowerment through sharing information with citizens. Government transparency initiatives allow the kinds of analysis and awareness of money in politics that show us who is supporting SOPA and help us verify the claims of Buddy Roemer and the like. And SOPA has shown examples of industries that are able to gain power by benefiting openness and wage political battles to defend it.

What technologies are needed to further embolden truth? What strategies will get these technologies into the hands of those that can use them? How can truth be sifted from fiction, anyway? Can we find out before a growing concentration of power stamps out our ability to search and disseminate our answers?

I am eager to discuss these topics with anyone interested and collaborate on solutions.