Bloggers Vie for More Influence in Official Party Biz

Late Monday afternoon, just after the Democratic Convention's opening gavel, the party overwhelmingly approved a 94-page document that serves as a blueprint of the Democratic Party's goals.

But you can be forgiven if you didn't see or hear much about the official codifying of the party's mission. The party platform has been viewed in recent years as a largely symbolic document, crafted by the political elite, holding little meaning for the general public.

But some close to the process hope that this year's platform will change all that and plant the seed for what many in the liberal blogosphere hope could influence the way the government is run and policy is made.

Opening Up an Insider Process

The presumed Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, has campaigned on the notion that he wants to govern from the "ground up. " And so some of his supporters argued that a party platform drafted, as party platforms have always been drafted, didn't fit in with his campaign's image.

So for the first time, the Democratic National Committee opened the platform-drafting meetings to the general public in all 50 states as part of an initiative called Listening to America.

"Platforms are usually drafted by paid professionals and crafted by professional insiders," Michael Yaki, the platform director for the Democratic National Convention Committee and Obama for America, told "Sen. Obama has consistently talked about breaking the barrier between the Beltway and the American people, so it was natural to extend that to the usually closed platform process."

The Republican National Convention Committee is also opening up its platform drafting this year and is seeking policy ideas online at The Republican's convention Web site characterizes the move as the "most grass-roots driven platform effort" in history.

While the notion was applauded, the Democrats' Listening to America effort was announced only a month before the first platform draft was published, leaving some to wonder what impact the planning meetings would actually have on the platform creation.

Nevertheless, participants turned out in larger numbers than Democratic Party officials had anticipated.

An estimated 30,000 people attended 1,600 meetings in conference rooms and living rooms across the country. The Democratic National Convention Committee sent out platform committee members and policy experts to help direct the meetings. But according to Yaki, these officials were sent out with strict instructions not to lead the meetings, but to let the people do the talking.

"Listening to America was created specifically to enable people to self-organize and be self-empowered in communicating their priorities and passions for the direction of our country, " Yaki said.

Notes and suggestions from the meeting were compiled in a 1,200 report spreadsheet. As director of the platform committee, Yaki felt compelled to read through at least some of the unwieldy document. But, to his surprise, he said he found he couldn't stop reading.

"I became obsessed," Yaki said. He and other committee members were impressed by both the participants' enthusiasm and precision.

"Everyone involved in the campaign who attended a platform meeting was struck by how the attendees were serious and focused," Yaki said. "In fact, we were struck by how many meeting reports ended with 'this is a great idea, and we need to do this more often than every four years.'"

Yaki said that the contributions that people made through the public meetings had a significant impact on the final platform wording. Yaki credited the participants for inspiring them to write the platform in a more "action-oriented" tone and said that the meetings helped them suss out which issues were most important to Americans.

"We all got the sense from attending meetings and reading the meeting reports that people were frustrated by the economy, by $5 dollar a gallon gas, by the subprime crisis and credit crunch, worried about their jobs and health care for their families -- they wanted results, and they wanted them now," Yaki said. "Our platform incorporated that sense of urgency into the dynamic, proposal-driven document that we have today."

Harnessing the Wisdom of the Crowd

While the project was praised by some as a good first step toward political transparency, others believed it could have gone even further by engaging a larger number of people in a more accessible and efficient manner. Among those voices was a trio of young Internet entrepreneurs, who have long been inspired by the Internet's potential for opening up the political process.

Cornell grads and good friends, Dan Scanfeld, Vanessa Scanfeld and David Stern are the founders of MixedInk, an online collaborative writing tool aimed at synthesizing the opinions of a large group in a democratic and user-friendly way. Contributors on MixedInk write, edit, revise and rate texts on a scale to 1 to 10. The final product is the highest-rated piece of text, a document that fairly reflects the groups' shared point of view.

Stern thinks that the Democratic platform meetings could've engaged even more people online if they'd used technology like his.

"There's a limit to how many people you can fit in a room and there's a limit to how many people can participate in a conversation," said Stern. "We think it's great what the Obama campaign has done already in terms of inviting comments from many thousands of people who have participated in their listening to America parties. But we want this process to be even more transparent and engaging even more people in the future."

Stern was demonstrating his product to members of Netroots, a loosely affiliated organization of liberal bloggers, when campaign consultant and group blog founder Jerome Armstrong suggested that Netroots use the tool to craft a political platform of its own.

Armstrong argued that even with the changes this year, the drafting of the platform had become "less open and more controlled" throughout the years. He said Stern's tool had the potential to bring in a large group of diverse opinions.

And so Netroots drafted its own alternative platform. In the end, a relatively small group of 164 people wrote the 29-page document. One hundred and sixty-seven planks were submitted, revised, rated and narrowed down by many of the participants on all of the major policy issues, including the economy, health care, national security, foreign policy, energy and science and technology.

Armstrong admitted that the Netroots platform isn't perfect. But he argued it was a worthwhile experiment in harnessing the wisdom of the crowd.

A Grass-Roots Driven White House?

The Netroots platform was submitted to the Democratic Convention Committee too late in the drafting process to have much of an impact other than a footnote on the science and technology plank. Yaki admits that he wished he could've borrowed more directly in drafting the party platform. But Yaki is excited about the tool's potential for future use.

"This is something that they could bring up with an Obama administration. It's a powerful tool for any ground-up, bottoms-up initiative that an Obama administration might want to initiate," Yaki said. "For example, on planning conferences or summits on topical issues, it's an extremely powerful and efficient tool to involve the grass roots in the planning process."

That is exactly what Ellen Mendlow,who is part of the Netroots and participated in the platform drafting, hopes for.

"Just imagine a group of policymakers working together in this process. It would become transparent who's doing what, and people could rate and make decisions based on what they thought was really the best."

But Armstrong -- a veteran of Howard Dean's 2004 campaign -- is more cautious.

"Candidates are probably not the ones you are going to see adopting this tool," he said. "If you have supporters going out and writing your issue statements and position papers collaboratively, it probably wouldn't fly with the public."

He believes the tool would be better used by advocacy groups trying to change policy from the outside and believes it would be a useful tool for the liberal bloggers who are a part of Netroots.

Despite differing opinions on its potential uses, many involved in the Netroots drafting agree that listening to the crowd can be a powerful concept for politicians, something they can no longer afford to ignore.

"You'll find in a process like this how much intelligence and expertise is just floating around out there. You realize that there is so much wisdom that is untapped. Here's your opportunity," Mendlow said, adding, "we may not be the final word but … while the acknowledged experts are talking about the issues, so can the rest of us."