In this provocative and timely book, twenty-seven-year-old political correspondent Michele Mitchell explores how the younger generation, contrary to popular opinion, is redefining politics. It is the multimillion-dollar question asked by marketing strategists, political pundits, and older Americans: Who are these people and where will they lead us?
It's an eighty-million-strong group that includes trust fund babies and welfare kids, from Daughters of the American Revolution to descendants of slaves and new immigrants, found from Berkeley to the Bible Belt, raised by both parents or single or divorced parents. It's a group connected through the technology they created. It's a group that now says "show me" when offered a promise.
Mitchell explores six factors that not only set this generation apart but are transforming the political world: lack of party affiliation, diverse interest in a range of issues, grassroots-based approaches to problem solving, lack of gender bias, skepticism of marketing and advertising, and computer savvy. Insightful, succinct, and engaging, A New Kind of Party Animal is our road map to understanding the future of American society and politics.
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About the Author
Michele Mitchell, a former communications director on Capitol Hill, is the youngest person to have written for the New York Times editorial page. She has written articles for many newspapers, including the Washington Post and the Boston Globe.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter Five: Cyberpol Values
When Kim was in her twenties, she got religion. Most people her age did. She clicked on her Macintosh, and there it was, the Internet, glowing beatifically as it electrified her brain with fervor and inspiration. Of course there was no Church of the Internet cyberspace didn't need a brick and mortar structure. A computer and modem were the necessary physical elements, and that was sufficient means to the end that Kim had in mind.
Nothing not the bums lolling about and urinating in front of her office, not the constant lack of street parking in downtown Sacramento, not even unreliable modems (there were glitches along every holy road) could roll Kim's blood like partisan politics. The rest she could usually handle. But the games the parties played had reached a point of no return. Kim, like most of her peers, would rather have leeches stuck all over her body than attempt a thankless task like unraveling the bitter finger-pointing, but too many other heads were popping up on the partisan Hydra.
Kim had come up with an idea that was going to get around the spineless public servants in the California state assembly and senate. You want change in politics? Then get 'em where it counts. Fund-raising. Nothing could foster change like publicly asking the question of money, and there was no better way than the Internet to keep track of monetary contributions to campaigns. In fact, if anything was going to usher in the Internet era of politics, it was going to be the age-old question: Who's buying influence with whom?
Kim knew 1996 would not be the campaign waged on the Internet. It was going to be more of a trial run. But, it would also be the last campaign in which the Internet was not a major factor. Kim leaned back in her chair again and smiled. Guess what age group was at the helm of the new technology and new media? Matthew Nelson was twenty-six when he started Wired magazine's Web site, HotWired. At thirty-one, Halsey Minor founded c/net, a computer version of CNN. And Marc Andreessen was only twenty-four when his company, Netscape Communications, had the most successful public offering in history on the same day that Jerry Garcia died, the year-old company with no earnings was instantly valued at over $2 billion. It became a joke around Silicon Valley: What were Jerry Garcia's last words before his heart attack? "Netscape opened at what?" Andreessen's coworkers, John Mittelhauser, Chris Wilson, and Aleksandar Totic, were also in their twenties. Newsweek and other publications might label Netscape "a two-year-old start-up company populated by wise-ass Gen-X millionaires who wear shorts to work," but the Net culture itself dismissed this. The people judging them didn't know how to judge them. While the kids coming up behind them who were even more astute about technology had to contend with nervous, Net-intimidated parents (who saddled their offspring with blocking software like Net Nanny and Cybersitter), the 18-35s paved the way.
They took cyberspace beyond a mere method to millions, though. This was the beginning stage of an emerging way of life. No wonder the Christian Coalition and other alleged "values" groups led the fight to censor the Internet. Never mind the fact that the national organization and many of the local chapters an had Web sites. The coalition had a values agenda to press. Among other measures, it supported prayer in school ("But what kind of prayer are you going to use?" Kim wondered. "Are you going to make a Baptist kid say a Muslim prayer?"), a ban on flag burning and abortion, and V chips for all televisions. By virtue of its name, the organization claimed to speak for all good, God-fearing Christian folk. The chutzpah of this aside, it did have nearly two million dues-paying members and chapters in all fifty states, mostly because of the indefatigable grassroots efforts of its thirty-five-year-old baby-faced executive director. Ralph Reed was a peer of Kim's in the sense of hands-on, local-based politics the coalition's strength was derived largely from its ability to turn out voters on the local level, another staple of Reed's strategy. But when it came to the area of "values," Reed couldn't have been more different. The word had layers of meaning for his followers, from church to respect for elders to moral vision and obligation. Reed's own age group, though, was the least likely to identify themselves as "Christian conservatives." Only 6.3 percent thought that "family values" was the most important issue today. In a 1996 survey, 10.3 percent listed God as their hero, which tied the deity with Hillary Rodham Clinton. And while 90 percent of 18-35s believed in a higher power, less than half ever or rarely attended church. They were building another structure.
Like Reed, Kim was doing it through politics. She thought the California Voter Foundation provided the perfect opportunity for trying to change politics through the Internet. The organization had been founded in 1989 by former California Secretary of State March Fong Eu, who wanted to increase voter registration. When Fong couldn't fund the program with private sources, and getting a tax exemption proved difficult, her office decided in 1994 to separate itself from the foundation. When Kim took over, she turned it into "a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to informing the electorate through the Internet." At least, that was what the brochure said. As the executive director, she could apply her vision to what seemed at first glance to be a limited organization. Merely increasing voter registration wouldn't get more people involved in politics. After all, "involvement" meant more than a vote. It included education and participation through town hall meetings, letters, and monitoring legislation. Kim could accomplish this through the myriad possibilities that the Internet offered. If Ralph Reed could push evangelist Pat Robertson's mouthpiece into becoming a formidable organization consumed by domestic politics, Kim could achieve her comparatively humble goal.
"We are living in the information age; information is power; through information we will empower people" was her mantra. To the politicos who dismissed her as "hopeful" (and there were many), she snapped back, "If you're not hopeful, nothing's going to happen." Oh, yes, something was going to happen. Now that "devolution" had become hip, with the federal government handing over more and more power to state governments, it was especially important to keep tabs on what was going on. How many people out there knew who their state representatives were? Most barely knew the names of their U.S. congressional representatives. The state officials seemed to like it this way, Every time legislation came up that might further educate the public, they killed it. Kim had watched as Sacramento knocked away not one or two but four attempts to pass electronic filing, which would have required candidates to list campaign contributions on the Internet. First the Democrats put up a bill and the Republicans buried it. Then the Republicans brought up their version and the Democrats destroyed it. And then an independent introduced his version and everyone defeated it.
The bastards thought they'd gotten away with it. Kim could see why they wouldn't want their campaign contributions on the Internet. The bill wouldn't have changed the official filing dates, but it would have opened up access. Right now, if a reporter or a citizen wanted to see who was buying influence with which representative, he would have to travel to the secretary of state's office in Sacramento and sift through several cubic feet of files. Not only was this time-consuming, it also wasn't feasible for most people. Electronic filing would require candidates to list their funds on the Internet, where anyone could tap on and read them. Kim called it "digital sunlight."
Money slipped and twisted through every political crevice. During the 1996 election, between both presidential campaigns, the Democrats and the Republicans brought in more than $262 million in "soft money," a conveniently cuddly term (like "friendly fire") to describe something less than palatable. Soft money, the unregulated, usually six-figure contributions from wealthy individuals, corporations, and labor unions, is supposedly given to the parties but somehow ends up in federal campaigns. The $262 million collected in 1996 was three times the amount of soft money raised four years earlier. Columnist George Will would brush off any concerns about this, saying that the amount of soft money spent in the 1992 congressional races equaled "40 percent of what Americans spent on yogurt." Will's disregard aside, Clinton's re-election campaign proved to be a textbook case of the system's flaws. Political science professors would be teaching this one for years to come: a White House so consumed with raising the daunting multimillion amount necessary to run a presidential campaign, with $200,000 for coffee klatches and $100,000 for nights in the Lincoln bedroom and $300,000 for rides on Air Force One. All were legal but smacked vaguely of being unethical. And the vice president himself made a majority of fund-raising calls, which was illegal if he made them from a government building. "Getting a call from Al Gore and getting a call from me are two different things," explained a Republican financier. "If I ask a guy for $100,000, the donor can tell me to go jump in a lake. When Al Gore does it, the donor can't say that, and he has to wonder, 'Does he have my privates in his hand?'"
But the most telling moment would be related by New York Times columnist William Safire, who wrote a piece about the possibility of illegal foreign contributions given to the Clinton campaign. "...Silence from the Republicans," Safire wrote. "Not only were they not the original source of the story, they offered little newsworthy reaction. I ran into Haley Barbour, then chairman of the Republican National Committee...and put it to him: Did he have a statement? His reply: 'This is something for Ross Perot to hit hard.' That struck me as curious; why Perot, the third-party candidate why not Dole and Barbour?" As Safire and the rest of the country later discovered, this was because Barbour had made his own foreign connection for the think tank that he headed. It was, Safire proclaimed, a "shell game."
The national press would spend a bit of 1996 and most of 1997 untangling contributions they labeled "questionable." But if everything had been listed on the Internet, the "scandal" never would have snowballed. The information would have been available to the wired public from the start, and that proximity might have prompted politicians to be more scrupulous or at least more cautious. Kim had a plan that would keep the California press from having to backtrack.
She knew it would work, just as surely as there were earthquakes in California. All the signs were there that politicians would have to be different, and soon. When she worked as a staff consultant in the state senate and watched as Bill Clinton continually chose between what he believed in and what was politically expedient (he always went with expediency, of course), her heart sank.
"Come on, Kim," a state lobbyist had said, "what did you expect? They all do this."
"It has to change," Kim had insisted. "This isn't good enough. We have to force the issue."
The price of taking the easy way out (which often was synonymous with taking dirty money) pushed the grains of faith even faster through the hourglass. Kim spent her free time registering her peers to vote. The last two rounds proved to be illuminating experiences, as she would dryly say. In 1992, they nearly jumped: "Show me where to sign!" But when 1996 rolled around, young people didn't sign up as Democrats or even as Republicans. Instead, they asked her, "Can I be my own party?" Kim herself was a Democrat, despite coming from a long line of Lincoln Republicans. But she had reregistered with the Reform Party in 1996. She didn't trust Clinton to stick to a course any course, let alone the right one. Look what he'd done to Joycelyn Elders. When the Christian Coalition and other conservative groups criticized the former surgeon general for publicly supporting masturbation as an alternative to sexual intercourse (as if the Christian Coalition had any better, remotely realistic ideas!), Clinton almost immediately asked for her resignation. So maybe Joycelyn Elders didn't exactly say what was politically correct, but oh, hell. At least she was trying to come up with solutions. Kim kicked back in her chair, still ticked off nearly two years later. She thought Elders had been one of the few inspiring people in the Clinton cabinet. She said what she believed. She wasn't afraid to be bold or controversial if that was what it took to find possible solutions to tricky problems exactly the qualities that 18-35s looked for in a leader. And Clinton had thrown her out like a used rag. Clinton wasn't a different kind of politician at all.
Of course, this was before any questions of money came up. That would consume most of 1997. But in 1996, Kim tapped on her keyboard, thinking, So, the California legislature doesn't want to list their campaign contributions on the Internet? Well, the information was sitting in the secretary of state's office. What was stopping Kim and the California Voter Foundation from taking action into their own hands? She knew from working at Common Cause that the money that came in during the last two weeks of a campaign often decided the race. Candidates used it for that last-minute media blitz to get their names and their messages out. This strategy usually worked. As a result, late contributions had to be reported within twenty-four hours, but since that information was then dumped into overflowing three-ring binders, reporters rarely had the time to index all the names, addresses, occupations, and clients of all the contributors on the lists. In previous election cycles, if journalists ever got the information, they got it well after election day. So, Kim was going to help them out. She hired a cadre of interns, and every one of the final fourteen days they were going to go down to the secretary of state's office with laptops and flip through every contribution and send that information out on the Internet. If the legislature wouldn't do electronic filing itself, Kim was going to do it for them.
She had learned about campaign contributions early on. Her father had run for city council twice in Culver City. It only took a couple of thousand to run a campaign, and the second time around, a man offered Richard Alexander a $500 contribution. Richard sent him away. "Kimmy," he said when she asked why, "if I took that man's money, I'd owe him something." He won, anyway, and served on the city council for sixteen years. Kim didn't object so much to the practice of giving money to campaigns or to support ballot measures. She didn't like the insidious secrecy surrounding it.
The state legislators liked it this way. When the concept of using the Internet was brought up, filing reports electronically and maintaining a centralized database that could make the information available to however many thousands or millions of people around California wanted it, the legislators killed four bills wham, wham, wham, wham that would have made it law.
"They're afraid," Ron Gray told Kim. He was a consultant and one of Kim's longtime friends. She had invited him and a few others over for dinner and to watch the local ten o'clock news.
Kim stirred a pot of tomato sauce while Ron leaned against the counter.
"They're all a bunch of jerks," she corrected. "PACs, soft money it's like an air bubble under a carpet. You step on it in one place and it pops up somewhere else. There've always been sinister people trying to buy influence "
"Sinister?" Ron asked. He had run enough campaigns to know how to argue this one. "How is it sinister to try and make a buck? These donors are trying to get a competitive edge. That's what capitalism is all about."
"Yeah, but, Ron, the legislators are constantly trying to figure out what they can get away with," Kim insisted. She had come to Sacramento on the heels of one of the biggest FBI sting operations ever. The FBI had been tipped off that business entities in California had to pay "entry fees" to state legislators, through campaign contributions or honoraria or other means. The bureau set up a dummy corporation Peach State Capital and posed as businessmen from Alabama who wanted tax exemptions to set up a shrimp-processing plant in Sacramento. From 1984 to 1986, they gave out tens of thousands of dollars in contributions in exchange for a special interest bill that not only passed both houses of the legislature but also made it all the way to the governor's desk. The FBI had to tip him off to prevent him from signing it. The next day, the FBI staged a predawn raid on the state capitol. By the time staffers arrived, the place was wrapped in yellow crime scene tape. Fourteen legislators, aides, and lobbyists were arrested and convicted.
The FBI agents said they were stunned at how easy the whole thing had been. At any time, anyone a reporter, for instance could have looked at the legislators' campaign disclosures, seen the out-of-state contributions from Peach State Capital, and maybe wondered why a company from Alabama was supporting State Senator Joe Montoya from Los Angeles. The information was there, but it was buried in an avalanche of paper.
"If legislators had to report their contributions on the Internet within twenty-four hours, without a bazillion forms holding them up, that would be the best thing we could do to help them," Kim said. "The new democracy."
She didn't think Ron would buy this. He always tried to play the cynic to her idealist. But Ron smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners. "Wouldn't it be cool," he said, "if we were the new democracy?"
Copyright © 1998 by Michele Mitchell
Table of Contents
1. Party Out of Bounds
2. Open Commitment
3. Block by Block
4. The Selling of the Press-ident
5. Cyberpol Values
6. year of the Woman
7. Party On