A Break in the Clouds


While putting together this issue of the Observer, we made, what was for us, an astonishing discovery involving our Political Intelligence column. The PI section is usually one of the last parts of the magazine to be written. It is home to items of breaking news, stories ignored by the mainstream, recent events, updates on previous Observer articles, and cutting-edge political gossip. A few months ago, in response to reader criticism that the Observer focuses too much on the terrible in Texas, we started to include at least one item that highlighted something encouraging. Some weeks it has been a struggle to find an example of progressive ideals and values triumphing in Texas. In this issue—much to our surprise and quite accidentally—all of the items in the PI section are positive.

Remarkably enough, this rare occurrence parallels a number of promising political developments both here in Texas and throughout the nation. In Austin, criminal and civil investigations into a possibly wide-ranging conspiracy to funnel illegal corporate cash into state elections have begun to reveal to the public the depth of corruption at the state Capitol. Candidate sparring in the presidential campaign has focused the mainstream media’s attention on three years of disastrous foreign and economic policies by the Bush administration. And quietly, in the background, a revolution has begun involving the Internet and American politics that could help restore democracy to a nation held hostage by corporate interests.

“In my view, the Internet is the single most powerful tool ever placed in the hands of the average American,†Joe Trippi recently told a crowd at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin.

Trippi should know. He is the man behind the innovations of the Dean for President campaign. To put the Dean campaign’s achievements in perspective, Trippi contrasted the new interactivity of the Internet with a top-down, passive medium, television news. After 12 years of broadcasting, MSNBC has about 250,000 viewers. In 13 months, Dean got 620,000 people to participate in his campaign on the Internet. He did so by giving up control to the Dean bloggers, and the campaign emerged the stronger for it.

Similarly, 2.1 million people have joined MoveOn.org, many of whom are getting involved in politics for the first time. This new movement hopes to restore a flagging American political culture decimated by cultural homogenization, television, and special interest money—forces that have contributed to voter apathy and citizen disengagement.

What drives MoveOn is an abiding faith in the intelligence of the American people. The organizing crew behind MoveOn say it’s a mistake to look at what they do as simply a web site. The power of MoveOn is in its e-mail list. The website is primarily a forum for members to communicate with each other and take action. What unites MoveOn members is a mainstream belief in democracy and a growing rage at its diminishment. “People are not dumb. They just need the space to discuss this stuff,†said MoveOn’s Eli Pariser at SXSW.

A bottom-up movement through the Internet is not just happening in politics. It can also be seen in music, movies, and even journalism. “The Net is not the panacea,†said Trippi. “It is not going to knock the system down. The American people are going to knock the system down using the Net as a tool.â€

It’s a heady thought, but there will be plenty of bad news and wrongdoing to expose before that happens. Still, as spring settles on Texas, there is something unfamiliar in the air: hope. —JB