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The Future of Self-Governance

Mitch Kapor helped make the personal computer ubiquitous in the business world in the 1980s with the company Lotus, which he founded. Now he wants to start a national dialogue about self-governance in the 21st century and the restoration of our republic.
 
 
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"A countervailing force is not going to come from inside the Beltway regardless of who is in office. The bigger challenge beyond winning in November is the restoration of true self-governance and self-determination. It's what the Founders had in mind 200+ years ago, and a Kerry Presidency per se is going to do little to bring it about. So this topic, how we can restore democracy and bring about real reform is going to be subject of the dialog here. Please join in."

So ends Mitch Kapor's first blog entry on his newly founded web site Of, By and For. He has been at the forefront of the information technology revolution for a generation as the founder of the Lotus Development Corporation, which helped bring personal computers to the business world. He is also an investor, social activist and philanthropist. Mitch has recently turned his attention to his concerns about the state of our republic and the lack of civic participation. He established Of, By and For to give a voice to the problems he sees in our government. AlterNet recently visited his office in San Francisco to learn more about it.

Mitch, what is Of, By and For, and why did you found it?

Of, By and For is a web site that was designed to do several things. One is to be a forum for a forward-looking political discussion. By forward-looking I mean, both beyond the 2004 election, but also trying to ask a different set of questions — not about whether Democrats or Republicans should be elected. Important and as critical as that kind of discussion is, I feel that there are some much more fundamental questions. For instance, what ought to be the nature of self-government in the 21st century? Based on the feeling that we have wandered pretty far from what the Founders of the country had in mind when they set this country up. There is a serious need for a discussion about political reform and the future of the Republic.

So the website was designed to be a place for those discussions to take place. One of the things we’ve done, is try to use different ways of engendering the discussion. We’ve run live streaming broadcast of the discussion group we had with Joe Trippi about restoring the republic, with a chat room going on simultaneously alongside. It seemed to go rather well — the discussion was interesting, and the reader chat rooms buzzed. That was the first one of these we’ve done, but we’ve got another one coming with Bill Greider, author of the "Soul of Capitalism."

You come from a tech background and now you are making the jump to talk about politics in the 21st century.

The first thing is, I've always voted and followed elections quite carefully, but from a captive point of view. And I think, like a lot of tech people and the population in general, there's something about the way that politics is conducted that is a huge turnoff. The amount of spin, the lack of straight information, the negative campaign advertising, the lack of public participation in the process – it all created a kind of tension because I felt very civically-minded, but who wants to follow politics and government in the way it is now? That has been my mindset.

But it was the Dean campaign that began to change the way I thought about it. I wasn't directly involved with the campaign from the start, but I began to participate with Dean's high-tech council shortly before the campaign came to an end. But even as it was falling apart, I recognized that the Dean campaign had a totally different approach. I witnessed the mobilizing of energy of hundreds of thousands of people. The campaign was raising money – huge amounts of it – in ways that defied all predictions. But it wasn't just about raising money. It was about building a community.

To me, the Dean campaign pointed out that if there were a real political alternative, not politics as usual, you could mobilize people – organize a community to advocate and bring about serious reform of our government. The tech side is a big part of it, because without the Internet, you couldn't have had a Dean campaign. The Internet gave the Dean campaign an alternative to broadcast television as its main medium, as well as allow for a bottom-up system that promoted and facilitated grassroots involvement – both of which the campaign relied on. So I recognized that campaign relied on web technology – that the campaign was really on the Internet.

But ultimately my involvement in Of, By and For, and politics for that matter, is as a citizen, more than as a tech guy.

You wrote in a passage I found on Of, By and For that "the whole concept of open and equal access to information could do wonders for our politics. Placing information in the open, allowing people to debate both general and very specific aspects of software, and then creating a process for decision-making about implementation could be very important lessons.... There are many other interesting aspects to the open source community that may very well help define new participatory processes that can help us revitalize our democracy." Is this something you are looking to work on in your projects?

I think public transparency is a huge theme, and will be part of what we end up doing. A lot of where the open source community gets its power is that the source code is freely and fully available to anybody who wants to have access to it. It's also clear that in the political world, so much of our government is going on behind closed doors. And in fact, the more cynical the citizens get about their government, the easier it is for things to go on outside of the public eye. So making the whole government process more transparent is something we want to work on.

In reference to an influential article by Matt Baifor the New York Times Magazine about the rise of new group of influential wealthy liberal donors and their plans for the future, you wrote in Of, By, and For, essentially saying, "Great that the money is there. But what's left hanging is, do these political entrepreneurs have a critical mass of winning ideas?"

Yeah, what I'm saying is, you can have all the venture capital in the world, but you need the ideas to make it work. But the problem I see is that a lot of the ideas I'm hearing about are coming out of a left agenda that is 30 years old. Let me distinguish between the kind of traditional aims and goals of progressives, which in my own unsophisticated understanding, all reach for a "fairer world" in which there is a level playing field that allows for everyone to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That's the kind of traditional progressive approach, and I'm fine with it.

But I want to distinguish these ends from the means that are required to bring them about. I think the place to start is trying to answer what the nature of self-governance should be in the 21st century. And that means a serious reform of the process of the way government works today. That is quite a different stance than saying, "What worked in the New Deal still works today, and the progress we seek is just a matter of passing more legislation." At the end of the day, sure, progressive legislation is still going to count for positive change, but it doesn't get at the source of the problems we face in our republic. And I think that means we have to adapt the process of governance to include more civic participation.

So, your approach is about changing the architecture of the republic, not the laws and policies it adopts. And you are also talking about including more people in the process of government.

Yes. Why don't people feel involved or have a stake in the system? That's the key question. There are thousands of activists out there who participate in our democracy, but for the broad masses, their only major participation is every four years when they vote for the president – and only half of those who are eligible in our system do even that. Every four years. That's not real participation. That's the real problem. I'm not saying that the solution for dealing with this should come from on high. I want to foster a national conversation about this that will hash out the discussion and come up with the answer.

What I hope for is a mind-shift about the way people think about their government. This is a huge task, but there have been major shifts in what Americans believe in the past. I think the civil rights movement was the culmination of the view that the way we were looking at each other in this country was fundamentally wrong. This took decades and the hard work of activists to make it happen. But the net result is that what was socially permissible up through the '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s – being overtly racist – just stopped being that way. Society for the most part changed what it thought about things. So take one of the largest problems in our country, which our government has been unable to stop, and now has taken a part in encouraging: the business community's unchecked pursuit of profit. There is a public climate that is relatively permissive of businesses to loot and pillage our public coffers and ruin the hell out of the environment. This comes from the public perception that the job of business is to make money. To me, that's kind of like saying, "black people are inferior." We just have it wrong.

Changing that perception is partly political and partly not. But it certainly means we have to have a national conversation about this.

You want to engender a movement to change the national mindset.

Yes, it's fairly ambitious. What Joe Trippi says is that neither major political party has the appetite to deal with the system as a whole. So it's going to take the people to help bring it about.

Jan Frel is AlterNet's political editor.