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By Robert Lehrman

As politicians use the Internet to change votes and policy, GW’s Michael Cornfield provides the context.

What better place to study the Internet’s effect on politics than this high-tech classroom where even the rakishly angled black seats look like we’re moving back to the future? Michael Cornfield, activist, writer, scholar, and GW professor, stands at the podium, scrolling down a monitor set into his podium in a classroom at GW’s newly opened Media and Public Affairs Building. On the wall behind him is a big screen where everyone else can see what he’s doing. Meanwhile, students take seats behind rows of black counters, swigging from bottles of Dasani while they pull discs from bags and attaché cases, and set up laptops.

They’re waiting for someone. And now a student comes in to say, “He’s on his way.”

“He” is Nick Lampson, a Democratic congressman from Texas’ 9th District—the one that includes Galveston—and soon, in he comes, wearing the white shirt, red tie, and lapel pin that stamp him as clearly as jeans do students.

“Still in session?” Cornfield asks him.

Lampson nods.

“This’ll be more interesting.”

A joke. But Cornfield may be right. For this is a course about an issue as important to Lampson as any late-afternoon vote. The class is called “Politics and The New Media.” Cornfield, a balding, blue-eyed California native with a doctorate from Harvard, has been at GW since 1994, teaching, and examining the effect of the Internet on campaigns.

Since 1998, Cornfield also has been research director of the Democracy Online Project at GW’s Graduate School of Political Management, the mission of which is not only to study how the new technology informs political life, but to “promote the development of U.S. online politics in a manner which upholds democratic values.” The result: Cornfield has become—in his words—the “go-to guy” for reporters when it comes to politics and the Internet, and he brings that background to bear on this course, in which students have been looking at political Web sites and redesigning them.

He won’t be the only critic in the room. Also in the class, as usual, is Jonah Seiger, an entrepreneur whose company, Mindshare Internet Campaigns, creates online strategies for groups trying to influence public policy. He does for a living what these students are doing for credit.

But there is no question that people are most excited about Lampson, who is there because his future son-in-law, Ryan Gertz, is a student in the class and has been redesigning the Lampson Web site.

A Congressman! A user! The discussion is lively enough during the first presentation, but it gets more animated when Gertz puts the Lampson site on the screen.

Is there too much text? Is it too cluttered? How do you increase symmetry? And how do you give people a variety of ways to make a contribution?

Lampson is listening but saying little.

At one point, someone asks Gertz how he plans to deal with e-mails from people who don’t like him—that is, opponents who flood the site with phony messages or try to disrupt it in other ways.

Gertz seems surprised. “This is south Texas,” he says. “Not New York.”

It was like walking into Alaska,” Cornfield says.

He is talking about how the Democracy Online Project began, in the summer of 1998, taking him into the unexplored, electronic wilderness of Internet politics.

“I had been teaching a class called ‘Politics and New Media,’ and an officer at The Pew Charitable Trusts was looking to study politics and the Internet. They came to us because we’re here in Washington and because we take a very practical approach to politics. We put together a proposal and opened for business on the first of October.”

No precedents! No rules! Almost anything you could do would be new! Even the first simple thing the project finished, a month before the ’98 congressional elections—finding out how many candidates had Web sites—got attention.

The Democracy Online Project is interesting for what Cornfield finds out. What will the effect be? Is this a revolution or new wine in old bottles? What should worry us about politics online? What should we celebrate?

But it is also interesting for the questions it raises about education, particularly at GW. After all, colleges used to study only the safely dead. But this project examines something at the very beginning of its history; it is as if someone set up a course on the effect of the telephone—in 1880. Should we study something so … contemporary? And what about the “promotion of democratic values?” Should a university promote anything—except the dispassionate examination of truth?

Actually, in the beginning, the Pew grant called for a kind of advocacy role, asking Cornfield to develop a code of conduct for politicians online. Uneasy with that idea, Cornfield’s group hit upon the idea of putting together a primer, ‘Online Campaigning,’ which described the “best practices” of politicians then on the Net. (The primer is going into its third edition for 2002.) Meanwhile, Cornfield got a book contract for one tentatively titled Democracy Goes Online, and began writing a column about online campaigning for Campaign & Elections magazine. Presto. An expert. Reporters began calling him any time there was an issue involving the Web. McCain raises six million from his Web site? Call Cornfield. Bush’s system crashes? Call Cornfield.

The reason his work attracted so much interest, of course, was the eruption of Internet activity among politicians and advocacy groups. Some of it was highly publicized—like the Web site alliance of Gore and Nader supporters in the last few weeks, in an attempt to give Gore the election and Nader’s Green Party 5 percent of the popular vote. Among major party candidates for Congress and governor, 46 percent had Web sites in 1998 and 68 percent did in 2000. Also, there was the measurable increase in the way Americans used the Internet for campaign information: 4 percent in 1996, and 18 percent in 2000.

A new world? Not exactly. A spike in Web sites doesn’t mean a wholesale change in political life—or in the sophistication of voters; Jay Leno’s “jaywalking” segments feature a dismayingly endless supply of college students who think Abe Lincoln was the father of our country.

Cornfield is cautious about overstating significance but sees some similarity to the early days of TV. “Nineteen ninety-eight is like 1948: Television was in existence but there were too few people who owned televisions, and too few TV stations for it to make an impact. The Internet is [now] comparable to 1952 and 1956.”

He also is careful to point out that like most things that explode on the national consciousness, there is a lot of precedent. In fact, the intellectual framework for his work comes from a book, called The Electronic Commonwealth, written by, among other people, F. Christopher Arterton, who at the time was on the CUNY faculty and now is dean of GW’s Graduate School of Political Management.
It was published in 1988 and already looks a little quaint as Cornfield hands it over: The technologies are cable, the “computer,” the videocassette recorder, satellites.” But it asks how these tools can “strengthen rather than weaken our deep commitment to democracy.”

It is that question that concerns Cornfield, Arterton, who is principal investigator for the project, and prolific writer David M. Anderson, BA ’81, who is its task force director. While he is—as an academic—interested in what is, Cornfield is also interested in what should be.

“What are the roles of government, the nonprofits, the commercial sectors, and citizens themselves in making sure democratic values are upheld in online politics?” Cornfield asks. “Voting. Should government set standards? There are a lot of companies trying to market computerized voting systems.”
He worries about voter information—the eternal conflict between free speech and responsibility. “The whole area of negative campaigning and attack ads and rumors—since everyone is a publisher on the Internet, there’s all sorts of crazy material you can put up. The Internet is a double-edged sword.”

Struggling to compress ideas expressed with more nuance in a monograph, and in his book, he outlines four qualities of the Internet that seem to need analysis:

“First, limitlessness. [Data] goes everywhere there is a computer terminal. It isn’t free—you have to pay for a server. But it can be stored and re-sent at no significant cost. Second, interactivity. There’s a long tradition in American thought, symbolized by the Norman Rockwell painting of a guy who’s a farmer, standing up at a town meeting. The voice of the citizen. The Internet tempts us with that idea. But nobody’s come up with a way to do it.”

“Third, scalability. The Internet transforms the walls separating local, metropolitan, regional, national, and global communications into membranes. You can hit ‘Reply’ or ‘Reply All.’ That makes it possible for things happening around the world to seem as proximate as things in our own neighborhood. But the power to disrupt is now easier than ever—like that hacker in Indonesia.”

The fourth quality is what he calls cybernetics—the ability of computer messages to refine messages on the basis of feedback. Campaigns, Cornfield says, will learn to be “smart”—to change a fund-raising pitch depending on which approach is yielding the most money. “The Internet makes it possible for us to be more sophisticated in plumbing public opinions. But it makes it easier to do shallow work. We need to find ways to separate the wheat from the chaff.”

As a researcher, Cornfield has the luxury to pick up each of these issues and examine them, like a lepidopterist picking up a rare butterfly. For others, there are more practical interests in a tool that allows virtually unlimited amounts of information to be sent everywhere, at the speed of light.

Like Nick Lampson.

I got a block of tickets for a Clay Walker concert,” Lampson says to the consultant.

They are sandwiching conversation about fund-raising ideas in between calls Lampson is making to supporters. And since politicians have learned from Al Gore’s unpleasant experience, Lampson doesn’t conduct campaign business from his office, but from a small table in the front room of the office of Erickson & Company, a campaign strategy firm housed a few blocks from the Capitol.

“I don’t know Craig Walker,” says the consultant.

“Clay Walker.”

“I know him. I’m a big country fan,” the receptionist says.

It is a long way from Nick Lampson’s first political campaign, when he organized students at Lamar Tech around urban renewal in Beaumont, spending no money—or even his first race for the legislature, when he spent about $8,500 to lose a primary, a race in which the winner spent about $30,000.

Now, the 56-year-old three-term Democrat from Texas, who represents the oil-rich areas of Beaumont and Port Arthur and succeeded a controversial predecessor, spends about $1 million in a typical race.

“When I ran for Congress, that was my first real introduction to the world of consultants,” he says. He turns to an aide. “Did we have a Web site in ’96?”

No Web site, the aide says. They used computers only for handling data, and a little e-mailing.

Not until last year did Lampson try to use the Web in a big way. For example, raising money.

“I gotta tell you,” he says, “I wasn’t successful.”

Lampson has some qualms about using the new technology. “You have to be real careful about spamming. Junk. I get offended by phone calls at home.” He has other worries, too. You can be misinterpreted. You can invade people’s privacy and make them worry about how secure it is when they type in a credit card number to make a contribution.

But overall, he is optimistic. “I believe in five or 10 years everyone will have a computer in the house,” he says. He certainly sees the attractions of the Internet for a campaigner. “The contact is so much quicker. Less intrusive. People can read e-mails at their leisure.”

To demonstrate some of the advantages—and maybe that, unlike some of his colleagues, he’s comfortable with a mouse in his hand—Lampson gets up, walks over to the receptionist’s desk, and logs onto his own Web site. “Let’s see if we’re still up.”

They are. Lampson scrolls down through the home page, his picture on the right against a peach background showing the Capitol, and a blue row listing links: constituent service, missing children (a big issue with Lampson), and photos of his family.

He waves at the screen. “Ryan’s concerned this isn’t symmetrical. I personally like the links. People get a feel for who the candidate is. But right now there’s no place to ask for contributions.”

There is, though, a recipe, for red velvet cake, a favorite of his family, and a way to humanize a politician who is still just a name you see in the papers to most people in Galveston or Beaumont.

So far, Lampson has been what you would expect in an interview: affable, candid about the technology he uses. But now, the conversation broadens to how the rest of information technology influences him—cell phones, pagers, Palm Pilots. He talks about how he teleconferences with schools, and the way one might use the new technology on the House Floor, where cell phones are banned but pagers are not.

And suddenly you get a glimpse of real life, for Lampson talks about what only people who have worked on the Hill know: the incredibly fragmented life of a Congressman, split geographically between Washington, his district and his family, and between legislating and campaigning.

“I don’t have a social life,” he says, almost wistfully. “Don’t get to know my colleagues. I get in [to Washington] a few hours before [we’re in session]. Thursday to Sunday I’m in my car. I have a 3,500 [square] mile district. Takes two hours to drive across it.”

It is the traditional complaint of those in Congress, who often sacrifice personal life for the power and glamour of their careers. Unless you represent some 20-block area of Manhattan, your weekends are spent in a car, putting on hundreds of miles a day in the race from prayer breakfasts to brunches, to barbecues, to Party meetings. Could the new technology make the political life less frenetic? Lampson seems to think so. “The use of this,” he says, almost wistfully, “properly done, is significant.”

It is significant to Jonah Seiger, too, from a somewhat different perspective.

“The Net is a democratic medium,” Seiger says, sitting in a Vermont Avenue office so new paintings are still stacked unhung against the walls, and the tiny, scratched conference table, is one clearly rescued from less plush digs.

For Lampson, the Net can help his work. For Seiger, the Net is his work.

A 30-year-old Michigan grad who grew up with computers in California, used the Net to download Grateful Dead songs as an undergraduate, then worked on the House Telecom Subcommittee during the Telecom Reform Bill battle of ’96, Seiger involved himself in a variety of campaigns before he and his partner founded Mindshares in 1997. It is a measure of how much people are turning to the Net that his company, four years old, has expanded from two people to 17.

With all that, though, he manages to sit in regularly on classes taught by Cornfield, whom he met at a happy hour for Internet users. “I like to be in front of a classroom, he says. “Students are bright, and they have a sophisticated understanding of technology.”

Seiger doesn’t do political campaigns. That is, not for elected politicians. He works with issues groups. And, after we’ve talked for a while, he, like Lampson, heads for a small room with a computer set in the middle on a table, like an electronic household god, to demonstrate what interests him. He brings up the home page for one of his clients, the Citizens Commission on Medicare, for a session of show-and-tell.

The commission is a coalition of patient groups and doctors working to reform Medicare by supporting legislation sponsored by Senators John Breaux (D.-La.) and Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.).

“It’s self-directed,” Seiger says, waving his hand at the screen. “You can do Medicine 101,” as he puts the arrow on a link.” There’s the ‘right’ side—Breaux-Frist. Then the ‘wrong’ solutions.” The commission Web site has tutorials on the issues. “Each tutorial has quizzes. If you pass, we have a certificate and you’re invited to participate more fully.”

Armed with the certificate, for example, people can enter an online chatroom, moderated each evening by a Mindshare employee.

It is different from a candidate’s Web site—yet similar. Both are calculated to draw people in by providing useful information. Both marshal support, one for an idea, the other for the representative of an idea.

Seiger, like Lampson, has reservations about the future of online advocacy. In 2000 he was turned off by what he calls the “breathless hype” of Internet celebrants. He worries about the digital divide—the term for how computer use and the Internet access differ between rich and poor, both in the United States and around the world.

But he is excited by the possibilities. He talks about what he calls ‘word of mouse’—the incredible way news, jokes, and ideas can pass from user to user. He talks about ‘viral marketing.’ “You can generate hundreds of thousands of telegrams, cheap. The cost of recruiting people used to be fifty, sixty dollars. We see it now for ten.”

For Cornfield’s part, having someone like Seiger in the class is a great plus. Seiger, he says later, is on the front lines of what he calls the “practitioners” of electronic campaigning. Seiger can give them a practical insight that even the most thorough research can’t.

And Cornfield’s students may like having Seiger there for reasons other than his insight. As we tour the place, we run into Stan Magniant, a former Cornfield student. It turns out there are two former students who impressed Seiger enough for him to hire them after graduation. Magniant, who grew up in France before coming to Washington, is setting up chat software for a client.

You can see why they might like working here. Nobody wears a suit in Seiger’s company. This is the age of brilliant 20-somethings—comfortable with electronics—and bosses comfortable that they’re coming to work in jeans. While most offices seem half-furnished, there is one room that has been meticulously finished, with a couch, a TV monitor, and the scrambled mass of controllers on the floor you might see in a 14-year old’s bedroom.

“Little break area,” Seiger says. “We have Dreamcast. Nintendo. Everything.”

While Seiger might worry about universal access—that is, availability for those who still think a mouse is something that eats cheese and gets chased by cats—there is no doubt about the effect the Internet has had on the sophisticated user. Like reporters, the receivers of political communication. To New York Post international affairs reporter Niles Lathem, for example, the resource still only dimly understood by most of the public gives a knowledgeable and aggressive investigator enormous power.

“I remember the day [accused Russian spy] Robert Hansen was arrested. The story broke early in the morning. Instantly, it’s on the Internet. On AOL, I put in his name, get his address. Okay, how do I get there? In less than three minutes, I’m able to (see how) to go right to his house. Such a thing would have taken hours.”

The Web gives Lathem such a powerful investigative tool that he can now work mostly at home. He mentions www.assignmenteditor.com, a Web site with links to every major paper, all the search engines, an “incredible” link with 20 different phone books, and even airline reservations.

The availability of information doesn’t particularly worry Lathem, who first came to Washington as The Washington Post bureau chief in 1980, covered four presidential campaigns, and put in eight years at Fox TV before moving back to the Post.

“There’s a lot of creeps out there. But I’m personally an open-society person. If people are in the news it’s for a reason, and usually not good news. We should be able to find out about them. Can [the Internet] be misused? Yes.”

For Lathem, the Congressional Web sites like Lampson’s are only moderately useful. In covering the Gary Condit story he used Condit’s only for basic information. Much more useful was the Chandra Levy Web site, or even defeatgarycondit.com.

Lathem sees clearly how, for the sophisticated user, much more information is available than people know. He mentions a stunt Fox used to do in 1996, when the Internet was still a novelty.

“We’d go up to people on Wisconsin Avenue, say tell me your name. Then we’d call someone on a computer, and come back telling people everything about them, including mortgage payments. People burst out crying.”

Michael Cornfield does worry about privacy, particularly in campaigns.

He wrote about it recently in his column, The Online Campaigner, where his smiling face appears in a thumbnail, framed by the round-edged square of a monitor screen. “You can’t win an election without ringing doorbells and leaving materials on stoops,” he wrote recently, “but you don’t let your ground troops enter people’s homes without their permission. In the virtual world, unfortunately, the doorstep is hard to locate.”

It is one of a group of issues he has covered over the last year: voting possibilities, online-advertising, special events.

He worries about the future of online journalism—that is, journalism by people who write online, like Matt Drudge, or for Slate, as opposed to journalists like Lathem, who use the Internet as a tool for print reporting.

“If you look at the history of American journalism, most of the innovations were money-losers. None of the dot.com divisions of the major news media organizations make money,” Cornfield says.

He also worries about the credibility of online political information (“Anonymity and fake identity have been part of the Web since its inception”).

He sees it as influential, though. “The Internet may not be a mass medium; it might be a many-to-many medium, but it will still be a part of every phase of politics, like the telephone is.”

Step back, though. How much of a difference is that? The telephone made campaigning easier, but hasn’t fundamentally changed things, right? What has the Internet done?

And then, we experience the cataclysmic, wholly unexpected and—looking back—wholly inevitable event of Sept. 11.

For most people, the first few days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon are not given over to thinking about what is online. We watch endless replays of a plane, turning slightly as it hones in on the second tower; the orange fireballs; the disintegrating tower; the ballooning cloud of dust and smoke ballooning down a street behind fleeing New Yorkers.

But as our intellects begin to function, for those of us looking to learn more—and think more—we see how within days an absolutely stunning assortment of ideas and information exists for anyone with a monitor.

At www.brookings.org you can read the first chapter of a new book on terrorism by a former CIA analyst now at Brookings. At www.csis.org you can learn about a war game that simulates a biological attack on the United States. Want to know exactly how many terrorist attacks there have been in the last 20 years? Go to www.heritage.org where the Heritage Foundation will tell you it’s 9,179, not counting “intra-Palestinian.” At www.cdi.org a Center for Defense Information fellow outlines what targets President Bush can aim at—and what he has to aim with.

It isn’t a political campaign. But isn’t this a display of what Cornfield is talking about? An array of facts, ideas, options, laid out in enormous detail, available with unprecedented ease to anyone with enough energy to click their mouse a few times? A way we can find out about the mountain ranges in Afghanistan as easily as in Maryland? Isn’t this word of mouse?

Cornfield laughs. He’s on the case.

“The amount of policy papers is incredible,” he says, talking about the aftermath. It’s almost like watching a crystal form. A cluster of papers about bin Laden. Another about civil liberties. Another about presidents in war. All these topics occur to people. They educate themselves. Then they say ‘Hey read this,’ and send it along. It’s a kind of cosmic clipping service.”

He mentions something he’s talked about before: The way the Internet can be an outlet for humor not acceptable in the news media—he’s working with a grad student from another school on this: Cartoons in which the World Trade Tower is remodeled into one big building and four little ones around it, giving bin Laden the finger.

And there were other uses. On the day of the attack 15 percent of Internet users—about eight percent of the population—used the Internet to send an attack related message. People who couldn’t reach loved ones by phone used the Internet.

“I did,” Cornfield says. “I couldn’t reach my mother on the West Coast, so I sent my brother an e-mail saying, tell mom we’re okay.”

What are the implications for policy?

“There are instances now where small numbers of people can organize and apply pressure. Before the Internet maybe 20 people could ask for a policy paper. Now it’s 30,000. Will it redistribute power? No. But it’s a new wrinkle. And part of my job is to look for these.”

There has been no revolution in campaigning—yet. Politicians are struggling to find effective ways to raise money, attract volunteers, and communicate views. And even as one moves from Web site to Web site after the events of Sept. 11, seeing the incredible richness of material available with the click of a mouse, it is clear the sea change has not yet arrived. Lots of people are still struggling to find the onramp to the information highway. Most of them still don’t know exactly where Afghanistan is.

But for the 60 percent of American homes with Internet connections, the way to find out is as close as the study, or a kid’s bedroom. It has affected them.

Certainly it has affected Niles Lathem, now using the Internet to get information on hijackers with a speed impossible a few years back.

Nick Lampson has been affected, too. His Web site looks different in the days after Sept. 11. The headline on the home page, in red, reads ATTACK ON AMERICA.

“Our hearts and the hearts of the people of the 9th District go out to the families and friends who lost people in the cowardly attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.”

Underneath that, and before the red velvet cake recipe, is a list of links—contact information—names of victims, ways to talk to children, a New York City information hotline.

Do people in Galveston really need a hotline for New York? For most of them, probably no. But some are certainly interested, and what is the cost for Lampson? Surely this emblemizes what Cornfield means when he talks about at least three of his four qualities. To resend information costs Lampson nothing (limitlessness); it transforms boundaries into membranes (scalability); and allows instant communication (interactivity).

So, in the end, while the Internet hasn’t revolutionized politics yet, there has been a revolution of sorts. It is a revolution of opportunity. We haven’t been able to make everyone sophisticated. Jay Leno will stay in business. But if Americans want to learn more—about Abe Lincoln or Nick Lampson—they can do it more easily than ever.

And as we look at Lampson’s Web site, there is at least the hint of something bigger. For doesn’t it tell us something that a congressman in Galveston would want to make it easier for Texans to give blood for people in New York and Washington?

That is also a kind of revolution, one that might even change Tip O’Neill’s old maxim about all politics being local, and well worth studying on a university campus. For, it turns out, Ryan Gertz was wrong. Yes, Lampson’s District is south Texas, not some big northeastern city.

But partly because of those technologies outlined in Dean Arterton’s book 13 years ago—like cable—and partly because of the Internet, a city 1,500 miles away has become much closer. Certainly for these awful few weeks—and maybe from now on—even people in south Texas have become New Yorkers.

Novelist and speechwriter Robert Lehrman lives in Washington.