Here’s the most depressing news I’ve come across all week: There is a new “civic action” service called “Civi.” It allows well-off people to pay other (presumably less well-off) people to make calls to Congress on their behalf. For just $14.99 a month, you too can hire somebody to call your member of Congress for you — 21 times! (Thirteen calls are $9.99, six calls are $4.99.)
“For a single issue,” the service boasts, “Civi will call your Representative, and keep calling until your Representative’s office picks up and Civi delivers your message regardless of how many attempts this takes.” That’s the kind of doggedness I like to see in my personal assistants!
“Civic Action Network allows you to actively participate in our democracy without disrupting your day to day life.” (My italics.) How convenient!
“Civi is a real person ready to call on your behalf. Your own personal assistant and direct line to Congress.” (My italics.) And why not? If I can hire somebody clean my house, to deliver my groceries, to put together my Ikea furniture, why not hire somebody to be my very own personal civic activist?
After all, why shouldn’t politics be just like any other form of commerce in our service-based economy? If Washington is already overwhelmed by lobbyists for wealthy corporations and big donor–funded associations, why shouldn’t I also benefit from the commercialization of politics? Tell me: Why should responsive political representation be any different from getting your laundry done?
“Welcome to modern-day civic involvement,” Civi boasts. Sigh, if true.
But maybe I’m just old-fashioned, and think if you care enough about an issue that you want to contact your member of Congress, you should invest some of your own time and energy.
Is the tide of history against me? For example, you can also now sign up for Resistbot, in which you can just reply to a text message and contact your members of Congress. Civic engagement from the comfort of a bar.
But it’s worse. In addition to cheapening the meaning of civic engagement, services like these also don’t seem to have any consideration of how their demands will be received and processed.
First, congressional offices are not equipped to handle this volume of constituent delegation of engagement. Members of Congress rely on tiny staffs, pay those staffs very little money, and lack adequate technology to process the nonstop onslaught. Offices typically have one or two people answering the phones, and a few to process the deluge of email and social media messages. So the easier it becomes to generate these communications, the more offices are deluged, and the harder it becomes to meaningfully respond. At the very least, if we want bots and assistants to be this engaged for us, we need to pay for larger congressional staffs to handle this engagement.
Second, when it becomes exceedingly easy to communicate with your member of Congress, it’s very hard for members of Congress to determine who actually cares about what, and how much. If it’s essentially a thoughtless act to make a demand, members will be tempted to treat everything coming at them as equally thoughtless. That’s why participating in town halls is considered effective — it sends a strong message: “I care enough to show up and harass you in person.” But the more we have bots or paid assistants contact members of Congress, the easier it becomes for members of Congress to dismiss everything else as part of an atmospheric din — meaningless noise.
To be fair, the rise of these “contact your member of Congress” services speaks to a real and growing desire among many people to actually get engaged in politics. And the current mechanisms for citizens registering their opinion effectively are not great. But let’s keep this in mind: House members used to represent 30,000 people. Now they represent closer to 700,000. Senators represent even more. Direct connection is increasingly difficult, given the size of constituencies and the complexities of modern policymaking.
Certainly, technology could and should play more of a role in aggregating and delivering citizen sentiment than it does now.
So here’s an idea: Perhaps all the folks who are building apps and services to make it effortless to deluge your member of Congress should also be working with Congress to build services to handle the deluge. All the hard work they’re putting in to channel citizen energy will turn out to be meaningless if Congress doesn’t have the capacity to effectively process it. Or if you’re going to pay somebody to call your member of Congress on your behalf, maybe also give your member of Congress some extra money to pay somebody to handle the added call volume.
Certainly, I can see the appeal of Civi. I have a job. I have two young kids. I have very little free time. And if I didn’t live in DC and actually had real congressional representation, I might want somebody to call those representatives for me. I might want an app that made it easy for me.
But I also want to live in a society where everybody has an equal voice (regardless of whether you can pay somebody to call Congress for you), and where civic engagement requires enough effort to actually mean something. These services and technologies are cheapening the meaning of civic engagement by turning it into a commodity that the well-off can afford (Civi), or something that is effectively cost-free (Resistbot). For democracy to work, civic engagement has to signal real thought and effort. Otherwise, it is too easily dismissed as what these services would turn it into: “paid protesting.”
If we don’t invest our own time and care and energy into our democratic participation, what should we expect in response? If we want a government that takes policy trade-offs seriously, and that listens meaningfully to the public, we need to take our own engagement seriously too. If we don’t, we’ll get the government we deserve. Which sure looks a lot like the one we have these days.