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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. A social network for the voters to scale American democracy from apathetic to active, to transform would-be voters into do-gooding citizens. While they pledge human connectedness for good, social platforms like Vine and Facebook that preoccupy the world today do little deliberatively to foster real-life changes in civic behavior.
But don’t fear, there’s an innovation on the horizon that aspires to reform us so no longer does our politics lag behind in the digital revolution. The app is called Brigade and its founder and CEO Matt Mahan joins us today.
A community organizer, Mahan ran the first political campaign to leverage Facebook data when he was elected student body president at Harvard. Brigade is designed to be the go-to civic empowerment app, identifying nearby voters who are passionate about the same national and local issues you are, and helping elect the people who you want to see in office. In short, the objective is to influence policies and elections together. Matt, it’s a pleasure to have you here.
MAHAN: Pleasure to be here.
HEFFNER: For the digital natives as we call them and also for those old-timers, what is Brigade? How do you use it, how can you use it this election season?
MAHAN: We describe Brigade as a voter network and the, the closest analogy I can come up with would be LinkedIn. We’re trying to be a real identity-based network for voters to express what they care about, be connected to the political districts they live within, the offices that represent them and most importantly their fellow constituents. And the goal of the network that we’re building is to help those voters get better-informed, have meaningful discussions and debates about the issues that affect their lives, and then most importantly engage in elections and advocacy in a continuous way to play a bigger role in our, in our democracy.
HEFFNER: You want to import a civic value and virtue into your product, but is it problematic when we call these things products as opposed to services?
MAHAN: It’s an interesting question. I, I do think of what we do maybe more as a utility. We are there to solve problems for citizens who have lost faith in their political process and maybe don’t understand their potential role within it. We, we talk to, we do a lot of user research as we build out Brigade, whether you call it a product or a service…
HEFFNER: You call it both.
MAHAN: And, we do. We do. I think it’s hard to be in consumer internet and not call it a product reflexively.
HEFFNER: Yeah. Sure.
MAHAN: But it is a network, it’s consumer-oriented, it’s peer-to-peer, and the reason I call it a utility is that we’re trying to answer a number of pretty foun—fundamental questions for voters. We’re helping them understand who their elected officials are, where those elected stand on the issues that they care about. We help them find other like-minded voters so they can organize and take action together. We help them understand what’s on their ballot at election time. And so if you want to consider the platform we’re building a collection of services, I think that’s a very accurate way to think about the role that we hope Brigade plays in voters’ lives.
HEFFNER: I asked that, Matt, from the outset because I think it’s important to establish that our users are citizens and there is a mammoth void, and I saw you nodding when I was doing the intro, in terms of the recognition that these social platforms are gonna have ramifications for the social makeup of this constituency, this American population, for decades and centuries to come. In short, what is the byproduct in civic life that you are hoping to generate through Brigade?
MAHAN: In a word it’s engagement. It’s, it’s more engagement, it’s deeper engagement on the part of voters. I think if you take a network like Facebook and think about how it’s structured and the kind of value that it delivers to its users, it’s focused on our social lives. It’s focused on important life events that one wants to share with friends and family. And the value put bluntly is probably social validation on some level, it’s the like, it’s a comment, it’s being told that your birthday is important or you, or that photo of your kids was adorable or, or whatever it is, and I think that a, what Brigade brings to the table is a different kind of network that connects citizens who have the same representatives, it connects them on the issues they care about and it gives them pathways to learn more about issues and understand their potential political power. You know, today the average voter votes once every two, in many cases four years, and they’re typically voting at the top of the ballot. And they’re often voting based on name recognition or party affiliation. And, I think what that leads to is a quite dysfunctional political system that is not particularly responsive to the needs of most citizens, and I think you feel that in this election cycle. There’s a lot of frustration, there’s a lot of fear. There’s a, there’s a, a sense that government is failing to solve the biggest problems that we face. And as we look at that problem, while there are many components to it, there’s the decentralization of media, there’s the fragmentation of media, there’s the role of money in politics, I think at a deeper level there’s an engagement problem. There’s the fact that voters are disconnected from the political process and have a less clear sense of who their reps are, what it takes to get things done, what it means to make compromises to pass legislation. We’ve, we’ve become very far removed from our representatives, particularly in Washington, and we’ve got to close that gap and use technology to close that gap if we’re gonna make our system function more effectively.
HEFFNER: Because electoral politics is more than just socializing, which is manifestly what a Facebook is.
MAHAN: It is, and, and I think it’s um, you know, in theory a Facebook or a LinkedIn or a Twitter, one of the big social networks could do more in politics but I, I don’t think that it’s aligned with their business interest, I don’t think it’s aligned with the reason that those users are there, and it doesn’t map real well to the types of connections on Facebook. The reality is that as a voter my power really resides within the districts, uh, where I live and where I can cast a vote. And so if I want to build political power to push forward an agenda, let’s say I want to see more efforts around education reform for example, I need to be aware of the political districts in which I live, who the decision makers are, and I need to band together with other citizens who care about that issue and can vote in that same district and so the fact that I have a friend across the country from me who I want to be connected to socially is much less relevant, uh, when engaging with a local political issue.
HEFFNER: You identified the central problem. I would say it’s two-fold. Illiteracy when it comes to participation, illiteracy when it comes to information and being a savvy, informed decision maker…
MAHAN: That’s right.
HEFFNER: Ta—take on those two dual challenges because Brigade as it strikes me is an effort to inform as well as to then engage.
MAHAN: It’s interesting to me that, that you break it down that way. We think about it similarly. I like to say that there’s a necessary but insufficient, uh, solution around information that we have to bring to the table, we have to help people understand, uh, what it means to be a registered voter, who their representatives are. The, the average American for example is represented by about 40 elected officials and most of us could probably only name about a half dozen of those individuals so, so our awareness level is very low so there’s a, whether it’s issues, who representatives are, how the legislative process works, those are all places where voters today don’t have a lot of information, and the information that, that is out there requires you to jump through a lot of hoops to access it and understand it. So we want to make that information personalized, bite-sized, uh, timely for the average voter who uses Brigade. The second problem we have to solve or the second component of the solution we need to bring to the table that l—that kind of sits on top of that information layer is what I would consider to be tools for organizing and action taking. And what that’s addressing is a lack of faith in the process and people’s fear that their participation no longer matters. I—
HEFFNER: And that, and that would be dis-incentivizing the would-be Brigade app downloader to even pursue it in the, from the outset.
MAHAN: That’s right. That’s right. It’s a barrier we have to overcome and so we invest a lot in getting people to share the app with their friends organically based on a fun debate they’re engaged in and think their friend would be interested in or an action campaign trying to elect a candidate who they’re very excited about or an advocacy campaign that’s targeting a piece of legislation that’s relevant to them. The more that we can get our civic and social lives reintegrated in the way that they were for voters maybe a hundred years ago, certainly at the founding of the country, where politics was the conversation of the day, it was one of the most entertaining aspects of life, the better. We, we need to get those things re—recoupled if you will, uh, because today we’ve come to view politics as something akin to the Olympics. It’s this thing that comes along every four years, it’s entertaining, we follow the headlines, we follow the horse race but we, we no longer have the structures and the culture in place to engage with those issues and that political process over time in a continuous way. After the election, too many of us will tune out, go back to the rest of our lives and wait to be disappointed, frankly, and the reason we’re disappointed in, in a, in a lot of cases is that we stop participating and we stop, uh, advocating for the things that we care about and we stop paying attention to what’s actually going on in the legislative process.
HEFFNER: At that founding, it was wishful thinking and in fact there was no material way to inform the country as a whole. And if you go back to those Federalist Papers, there was a very clear vision that representative democracy, um, could not necessarily account for the will of every single user or every single citizen. And so the struggle here is to, is for our politics to reflect the needs of, of the people, that is really the, the issue but to a lot of voters, the illegitimacy of the contemporary state is that we’re not a democracy. We’re an oligarchy or an aristocracy. We hear a lot about scaling so that our democracy reflects the fast-paced movement and efficiency and information-sharing of Silicon Valley and ecommerce for example, but don’t we even have to start before that basic point in understanding the problems today because what, if we, if we scale what we have now, it could ultimately be disastrous.
MAHAN: Yeah, you know, a couple of thoughts on that. One is that I think there is something very important that lies between a direct democracy and an oligarchy which is a representative democracy or republic which is how our system was set up to operate. And unfortunately I think too many of us as voters have bought into the myth that our representatives must be accountable to us on the one issue we care most about in the immediate term and that compromise is treason. And unfortunately that is leading to complete dysfunction in the legislative process. And when we think, so when we think about how to scale democracy, what we mean is how do we leverage the communication and organization tools that modern-day technology afford us to better map what people care about, what problems they’re facing, and then keep them connected to a legislative process that does need to be held accountable for addressing those problems but also needs to be seen in the context of what I think is inevitable in a healthy democracy which is compromise. And what I mean by that is if as a voter I express what I care about and I order the issues that are most important to me and I take positions on those, those issues on Brigade, I’m also surrounded by a number of other voters who may order the issues differently, they may take different positions, and I begin to get exposure to the diversity of viewpoints, the diversity of concerns that exist in society and recognize a few things. One thing we notice on Brigade is that most users are overlapping in their views by at least a third, often half of the time, and so even if I’m far to the left and I have a friend or a, a neighbor who’s far to the right, there will be a number of issues where we actually agree on most of what the problem is and can find common ground on the solution. And so we need to, we need a technology that helps map the richness of our viewpoints, helps expose us to the diversity of viewpoints, and makes it very plain to voters that compromise and incremental progress…
HEFFNER: Facebook is creating bubbles of groupthink, Democratic and Republican, blue and red, and you are trying to smash that.
MAHAN: We are. We, we started and, and there’s another silo we’re trying to break down which is the emphasis on the two parties and on the liberal and conservative labels writ large.
MAHAN: When you get people to take positions on issues, which is a big part of the experience on Brigade, what you find is that they do not cluster as neatly around Democrat and Republican party platforms as you might think, and I actually think Donald Trump’s candidacy and success in this cycle is reflective of the fact that the party orthodoxy, the ideological orthodoxy is um, not something that represents how most voters see the world. From a voter’s standpoint, they have challenges in their lives that they would like the vehicle of government to address and they are much more pragmatic than I think our political discourse would lead you to believe. So what…
HEFFNER: And they’re poorly educated.
MAHAN: Yeah, sure, sure.
HEFFNER: I mean I say that tongue in cheek and not because,
HEFFNER: That also reflects the contemporary electoral situation.
MAHAN: Yeah, I think that…
HEFFNER: But they are curious. So while you ponder that…
HEFFNER: I, I mentioned to you off-camera, we were both at Dominican University, Brigade was represented there in this first-ever college convention and giving a speech to galvanize young people into their civic consciousness and the Secretary of State of California was asked, it was the first question from a student, where are we taking digital voting, online voting, electronic balloting? And I wanted you just to reflect on this in your answer because I thought it was interesting, this is a progressive Secretary of State, Alex Padilla, and he shrugged and side-stepped it and said we’re not there and we may not be there for the foreseeable future, even though this student is cognizant as we are that they can have a product droned to them via Amazon and that would take under 24 hours but yet it takes many months to register snail mail, we can’t seem to convert this old apparatus into a new digital paradigm for democracy. So my, my point here is that the voter may be curious about these new mechanisms and how they can be imported into our democracy but they are illiterate because their elected officials, if Alex Padilla is an example, refuse to imagine that that is pragmatic.
MAHAN: I think that’s really unfortunate. I think the key concept here is experimentation. I, I fully understand why people are scared by electronic voting. It’s um, voting is a, is a sacred rite and process in the democratic process and we um, want to make sure that it’s secure and that we can prevent fraud and that the principle of one person, one vote is fulfilled through uh, through the electoral process. So I understand the trepidation. I also think that any healthy society has to evolve, it has to embrace new tools and that there are a lot of incredible possibilities being opened up to us by the latest social and mobile technologies that are being widely adopted in an array of industries from dating to finding a job to food delivery, uh, to research, there’s just technology is connecting people and enabling them to share information, make decisions, coordinate their activity in extraordinary ways. And the idea that we wouldn’t be at least willing to experiment with applying those tools to our electoral process is concerning to me, because I do think that it creates a barrier for particularly younger voters who have become accustomed to getting information and taking action through digital tools in one form or another, particularly their smartphones, from fully participating in a process that in many places still requires you to register via paper and show up on a particular day at a particular time at a particular polling place irrespective of what else is going on in your life. And, and that is one dimension in which our democracy is failing to scale or maybe, maybe more accurately evolve with our society.
HEFFNER: I remember just two years ago and change having a discussion with a scholar of emerging technology James Katz who wrote the book A Social Media President, and when we titled the episode it was a question mark because we were not sure if it was a pro-social media president, and what you’re doing is really something that ought to be converted into the mainstream so as you analyze the Brigade data moving towards this election, let’s just call it off, this election, right? Brigade, if amplified and utilized in the way you imagine moving forward to be this toolkit for democracy, how would the data that you’re gonna gather this election cycle inform where you see the app evolving to benefit the body politic at large?
MAHAN: It’s a great question. Um, you know, I think one, one way in which the data we’re collecting can lead to a better system of governance if you will is connecting the reasons that people vote to the process after the election. And as I was saying earlier, I think many of us vote once every two to four years because we believe that’s our civic duty, we’d feel guilty if we didn’t do it, and then we disconnect after the fact. But all the real action in the political system happens after election day when we get into the legislative process and we are deciding how to allocate taxpayer dollars, we’re deciding, uh, what kinds of regulations we will pass or change, um, and so we want to understand voters’ preferences and use them to connect the electoral process to the legislative process, and based on what you as a voter care about, keep you connected to the political system 365 days a year.
HEFFNER: And talk about the vulnerability of democracy to being hacked, I cite the West Wing example when president-elect Santos, and this is fiction but let’s look at good fiction in kind of rediscovering our democracy and its roots but it was said that there were parallels between president-elect Obama and this, the evolution of the characters on the West Wing in which president-elect Santos succeeds Jeb Bartlett, the beloved New Hampshire governor who becomes president on the show. I mention that because the entrenched moneyed interests, according to the writers of the West Wing and the punditry and reality said to President Obama don’t pursue health care first, pursue the entrenched and, and enormously harmful lobbying interests that are pulling policy based on profit of industry rather than the good of the country. If President Obama had pursued that, he might have courted bipartisan support in cleaning up the system as candidates are pitching to the nation in this 2016 cycle. That struck me as a major mistake of the, a strategic mistake from the start of these Obama years.
MAHAN: I share that view. However I, I am not convinced that we can regulate the power of special interests out of politics. There’s a great cover story in The Atlantic this month called um, “Why American Politics Went Insane,” something to that, that effect, and it talks about the unintended consequences of so many of our political reforms that were meant to drive greater transparency and accountability in the political process. People with a vested interest in things being the way, staying the way that they are will continue to find ways to exert influence. My analysis of the problem you’re describing is that many of us ordinary voters have ceded the political field to those interests by not participating deeply enough and frequently enough. It, you see this played out in primary after primary, when only 10 or 20 percent of primary voters turn out to determine…
MAHAN: Who the party’s nominee is for a general election, you have ceded your power to the groups that care the most and spend the most money and have the ability to mobilize the small number of voters required to elect that.
HEFFNER: Absolutely and let me revise and amend with respect to this detail which is all of those entrenched interests are colored in blue and red. The lobbying money is fed into a toxic political chamber, death chamber really in which good ideas come to die because you have to stick by the party orthodoxy and so how do you think Brigade can operate in that climate?
MAHAN: I think that’s, that’s well-put. What you have are special interest groups that by virtue of low participation and by virtue of the money that they can pull together and deploy to ID and turn out their aligned voters in low-turnout races effectively have veto power in the legislative process. They can take a piece of legislation that threatens their interest, which is typically aligned with keeping things in the, the sort of status quo and say we want to strike that clause or we need to have this amendment if we’re gonna get behind this bill, and so it is a, it is a system that is being hacked, if you will, not in a good way, by special interests who effectively have veto power because they supply the campaign funding that turns out the small number of voters. I believe there are only two ways to solve that problem. One is to try to legislate and regulate the power of money out of politics, which I think is admirable but unlikely to, to ultimately work. And I think there is increasing turnout and participation on the part of mainstream ordinary voters who on the whole are quite pragmatic and just want to solve problems and whose participation, if it was more frequent and more people engaged in it, would actually wash out the influence of those special interests.
HEFFNER: And that was an argument employed by Senator Sanders who also joined us not so long ago prior to declaring his candidacy and withdrawing from the race, but the problem therein is the mobilization and you’re…
MAHAN: That’s right, and I think our answer is mobilization has to be reoriented to be peer-to-peer. You have to be engaged in a community of people who care about the process, who care about outcomes and who are encouraging each other to engage. I used to do grassroots organizing, um, around issues and around candidates and what I found was people didn’t come out at six in the morning to knock on doors in the snow, uh, or drop off pamphlets, uh, just because they believed in the issue or the candidate. They came because they were there with a friend or they were part of a group or a community. They had a sense of shared identity and a, and mutual bonds with one another and a sense of obligation to each other. We have to tap into social capital, community relationships, and get our civic lives and our political participation reintegrated into our social lives in a way that makes it enriching and fulfilling and socially rewarding, not just a functional thing we do every year like paying our taxes.
HEFFNER: How would you frame to conclude, Matt? How would you frame the future of democracy virtually, thinking of deliberative democracy, social—socially deliberative democracy?
MAHAN: This is the key question, so I’m glad we’re closing on it. I don’t think it can be merely transactional and focused on the moment of voting every two to four years, um, or answering a poll or signing a petition. Those moments of, of activation are incredibly important and that’s where the rubber hits the road and real impact can be had. But I don’t think that you get enough people to do that. If we’re trying to expand the electorate and get more people to participate more frequently, we’ve got to go lower in the stack and I think it starts with opinion expression, learning, building community, having meaningful conversations with other people who live in the same political districts we live in, or friends or family who want to engage around an issue, we, we’ve got to rebuild our civic connections and re—reintegrate that with our daily lives to the extent that more people understand the importance of those moments of activation, because the model we’re in today is one driven by direct marketing that begs you to get out and vote once every two years and is being paid for by the very groups that as you pointed out, have an unfair stranglehold on the legislative process.
HEFFNER: Matt, thank you for the work you do and thank you for being here today.
MAHAN: Thanks for having me.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.