The Verge is onboard Reddit's "Internet 2012 bus," which is driving between the presidential debate in Colorado to the vice-presidential debate in Kentucky. Stay tuned for more dispatches from the road, as Reddit and its allies gather and share stories about the open internet in America's heartland.
In a high-rise office overlooking the many bridges of Des Moines, Iowa, Dwolla's Jordan Lampe (pictured below) gives a brief overview of his state. "We have this joke," Lampe says, "that Iowa does three things: We grow corn, go to state fairs, and caucus." Two of the three are non-partisan, but if local startup Dwolla and Reddit get their way, citizens will come together by getting parties and their divisive politics out of the picture. It's a big ask, but at least some Iowans seemed ready to listen.
"Iowa does three things: We grow corn, go to state fairs, and caucus."
The uncaucus event, like the Geek Day conceived earlier this week on the Internet 2012 bus tour, is built on traditional political ideas — but with some help from the internet. As Dwolla describes on its blog, the event is using "old fashioned grasroot campaigns" and the internet "to flip the party caucuses on their head." The idea is to gather citizens from all parties to discuss the most pressing issues in a bi-partisan fashion, "in an environment built for compromise." In other words, it's not your grandparent's political caucus — and that's just how the organizers want it.
"This is about meeting on a bridge. It's about figuring out where we stand, and where we can meet in the middle."
Just a few dozen people in coats and gloves braved the evening cold to participate
As a demonstration of force, the group planned to "cram thousands of Iowans and Internet Citizens" onto a bridge in downdown Des Moines. But the big promise fell short, when a crowd of just a few dozen people in coats and gloves braved the evening cold to participate, clutching piping hot chocolate and cider. The dearth of guests felt particularly unfortunate considering that a different event just a couple of bridges over — a "color run" — drew about 27,000 people, some passing by the uncaucus with carefree smiles. In hindsight, the decision to hold this over a frigid bridge on the cusp of winter may have been a tactical blunder, but the idea was right: behind the stage the golden dome of the Iowa state capital building stood out; an appropriate scene to petition the government and fellow citizens.
To reach Iowans across the state, the event organizers used interactive tools, live streams, and networked solutions like SMS voting to connect people with the ideas they want to promote. The uncaucus drew several pre-selected speakers to pitch issues of local importance, and encouraged attendees to "write-in" to make it up to the soapbox. As Lampe says when he reaches the stage on the river, "it won't matter if you entered from the left or right side of the river, just that you're willing to meet in the middle and build a better Iowa."
While the issues presented were largely local, for those on the tour bus, that's the point. As Cheezburger Network CEO Ben Huh (pictured above) tells me, "I recognize politics is local, not just on the coasts. The way the current system works is local, love it or hate it." Huh, an entrepreneur who runs sites like I Can Haz Cheezburger, Failblog, and Know Your Meme, has been involved in national internet issues since the fight against SOPA and PIPA, and joined the bus tour for a couple of days to lend support and gather his own stories. Huh says that we need to understand how government works, and that government's local nature is a good thing: he says "it forces us to recognize the country as a whole, to get out of the echo chamber." He's here to "get out and talk to people with real lives and issues. I want to understand the reality of the world out there," he says.
"The way the current system works is local, love it or hate it."
Iowa is widely known for its caucuses, as the state has kicked off the nominating process for President of the United States since the 1970s. And Iowans are proud of their caucus tradition, which amplifies the small region's influence on the rest of the country: even though only roughly one percent of the country's delegates for either party are chosen by Iowa, the state has been used as an indicator for which candidates could win the nomination later on. But at the uncaucus, Democrats and Republicans aren't welcome in their colors.
"If you don't want to get hugged, you can leave."
The rules for the event are designed to shut out unproductive political bickering in order to approach issues with an open mind. "I want to go over some ground rules," Lampe explains to the crowd, "tonight is a chance to develop the ideas that we all have as a community, but do it in a way that makes sense. The moment someone gets overtly political, I want you to just go up and hug them." (Only one official hug was issued, to a soapbox speaker who flew past his allotted speaking time). To shut out partisan voices, the event's organizers banned politicians and their surrogates from speaking or canvassing guests.
Speakers covered a wide range of issues, from education, to local farming, to the outside influence of money on Iowa, and even net neutrality. Alexander Grgurich, from City Voting Matters, gave an impassioned plea for people to get involved in local elections, claiming that "we could completely change education" if just the number of people on the bridge decided to show up for a local school board election. Carl Blake, a stocky local farmer with a hook loose on his overalls, a sight of America in the flesh, explained how he has to drive twelve hours in each direction to the nearest USDA plant to have his heritage pigs processed for meat — a burden that he says will put him out of business. Ryan Twedt stood on the stage and gave a lofty, romantic speech about transparency in government. All of the speakers were met with cheers and applause.
As the evening grew long the crowd became visibly weary, slowly thinning. A second performance by Christopher the Conquerer, a local musician, drew the last remaining attendees close to the stage. And finally, to cap off the evening, Reddit GM Erik Martin and Ben Huh took to the stage to explain the power of the open internet and express their thanks to those who were still standing in the crowd. But the votes cast in the uncaucus, perhaps like the upvotes given on Reddit, probably don't amount to anything: it's not clear where the lessons from the uncaucus will be taken next, or if they'll have any meaningful consequences on politics in Iowa. And the lack of turnout echoes the concerns of author Sherry Turkle, who fears that young people might think clicking a Like button constitutes meaningful political action.
What the Democrats and Republicans do have going for them is a well-established machine of political influence: traditional caucuses set party platforms and promote individuals who will achieve real power in the government. Whether Reddit and its allies can someday achieve even a small portion of that power through advocacy, collaboration, and uncaucusing is unknown. But, in a sense, that's the story of the bus tour at large: an idea with promise, in the early stages of life, that needs nurturing and support to survive — and for people to actually show up.