Do Activist Androids Dream of Electric Voters? Part 2
November 02, 2023
How Generative AI Can Help Us Build an Intentional Course to a Stronger Participatory Democracy
Contributor: Ned Howey
This article marks the final installment of a two-part series exploring AI’s influence on politics and the need for its intentional application. In the first part, we explored the nature of AI bias and its role as a “frenemy” to participatory democracy. Here, we examine why AI is poised to amplify transactional political practices over transformational ones, but why we still have great hope in its potential to enhance participatory democracy.
Audio version of this article coming soon.
1. Introduction / Recap
In the first half of this series, we explored the unavoidable reality that artificial intelligence (AI) carries inherent biases. Acknowledging this is crucial, not as a deterrent to employing AI but towards applying it in ways that align with the deeper values of participatory democracy.
The age of AI isn't looming on the horizon; it's already arrived. The existential question we face is not whether to engage with AI or abstain from it. Instead we must ask: Towards what intentions and objectives are we directing these tools? We must consider the specific nature of AI, and its unintended consequences—especially those that could inflict systemic impact and harm. Our considerations should extend beyond merely avoiding AI application for malicious use. We also need to protect our vulnerable state of democracy and consider to what degree these technologies are driving us further towards the transactional while damaging the transformational.
This distinction is not meant to demonize transactional politics; they serve an essential purpose as well. However, we need to recognize that our current trajectory is overwhelmingly skewed toward transactional methods. As we strive to revitalize our democratic systems, what is urgently needed is a shift toward more transformational practices. In this second half we will explore what transformational political practice is and its value, why AI integrated into our political practices without intention will lead to a more transactional politics, the related role of market forces in today’s politics, the poor direction of our current political practice due in part to technology, and ultimately how we can apply and develop AI tools towards a better, more participatory democracy.
2. What is Transformational Politics and Why It Matters
It's insufficient to discuss campaign tactics without first establishing a shared understanding of the value of transformational politics in relationship to transactional approaches. Particularly for progressives striving to shift our societal consensus towards openness, justice, fairness, and democracy, the pursuit of pyrrhic victories alone—while the ground on which we stand moves in the opposite direction—is fruitless. The value of how we get there and who is involved cannot be ignored.
Understanding the difference between transactional and transformational politics and introducing their value intentionally into our practice is vital. The former operates on the principle of expediency and tactical gains, a place where existing power is brokered and traded in various functions across democratic and policy activities. Here, a million people might sign a petition in opposition of a policy, or a campaign may funnel funds raised from supporters into targeting undecided voters, overlooking the rest.
Since the very objective of progressive political work is to address unjust power differentials, (with our causes by definition on the lower power end of that equation), simply moving visible power between democratic operations will never result in the greater ends we seek: a more just world. Players across the progressive movement must constantly enter into asymmetrical power struggles and win in order to achieve our objectives. Simply winning a series of selective campaigns by amassing current support for expediency’s sake will never manifest the full civic potential of creating fundamental change - an act which requires building power through coordination and uncovering of power currently not visible.
Above are graphics showing the equation we developed at Tectonica showing the difference in relation between power input and outputs in operation within the functions of mobilizing (which is generally transactional in nature) and organizing (which holds transformational potential).
Enter transformational politics: which is not merely content with going to where people are currently in the societal consensus. It aims for long-term systemic impact and the shifting of collective meaning. In the greater movements of economic, environmental, and social justice, transformational practice is the underpinning civic enabler. Transformational politics is about recognizing that underneath the campaign battles we fight, the societal ground beneath us is ever-shifting (and not always in the right direction). It's not about only operating within the current consensus - it's about moving that consensus.
AI, particularly AGIs and LLMs, drawn from a prevailing societal consensus (and heavily skewed with Western / Global North bias), holds the potential to stifle progress. As these AI systems enter our political discourse, they tap into this consensus, shaping our political narratives and ideas with a collective groupthink derived from extensive data sources. It's essential to clarify that this issue extends beyond a mere communications problem; it concerns the delegation of creative participation to a biased AI, not merely a limitation of political imagination. This is the first deep threat of AI bias: in serving us efficiently, we risk solidifying the status quo, impeding transformative movement.
The ‘movement’ described above is precisely what we mean by social and political movements: they represent the pinnacle of transformational change in politics, with the potential to shift society's consensus opinion, belief and understanding. This transformation must first occur at the level of the individual. Then through organizing, action, and dialogue shows itself within the community, and ultimately in its most powerful form: a societal movement. Despite the adoption and overuse of the term ‘movement’, in everything from marketing material for political ad vendors to my local gym’s signage, true movements have their foundation in the potential of individual transformation. So how does a person change their beliefs and understanding? How does this transformation actually occur?
It is not surprising that today’s political campaigns have in a general sense all but abandoned the hope of actually deeply changing people’s minds on anything. While modern technologies and communications have advanced in reach, scale, and resource efficiencies - they have in turn regressed in their potential for meaningfully moving people towards new ideas. Messaging practices, for example, as they become massive in audience, have become increasingly depersonalized and shallow - the TV ad taking priority over the family dinner table conversations in front of the TV. This explains why methods such as digital ads have almost no impact on actually persuading people. Campaigners are left to increasingly target those undecided on an issue. Or to mobilize a base of already convinced supporters to the polls.
But the potential to shift real opinion in people rooted in understanding is not impossible. It's simply less easy at scale with efficiencies, as imagined by most of today’s practitioners. The truth of the matter is that we can’t fundamentally change people’s minds. But this is not to say that minds can’t be changed. In actuality, we can open up the way - through opportunities of participation.
I would posit strongly that true transformation political potential comes from two essential elements:
1) Participation (driven by agency): the human experience of doing.
2) Human contact (driven by either connection and/or conflict): encountering the other.
Perhaps even more concerning than the replacement of authentic voice in political creation with the bias of groupthink in AI’s voice, is the removal of the essential roles of participation and human connection - keys to the function of participatory democracy. AI could very well be the death of all future movements if we do not integrate it into our civics with caution and intentionality towards the transformational role of these fundamental components.
3. AI Integration Unchecked Will Drive a Transactional Political Paradigm
The role of politics within democracy is to facilitate the way societies make decisions together. Democracy, though, is more than a mere survey of individual opinions - a function AI could indeed conduct well. The process itself - and the essential requirement of people's participation in it - allows us to make better decisions as a group than as individuals - and achieve continually better long term outcomes. Democracy is something we do, not something we have. We cannot simply delegate a more efficient role to generative AI and expect better political outcomes - which is essentially what we risk without intentional integration of these tools into our practice. Quite the contrary.
The concept of 'practice' serves as a linchpin in our understanding of political processes—insomuch that we refer to them as 'political practices.' The term isn't merely decorative; it underscores the innate nature of politics as an ongoing, participatory process. In this sense, practice isn’t just about outcomes; it's fundamentally about the journey itself, the role people have in the experience, and the meaning we give and get out of it. Any activity from growing a business, to creating art, to mindfully eating a tangerine, holds the potential value not solely for their end products but for the transformative experiences they offer along the way, so long as we are the participants. Similarly, the practice of democracy is as much about who participates, how they participate, and the integrity of their engagement, as it is about any final policy outcomes or electoral victories. When individuals are fully engaged, exercising agency in our roles, we become not mere constituents but co-creators of our own civic futures. This active participation serves as our passage from transactional mechanisms to transformational experiences; it transforms us as much as it enables the democratic systems we are a part of.
AI poses critical threats to both fundamental pillars of transformational politics: 1) participation driven by agency and 2) human contact driven by either connection or conflict.
In the domain of participation, AI's potential for automation can be a Trojan horse. While the technology can draft emails, manage campaigns, and even simulate speeches, what is lost is the human experience of doing—of taking conscious actions driven by individual or collective agency. When participants are replaced by algorithms, the fundamental human element of participation becomes sidelined. Agency is deprioritised, thus diluting the transformative potential of the political act.
In the fervour of electoral campaigns and social movements, participation too often is treated as a necessary accident rather than a deliberate objective. Yet, at its core lies the invaluable process of civic capacitation—a distinctly human-centric endeavour that flourishes not just within the confines of structured trainings, but in the messy, authentic interactions of participation. As we navigate the balance between digital outreach and human connection, let us not overlook the irreplaceable depth of participatory experience to transform and capacitate.
Turning to the realm of human contact, AI presents a more insidious threat. With advances in machine learning and natural language processing, AI's capacity to replicate human conversation is eerily accurate - a capability unique to this generation of technology. But no matter how convincing it becomes, AI can never genuinely experience authentic human connection or conflict, the drivers of transformative operation. When the entity at the other end of a political discussion is a machine, the profound human experience of encountering 'the other' is compromised. This loss is not trivial; it erodes the nuanced interplay that makes human interaction a cornerstone of democratic practice.
Doubters may dismiss these concerns, deeming them idealistic, theoretical, or irrelevant to addressing pressing contemporary issues like the resurgence of far-right ideologies. I would argue that the relentless pursuit of pragmatism, in our quest for quick victories, lies at the root of our current political challenges. The Trump presidency, along with similar outliers, did not result from a sophisticated campaign strategy but rather from a collective frustration with a political system that had grown excessively transactional and detached civics from the everyday experiences of people. Many fervent Trump supporters attribute their loyalty not to specific policy platforms but to his portrayal as "not one of those politicians." Employing the same old playbook in response is a recipe for future demise.
The good news is: We don't need to reinvent representational democracy to be transformational; we just can't ignore the purpose of its design, which is to provide each and every one of us a meaningful place within it.
Transformational practice does power pragmatic and real-world wins. It just does so by prioritizing longer term change. And one that centers on shifting power structures, elevating collective voices, and on making organizations accountable to the communities they serve as fundamental. As the book "Prisms of the People: Power & Organizing in Twenty-First-Century America" by Hahrie Han, Elizabeth McKenna, and Michelle Oyakawa demonstrates, lasting change can be achieved when organizations are rooted in meaningful community participation and accountable to their constituents. Similarly, In the context of Get Out The Vote (GOTV) efforts, a meta-analysis of voter participation studies by Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber, as presented in their book "Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout," reveals that the more personal an intervention is, the more effective it is, thereby increasing the likelihood of voting.
Similarly the claimed wins of transactional trends in today’s politics are losing the forest for the trees - seeing increasingly diminishing returns in the tacts themselves. People are burned out on being asked to participate only as a meaningless resource to pillage, and not being seen as constituents who have a meaningful role, a voice, and insight into their own lives and communities. Tactics that flourished in the early digital age and initially boosted engagement are now performing increasingly poorly. To illustrate the impact, fundraising effectiveness has steadily declined, with current-year returns on small donations estimated to have plummeted by 48% compared to levels achieved at this point in 2022 and is down significantly from the previous couple years as well. Additionally, online petitions and associated list-building strategies have either stagnated or declined across digital-first organizations and platforms in the last three to five years.
It cannot be ignored that this is one result of how the transactional model is significantly influenced by the short sighted incentive model of market forces, which have continued to encroach on every aspect of our lives - civics included. This marketization of political processes is problematic regardless of one’s ideological leanings. Most everyone can agree, left or right, that a market take-over of democracy will yield bad results for all. When politics becomes another sphere co-opted by market logic, we lose the very core of what democracy promises: a system by the people, for the people.
4. Market Forces, Transactional Politics, and the Future AI Will Influence
In our current political reality, market forces are inextricably linked to the rise of transactional politics. This commodification of civic engagement is problematic for the health of our democracy and the depth of our civic practices. This factor is inextricably intertwined in this discussion - as its forces explain much of the short term vision in today’s political practices.
Two systemic drivers are leading the charge in the market takeover of our civic functions: our technological playing field and our ‘political industry’. The former of these lies in the underlying role that technology, particularly Big Tech, plays in connecting our modern society. Given that the dominant tech influences are commercial, our political practices in these digital arenas naturally skew toward transactionality. The playing field of much of today's political dialogue—social media platforms and online forums—is fundamentally governed by market and advertising forces. These platforms were built for commerce, not civics, thereby creating an environment detrimental to genuine democratic dialogue and one that trends towards hate, fear and misinformation. The algorithms are built to key eyeballs on ads, not to support the building of a participatory democracy. Complex ideas will never compete in an environment designed to maximize neural stimulation.
Second, the political industry itself is heavily influenced by the quest for efficiencies and profit, which often puts a damper on meaningful participation and engagement. Additionally, the campaign arena is one of limited scope and resources, more often than not copying part and parcel practices from the more deeply invested marketing field and other industries, without any insight to the damage done by treating civics as an advertising exercise rather than a place for participation This will likely be exacerbated by the creeping influence of Artificial Intelligence—a tool that has the potential to either aggravate or alleviate these market-driven issues.
I don't argue against the role of for-profit players or the need for market efficiencies in our political work; I'm well aware of their value. People should be compensated for their labor in politics and elsewhere, and entrepreneurs and investors who innovate in the field should be duly rewarded. Nor can the scale of civic engagement be sustained by goodwill alone; the efficiencies offered by commercial transactions are undeniably beneficial. However, we must be cognizant of the potent influence of these forces, specifically their capacity—if unchecked and unguided—to undermine the very purpose of our civic endeavors.
It's to note that the majority of AI tools being developed are being done so with these same commercial drivers. Big Tech is leading the way on development of AI innovations and that should be a note for caution and concern. We should consider the value of developing solutions specific for our civics, progressive campaigns, and democratic functions as these will likely at their base allow the introduction of transformative participatory value.
Let's not forget that when operating effectively, our civic processes have a knack for designing long-term outcomes that often surpass what markets alone can offer. This is why we must scrutinise the undue influence of market forces on our political systems. The goal isn't to excise the market from politics, but to find a balanced approach where transactional efficiency doesn't compromise the transformative potential of democratic processes.
5. From Bad to Worse: Technology's Toll on Civics and the Looming Threat of AI
While some argue that the current direction of our politics is a natural evolution, influenced by technological advances and the global zeitgeist, this view overlooks the poor state of our democracies and abandons the opportunity of taking the impact of the internet and social media as cautionary tales to be learned from in our coming AI revolution. ‘More of the same’, simply faster and better, will not do. These technologies promised to democratize information and discourse but ultimately became instruments of transactional politics.
As Hahrie Han noted in her 2014 book, “How Organizations Develop Activists,” “All of the models of engagement — transactional mobilizing, transformational organizing, and ways to blend the two approaches —emerged historically as associations responded to changing technologies, information economies, and political pressures. Each new information regime introduces uncertainty for associations about how to leverage new technologies and build power in the new terrain…. In the contemporary era, the affordances created by digital tools can sometimes enable associations to reach their transactional engagement goals with mobilizing alone — making it seem, in the contemporary environment, that the hard work of transformational organizing is not needed….however… the [n]ew technologies for communication and collaboration, new data, and new modes and structures of participation have not changed the core principles that differentiate transformational organizing from transactional mobilizing." A decade later, the diminishing returns of transactional tactics described here are more apparent than ever.
We've been led astray by immediacy, abandoning key components of moving our politics for quick metrics that often measure 'success' two steps removed from any meaningful change. The justification of process over outcomes is driven by our tactically separated and commercially incentivized political industry.
Here are several examples of how the overly transactional and market-driven tactical focus is resulting in poor results and systemic harm to our public relationship to civics:
1. Digital ads for persuasion, for instance, have proven largely ineffective in actually persuading voters, yet they are continually used because reach alone is used as a measure of their 'efficacy.' Specialist consultants in digital ad messaging will often tout that one approach is working because they are measuring based on engagement- basically a measure of how eye catching the ad’s message is. According to their hired objectives as a vendor they have done their job - get the message out. But there is rarely much to firmly tie the messages to any real impact on the community or the campaign outcomes, or understanding of the full audience viewing these ads. Sometimes such digital approaches have additional marginal value, leading to fuller engagement through directing petitions, landing page sign ups, or fundraising ‘asks’ (explored below). AI will likely make the segmentation and immediate optimization of the reach of these ads quicker, more responsive, and more efficient at their reach objectives. What it won’t do is create a more fundamental relationship of engagement between constituents and the campaign’s vision.
2. List Building: While driving people to share their data for communications is key, this tactic is as well limited by its transactional nature. The wide range of digital first organizations and platforms which saw a boom years ago are seeing a decline in proven impact and in those signing up. Without a connected ‘next step’ for more meaningful and deeper engagement (beyond other transactional tactics of fundraising or membership), the general public is showing signs of losing faith in any real impact a petition itself can have. Clicktivism is low access, which is great, but that low access often translates into low value when the objective is a show of public support and involvement takes so little investment beyond associating your name to a cause, and leaving your data for use. It's unclear yet how generative AI might play a role in this tactical approach, but if it's simply to reach more people for signing petitions over more meaningful opportunities, it's likely to further the demise of this tactic.
3. Email and SMS Fundraising: The culture of mass emailing and SMS messaging - particularly in the case of US campaigns - is burning down public trust rapidly. This effect is being driven predominantly by fundraising vendors - whose individual incentives are based on the size of their fundraising haul alone. The market forces of quick ROI and tactically distinct vendor work are driving a mass systemic impact of alienation and distrust only recently becoming apparent, in part due to decreasing returns. AI is being proposed for use across various mechanisms across this set of tactics - from additional data segmentation to email scripting. Likely these actions will add fuel to an already hot fire.
4. Membership: Unions in general (and other constituent member organizations), trail slightly behind in their adoption of technological innovations. Their internal democratic structures, while often slowing adoption of new technologies, also keeps them accountable to their membership - a good thing. The issue here is there has been an overall decline in membership in the past decades, likely tied to a public perception rooted in an inability to convince constituents that their collective work has the power to make things better. For such organizations, the need to innovate and show the power of new approaches to collective action has never been greater. There are many new methods for engagement across the modern career landscape that are working (many of our campaigns included). These methods will only see their full potential for taking on global behemoths of power when workers and other groups are not just asked to stand up, but empowered to stand together with the technological tactics we employ. AI offers many potential paths here (some of which are detailed in “The Tools We Build” below).
These are but a few examples. Again, it's important to note that it's not that any one of these tactics is “bad” in their employment. The issue is their overuse, driven by systemic forces, without any pairing with deeper means of participation.
Moreover, the introduction of AI in these tactics threatens to intensify their drawbacks rather than address the underlying damage being created currently. Algorithms can optimize for engagement but may alienate or divide people in the process, further eroding the quality of political discourse. I’m unclear how anyone could imagine that making the current practices feel more ‘slick’, ‘professional’, or massive would improve our view of politics in the public eye at the moment. AI has the likelihood of exponentially impacting these already ill effects unless we consciously use them to address, mitigate, and advance the politics of participation and transformational power building for the core civic function of justice. People need to see themselves in the political movements we create, and any objective counter to that will just create more noise and toxicity.
6. AI for Transformational Change: The Seismic Shift
If you’ve read this far, you probably have me labelled in a clear and simple bucket: anti-AI. My concerns, however, do not come from a desire to complain unconstructively. To the contrary, fighting for progressive power in the current context this past decade has made clear to me an already sad systemic state of civics. Despite this, we’ve seen victories in our work, almost always when we’ve been attentive to the big picture and the dire need to reconnect with the potential of people’s power and re-establish their trust through the involvement of their own voice and place. You might be surprised to hear me say the overarching feeling I have for the potential of generative AI in politics is: hope.
In truth, it's not the AI I have hope in. Its people.
I was an unlikely candidate to start, and grow a business with substantial impact in politics around the globe. When Mariana Spada and I founded Tectonica in 2012, we lacked connections, had minimal political experience beyond our own activism, and grappled with the challenges of launching a business in Argentina, a place distant from many political practice innovations.
My professional background was in social services and healthcare for homeless individuals, my studies centered on literature and philosophy, and my energy was channelled into community activism, rather than the practical skills typically associated with entrepreneurial success. My business partner Mariana hailed, small town in the Argentine province of Entre Rios, as well had no formal studies in business or politics, but as well had studied literature. By all accounts, our odds of success were slim. I ventured into this endeavour fueled in part by the unexpected death of my husband at the age of 31, which made everything seem unreal and left me unafraid of pursuing even the most previously unimaginable, audacious and ambitious plans. Nonetheless, our journey was far more challenging than it should have been, and many in our shoes might have given up. I'm not alone in this challenging path; numerous individuals have found their entry into political participation and community leadership retrospectively costly.
This is unfortunate because I believe that my unconventional background enriches the work I do and the unique perspective I offer. I view my atypical experiences as an asset to our work and the organisations we support. Moreover, I believe that there are others with even more significant life experiences who are being excluded from making substantial contributions to important causes.
In addition to establishing a network and building a reputation, gaining access to information proved to be one of the most formidable challenges in this line of work. In the business world, this challenge simply entailed acquiring knowledge about a diverse array of business operations necessary to run a small business effectively. (It took me at least a decade to acquire this essential knowledge, and I continue to learn.) However, in the realm of political and organizing work, it often felt deliberately obstructed, with information seemingly kept intentionally out of reach by those already engaged in the field. I acknowledge the rationale behind this approach; political work often relies on safeguarding specialized knowledge, and sharing campaign organizational strategies can jeopardize the success of other campaigns. Moreover, we are all too often constrained by limited resources, making it challenging to amass and disseminate copious amounts of information.
(It was precisely this dearth of accessible information that served as the inspiration behind the establishment of the Tectonica Organizing Network. Unlike other networks, it operates without funding from progressive foundations; instead, it is built entirely on the modest resources of Tectonica. The primary objective is to share the knowledge we've accumulated with fellow progressives, recognizing that our impact can extend far beyond our individual clients.)
AI changes this game. Looking at the access to best practices through systems like ChatGPT makes me wish I had such tools when we started Tectonica. Today I use the tools for researching and comparing organizational structure practices, help develop departmental OKRs, find information on alternative ways to measure impact, and have it write up a basic business admin procedure within best practices in astounding time.
Generative AI has been shown generally to reduce skills gaps, opening more possibilities. I believe this is incredibly important for our industry to be more democratic and representative. For campaigns, those starting or going on to lead organizations, it means a reduction in barriers to entry that used to keep the gates shut to an elite group of insiders. We need more presence of people with unique life experiences and communities underrepresented in doing big things in the civic space.
It's not simply a matter of resigning ourselves to the realities of AI tools; it's about leaning into their potential for good while being aware and mitigating their potential for harm. Equally a concern is the larger harm of ignoring those who could most benefit from AI use. We need to differentiate fear of the impact of AI with the reality that not training and encouraging AI use - especially among communities already disenfranchised - holds great danger. Embracing AI responsibly and ethically is essential to ensure that it benefits everyone, particularly those who have historically been underrepresented and marginalized in the political and civic space. Our campaigns and organizations aim to take on those who already wield greater power. We cannot cede additional power by bypassing this opportunity.
How we use AI tools that are out there, commercial or campaign-specific, is key. When we use these tools, we must first be aware of the context in which we are using them, what we are replacing, and how much say they have in the process. The devil is indeed in the details. There is a major difference in using the tools as the primary source for the creation of a political speech and then editing it before giving a speech, than using it for edits and suggestions for a speech that is already written. Using it for analyzing data and helping us understand it more deeply is different than handing over the reins of an assumed political vision for the efficiencies of campaign operations.
Some key things to mitigate in their use are:
- Mitigation with our own datasets being used, careful instructions that attend to vision, etc.
- Providing transparency with the use of tools, for example, using disclaimers stating which AI was used and how. This is important because AI is replicating humans and tricking people into thinking it's an authentic voice, which has the potential to do much damage - individually and systemically.
- Transparency in its role, particularly in political work. If we are afraid the audience won’t accept our use, we should reconsider its use.
- Consistently, we should question if the “efficiency” is creating an output that is causing systemic damage. We will need to raise new awareness of when we need to slow things down, discuss, and identify necessary conflict for the best outcome.
We need to focus on what we are replacing and call out danger areas. We wrote a full set of considerations on AI to be used in the civic setting in “The Democratic Dilemma of AI: Navigating Ethical Challenges for Political and Advocacy Campaigns.”
This shift towards hope in the potential of generative AI is not about embracing technology for its own sake, but rather about recognizing its capacity to amplify the impact of individuals who have been traditionally marginalized in the political and civic space. AI can be a tool for democratizing access to information and resources, and it can empower people to participate meaningfully in campaigns and movements. It's not about replacing humans but assisting their abilities and expanding the possibilities for positive change. In this era of AI, it's the people who will make the difference, and technology can be a force for good when harnessed with responsibility and ethics.
7. The Tools We Build
In the world of civic engagement and political activism, the tools we build can be powerful agents of change. Whether they are AI-First or AI-Infused, these tools have the potential to drive transformational change that goes beyond the mere enhancement of existing tactics.
It's essential to recognize that AI, when employed with a larger civic purpose in mind, can be a catalyst for progress. Currently, many AI efforts are driven by market forces, with little emphasis on public or social impact. This is where we need to pivot our thinking. AI can be harnessed to prioritize participation, amplify voices, and transcend transactional objectives such as fundraising. It’s not that fundraising, list building, and other elements aren’t important, or that we can’t increase the effect of these tactical practices with AI - more broadly it's that we cannot fundraise or list build our way to fundamental change.
“Many familiar models of collective action are based on unitary approaches to strategy that focus on stockpiling resources like people, actions, or money. Whether the goal is achieving symbolic, disruptive, or other kinds of power, these models assess the effectiveness of collective action by the scale of resources (from money to activism to public opinion) amassed. In contrast, our cases showed alternative strategic logics that focused on preparing for inevitable political uncertainty by cultivating constituency bases with certain kinds of characteristics… In fact, research shows there is no linear relationship between any given resource and political power, whether that resource is numbers of people, amount of money, or intensity of adherents (Baumgartner et al. 2009; Hojnacki et al. 2012)”.
- Hahrie Han, Elizabeth McKenna, and Michelle Oyakawa, Prisms of the People: Power & Organizing in Twenty-First-Century America
The intention behind AI usage in civic engagement is critical. If it's used solely for tactical gains without pushing us toward greater voice, representation, and participation, it becomes part of the problem rather than the solution. We must strive for purposes beyond the transactional. The good news is AI is uniquely positioned to provide such advancements should we see it in the design and use of AI tools. Here are some potential cases beyond the mere tactical which go deeper in powering the transformational and which to consider:
- Empowering Underrepresented Candidates: AI can be tailored to support individuals from underrepresented communities and experiences who aspire to run for office. These tools can provide comprehensive support, including guidance on running a small local campaign and addressing challenges as they arise.
- Innovative Political Engagement: Politicians can use AI to engage with their constituents in novel ways, earning trust by fostering consensus rather than division. Examples like Pol.is demonstrate how AI can be a force for better political discourse.
- Citizens Assemblies: AI can play a significant role in supporting citizens' assemblies, whether in virtual or physical settings. It can facilitate discussions, enhance decision-making processes, and promote inclusive civic participation.
- Access to Verified Information: AI can make verified information more accessible to a wider audience, combating misinformation and promoting informed civic engagement.
- Navigating Public Services: State-funded AI can help individuals navigate public services more effectively, ensuring engagement and access for all.
- Civic Empowerment at Scale: AI can help scale up civic engagement efforts, putting people at the centre of decision-making processes and policy discussions.
- Mobilisation Applications: AI-driven applications can sort through information to identify decision-makers most likely to engage with the public on specific policy issues. Platforms like New/Mode might find their place here.
- Civic and Leadership Capacitation: AI can be employed to empower individuals with the knowledge and skills to take on leadership roles within their communities.
- Fostering Human Connection: Beyond a future for better dating sites, AI can be a tool for building stronger political movements by fostering authentic human connections and grassroots engagement.
It’s this final one that truly drives my deepest excitement. I fundamentally believe the stronger driver for participation in civics is not the passion for a cause, but the shared connection with others over that passion. I often see organizations trying to simply segment and connect people by issue area with poor results. This is because the motivators around what drives people in certain issue areas is more diverse than is being assumed. The unique abilities of AI to absorb unstructured data (such as why people are drawn to take action on an issue), and process it into structured data that then can be used to actually match and connect people opens a entirely new world of possibility for this key function of organizing.
AI's potential to analyse unstructured data and connect individuals with shared interests and goals can facilitate the formation of more powerful social and political movements. To realize this potential, we must prioritize long-term outcomes over short-term gains, making conscious choices that hold transformational value as the ultimate goal.
As a great example of the potential of AI development in civic tools, OpenField's field CRM, which allows canvassing and other coordinated field activities, is integrating AI into their system with great transformational potential. It streamlines the field notes process for organizers, reducing their burden and freeing up more time for meaningful human connections. Additionally, it ensures that data from community interactions feeds back to the campaign, reinforcing civic feedback and accountability to constituents. In 2024, OpenField is set to pilot automated impact memos for teams, allowing organizers to generate detailed memos with accompanying analytics charts on their field impact within seconds. The goal is to save organizers valuable time during GOTV efforts, enabling them to fulfill their responsibilities more effectively.
In summary, the ‘problem’ that we are facing, at its most essential, is derived from the power behind AI. These tools carry a power for creating an impact of accelerating in the direction we are going and according to the practices we are conducting. Now is the time for us to question that direction, our intent, and the bigger picture of the way we are conducting politics. If we head on the same course without consciousness, we bear the danger of extenuating current problems in our civics. And if we are intentional, we hold the potential to entirely transform our democratic practices for the better.
Seeing and valuing transformational practices is paramount, as they are the driving force behind the seismic shift we seek in our civic and political landscape. It is simply about not abandoning our intention for expediency and systemic force. It's choosing to use our unique human abilities to make choices together that favour better outcomes long term and for the group. But isn’t that what democracy is supposed to be about anyway? My hope is in the people.
8. Postscript: Human Nature and the Politics We Can Create
In the realm of political campaigning and activism, it's imperative to recognize that the true drivers of success are deeply rooted in our human nature, needs, and emotions. This is key to this discussion, because those arguing ‘pragmatism’ are often claiming the need to rely on the basics of human nature for advancing our causes. While prevailing practices often resort to appealing to some of our basest instincts—egoism, fear, blame—a deeper look reveals that these are not the only facets of human behavour. As well, some propose erroneously that human nature predominantly leans toward individual motivations, but on further inspection the opposite holds true. It's a matter of utilizing our deeper and social levels of intelligence and development as a species, and particularly the civic structures that our minds have the ability to create. Democracy plays a vital role in this dynamic.
In today's digital-focused political campaigns, there's a tendency to condense messages into tweet-sized soundbites and to harness shock emotions for wider reach. This often serves as a justification for exploiting these emotions in political discourse, claiming it's necessary to secure victory. However, this approach hinges only on the expediency of human reactions, not on the deeper potential of our full nature.
We, as a species, possess the ability to prioritize long-term outcomes over short-term gains. A prime illustration of this, can be found in the foundational roots of our very civilization - the development of agriculture. Early agriculturists chose a less nutritious path compared to hunter-gatherers, but this decision led to the foundation of civilization, cities, societies, culture, and art. Stability and the prospect of better long-term outcomes likely played a pivotal role in this choice.
Our evolution as a species is intricately linked to our capacity to collaborate and communicate around shared resources. Our development as a species from the Homo Erectus to modern Homo Sapiens is marked by the invention of fire, which enabled us to cook food and consume more nutrients, leading to the growth of our brains. Fire also compelled us to gather around it, fostering social bonds. These social bonds and their power is part of us.
Contrary to the belief that humans are naturally predisposed to solely value the individual and ignore group outcomes, the ability to collaborate is deeply embedded in our developmental intelligence. We are fundamentally capable of working together as a group and pursuing individual goals and our human nature is driven by this in equal part. In our politics, we must recognize our driving forces extend beyond individual desires to encompass caring for our families, communities, future generations, and the global community. The power of human connection and belonging is as influential as individual motivations, and our ability to reason should tell us these parts of our nature are the more valuable ones for our best outcomes. Civic practices allow the path forward, so long as other more myopic factors, such as market rules, don’t intercede and take over.
Mancur Olson's assertion in “The Logic of Collective Action”, that collective action must be compelled is fundamentally flawed. It stems from a biassed masculine individualist economic model that initially posited self-interest as the primary driver, disregarding the fact that none of us would have survived infancy under only individual drivers. Humanity's survival has always relied on the cohesion of groups and the impulse to collaborate. In other words, solidarity.
A politics that aims to set a course in the right direction must be rooted, not just in theory but in operational practice in the best aspects of our humanity—the innate desire to connect, belong, find meaning, and have compassion for others, both as individuals and as a species. The transformational work required to build a politics that transcends current structures and systems may not always immediately yield quick wins or immediate returns on investment. However, it represents a long term investment in a more perfect future. It's our commitment to this concept that can bring about a seismic shift in our politics.
In this age, marked by unprecedented global challenges, we must unite for the sake of our species' survival and prioritise long-term, collective decisions over immediate and individual ones. The true existential threat of AI is not the machines taking over Skynet and blasting us with nuclear weapons, as the Terminator movies warn - its taking over our democracy, civics and our processes to build better long term collective outcomes - to fail to allow our humanity to protect us from ourselves as we face the self-extinction of our species in the coming climate collapse.
We need artificial intelligence to be our companion in this endeavor to save ourselves, not our foe. The hard, transformative work is where we can forge a politics worthy of our existence, capable of transcending existing structures and systems that have tainted our current political times.
“Without an ethic of love shaping the direction of our political vision and our radical aspirations, we are often seduced, in one way or another, into continued allegiance to systems of domination - imperialism, sexism, racism, classism.”
- Bell Hooks, "Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics."
AI Disclosure: Generative AI was used to assist in the final editing of this article based upon drafted content and copy created by the author. The featured image was created using ChatGPT 4 plus Dall-e 3, and manually edited.
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