Editorial: Push-Polling the Citizenry: the New Paradigm

By Becky O’Malley
Friday September 14, 2007

Opening my Gmail on Thursday morning, I saw this click-through at the top of the page: 

“Problems with Panhandlers - www.actlocallysf.org - Join Mayor Newsom. Get a blog. Be heard. Shape Policy.” 

For me, as for many, that’s a hot-button issue, though my hot-button is more First Amendment-oriented than some people’s, perhaps. So I clicked through, something I don’t do very often with these Google text ads, though I do regard them as one of the more benign forms of advertising on the web. My click took me into a curious universe, a web page with the URL ActLocallySF.org: part on-line newspaper, part blog, part poll, part petition, and sub rosa, though not exactly hidden, a pitch for the Gavin Newsom for Mayor campaign. The centerpiece of the page is glowing reprints from all kinds of media, (“S.F.’s Red-light Cameras Credited with Big Drop in Accidents,” By Rachel Gordon, San Francisco Chronicle) interspersed with essays purportedly written by (or at least for) the candidate himself. He signs a “Welcome” letter which is reproduced not only in English but in Chinese, Russian, Spanish and Tagalog, which begins:” “Welcome to ActLocallySF.org—a forum for the brightest minds and the best ideas to tackle the unfinished business of making San Francisco a city that works for everyone, and a model for the world.” Oh sure ... 

Clicking on “contact us” produces a page where the media contact is listed as Eric Jaye at storefrontpolitical.com. The Storefront Political Media site reveals that it is a “Democratic” political consulting firm started by a former associate of Clint Reilly, with centrist Democratic clients like Ellen Tauscher, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Micela Alioto-Pier. Reading subheads on Storefront’s “about” page we learn that: “The Ultimate Product Is Victory.” They promise clients “An Ongoing Discussion with Voters...Using Every Communication Tool.” And they’ve delivered. 

As an old campaign manager myself, I have to say that it’s stone brilliant. The page designers have managed to corral every new form of political organization that has appeared in the last 10 years for their site, or perhaps the right verb here is co-opt. They’ve taken leaves from the Move-On playbook, the Howard Dean meet-ups, the best online blogs like Daily Kos and Huffington Post and more, and turned the whole megillah into a very credible simulation of political participation. Is there anything wrong with this? I’m not sure. 

One thing I am sure of, though, is that no one who clicks on the ActLocallySF.org page will be shaping any policy, especially as regards problems with panhandlers. The whole apparatus adds up to a very elaborate new implementation of the hoary political concept of a push poll: one that seems to ask for your opinion, but is actually designed to persuade you on behalf of a particular candidate or proposal.  

There have been a lot of indignant letters and commentaries and a few news stories in these pages in the last few months about various local manifestations of the tactic of soliciting opinions as a disguised way of pushing product. The Kitchen Democracy website has taken a big share of these complaints, from people annoyed that it received city funds from Councilmember Gordon Wozniak’s budget and then functioned to create pressure for projects favored by Wozniak’s supporters and campaign contributors, often accompanied by promotional propaganda on the KD site signed by Wozniak himself. But citizens have also criticized more objective-appearing promotional efforts which have been enmeshed in public funding in various ways.  

The “Sustainable Berkeley” organization got some city funding to promote greenhouse gas reduction, and was slated to get more until critics pointed out that spending public money should be supervised by public bodies like the Energy Commission, not by private groups. Now there seems to be some problem, as yet unspecified, with the Berkeley Community Energy Corporation, which is supervised by the Energy Commission, so that might not be the total solution. And last week we got a bunch of letters about the city’s passing more than $300,000 in grant money through to the advocacy group Tranportation and Land-use Coalition, from people strongly suspecting that taxpayers’ money would be used to shill for Bus Rapid Transit, a proposal which is very unpopular in some quarters. Other recent targets of reader wrath have been the West Berkeley Community Development District and the North Shattuck Plaza promotions.  

The shared thread which links all of these brouhahas is the use of pseudo-surveys as a way of influencing public policy. If public funds get tangled up in the pre-decision promotional process it makes people even madder.  

The ActLocallySF.org website is more upfront than any of the Berkeley examples, and no public money is used. Its connection to a candidate isn’t a secret, but since Newsom is running essentially unopposed the site also functions as a less-than-candid way of influencing future policy for San Francisco. Which brings us full circle to the original question: Is there anything wrong with all this?  

As a card-carrying First Amendment absolutist I must defend the constitutional right of citizens to try to influence public policy by any means necessary, but I also believe in truth in packaging, especially when The Ultimate Product is Victory. And, of course, ultimately it’s not personal victory for Gavin Newsom (or Tom Bates or Gordon Wozniak) that we’re talking about here, it’s victory for what their moneyed backers want. When Newsom was first elected, knowledgeable people said that he was just the front man for a small clique of rich folks and their corporations (what Upton Sinclair would have called “the interests”) and that turns out to be true, despite a few feel-good moves like the gay marriage moment.  

The teaser about panhandlers which lures visitors to the Newsom site is the best clue to what the real product is. In a brief phone conversation, Eric Jaye of Storefront Political told me that the goal of the site was to “blur the line between politics and policy-making.” He said that several thousand people had interacted with it in the nine months it’s been up, and that Newsom is a “voracious consumer” of their input.  

But what Gavin Newsom does about panhandlers as Mayor of San Francisco (or what Tom Bates is proposing to do about panhandlers as Mayor of Berkeley in the next week or so) will never be determined by any genuine open inquiry into public opinion. In both cities the sponsors, the big property owners and other corporate campaign contributors, will ultimately get what they want, the same thing their Manhattan counterparts got from Rudy Giuliani: unsightly poor folks off the streets in the areas they care about, out of sight and out of mind. 

And when was it ever else? It may be using new technology, but it’s the same old dominant paradigm.