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Could technology replace political parties? Not yet

The 2012 presidential campaign, mercifully coming to an end today, has been without a doubt the most technologically dependent election in U.S. history. Technology that scarcely existed a decade ago, or even in the 2008 campaign, from social media to Hadoop clusters to internet tracking, have been instrumental to both major parties in grass-roots organizing, getting out the vote, and message targeting. Many of the critical functions that political parties themselves used to perform, in fact, it’s now clear can be done more efficiently and precisely using technology than old-school ward heelers could ever hope to do. Which prompts the inevitable question: are political parties becoming obsolete?

Some technologists are starting to think they are, or at least should be. In a widely noted Google + posting this morning, Google co-founder Sergey Brin calls on whichever candidate wins today’s contest to renounce his party identification upon assuming office and govern as an independent. Here’s the full post:

I must confess, I am dreading today’s elections.

Not because of who might win or lose.

Not because as a Californian, my vote for President will count 1/3 as much as an Alaskan (actually it won’t matter at all — I’m not in a swing state).

Not because my vote for Senate will count 1/50 as much as an Alaskan.

But because no matter what the outcome, our government will still be a giant bonfire of partisanship.  It is ironic since whenever I have met with our elected officials they are invariably thoughtful, well-meaning people.  And yet collectively 90% of their effort seems to be focused on how to stick it to the other party.

So my plea to the victors — whoever they might be: please withdraw from your respective parties and govern as independents in name and in spirit.  It is probably the biggest contribution you can make to the country.

[If you agree, pass it on to your newly elected officials.]

Millions of Americans no doubt feel Brin’s pain. But the reality is, apart from the president’s constitutional role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, a president without a party affiliation would be an impotent figure head.

Like it or not, political parties are not just organizations for electing candidates, they’re instrumental to governing as well, even if it often doesn’t look that way. An unaffiliated president would have no constituency to work with on Capitol Hill to try to enact legislation. No committee chairs would owe their reelection to the president’s coat-tails or fund-raising ability. No would would owe the White House either a favor or payback. In short, parties make governing possible, even as they make it sclerotic.

Technology is not powerless against entrenched partisanship, however. While technology played a starring role in this year’s presidential election, its real impact on governing will come when the digital tools being developed by the well-heeled presidential campaigns begin to filter down to the House and Senate level. The key to breaking the partisan legislative logjam is to make members of Congress (and those seeking to replace them) less dependent on party infrastructure for their political survival.

Social media, big-data analytics and other digital tools hold the promise of supplanting some of that party infrastructure, and with it some of the strict party discipline that produces gridlock. But the tools are not quite there yet, or remain out of reach for individual candidates below the presidential level. Change that, and Brin’s plea might someday be heeded.