AUSTIN, Texas - In a wide-ranging talk about the Internet and government, Al Gore urged the techie crowd at South By Southwest (SXSW) to use digital tools to improve government.
The former vice president sat for a conversation with Napster co-founder and Web entrepreneur Sean Parker on Monday at SXSW. The talk drew an audience of thousands at the Austin Convention Center and more viewers via a livestream.
"Our democracy has been hacked," said Gore, framing Washington gridlock and the effects of special interest money in digital terms.
To fix what he called a no-longer functional U.S. government, Gore urged the audience to begin a new "Occupy Democracy" movement. He pushed for the creation and implementation of digital tools and social media to "change the democratic conversation."
Gore talked of a "Wiki-democracy" of "digital flash mobs calling out the truth" and "a government square that holds people accountable."
Parker, who was famously portrayed by Justin Timberlake in "The Social Network," has gotten into politics by investing in Votizen, an online network of voters that leverages social networks to campaign for their issues. He also sits on the board of NationBuilder, which also seeks to organize political change.
Parker said he believes social media is only its infancy of what it can do to spur action. He cited the Internet rally against the Stop Online Piracy Act as a hint of the power of social networks. He called the protest "Nerd Spring," alluding to the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East.
Both Gore and Parker derided the dominant role of television in elections and political dialogue. Change, Parker said, won't come from within the political system.
To applause, Gore added; "I can confirm that."
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In one 2008 debate, Hillary Clinton was asked to react to voters not liking her. As she pondered this, Barack Obama, seated next to her, offered, "You're likable enough."
So today, the question Mitt Romney needs to ask himself is: "Why am I not likable enough?"
The polling data I've seen on the former Massachusetts governor doesn't show the "anybody-but-Romney" vote that the media keeps mentioning. Sure, there are Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) supporters who don't like Romney, but that's not their main reason for liking Paul. The same goes for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum.
It's not hate, though. It's more that Romney creates and sustains a distance between himself and the voters whom he needs to cast their ballots for him. A
A candidate can attract or repulse in the same way a magnet can. Every time Romney tries to close the distance with voters and draw them closer, he seems invariably, to repulse them. His comment about his wife driving Cadillacs, plural. The reference to his billionaire friends who own NASCAR teams. Both remind us of the social class distance between Romney and almost every voter in the United States.
His description of the height of trees in Michigan, His admission that he likes grits, his demonstrating his new-found Southern-ness in saying "y'all" as well as that snarky comment about rain ponchos show a complete disconnect with things normal people would and wouldn't say.
A common focus group question asks what a weekend with a candidate might be like, if you were invited to his or her home. Sometimes, voters imagine a dark, den-like atmosphere in a home where people just sit and read or play chess and speak only in hushed whispers -- if they speak at all. Sometimes, the home is imagined as filled with A-list celebrities -- laughing, clinking glasses and moving sociably from room to room.
What would this reveal about Romney? My guess is voters would imagine an awkward situation -- Romney was required to be there with them, but visibly uncomfortable. He would not be able to smooth the way for a pleasant conversation, lacking in basic social graces. Visitors without crisply ironed slacks and shirts might feel underdressed, even for a game of Yahtzee over lemonade.
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Contrast that vision with what one could easily conjure up for Santorum. The house would be full of children; a meal would be served family-style, and there would be prayer. It might not be every voter's cup of tea, but one could easily figure out appropriate behavior and how to fit in.
How would one fit in with Romney?
And, more important, how can Romney convey to voters that he is able to picture their lives, their problems, their jobs, their accomplishments, their joys in a way that will make him a good steward of the country? He need not fit in their social worlds to close the social distance.
If Republicans eventually decimate every other candidate except Romney, the question will become "is he likable enough." Consider that debate with Clinton and Obama, and maybe there's a lesson for Romney.
Moderator: What can you say to the voters of New Hampshire on this stage tonight, who see a resume and like it, but are hesitating on the likability issue, where they seem to like Barack Obama more.
Clinton: Well, that hurts my feelings ... but I'll try to go on. He's very likable. I agree with that. I don't think I'm that bad.
The audience ate it up -- and New Hampshire went on to hand Clinton a crucial win three days later. What she did was to laugh at herself and stand up for herself at the same time.
Could Romney acknowledge his clumsiness with the social graces and laugh at himself? Could he slay the dragon that is a long list of gaffes by acknowledging this tendency and humanizing it?
Haven't we all said something that seemed socially inept? Haven't we all seemed too icy when we wished we could be warm? No doubt about it. Acknowledging that common human experience could be the icebreaker Romney needs.
J. Ann Selzer is director of the Des Moines Register's Iowa poll. She is the president of Selzer & Co., a public opinion research firm.