Seven hours before HOTSOUP.com went live, Mayor Jon Tucci of Weston, W.Va., crept through a technological back door and posted one of the first messages to appear in the issues-based Internet community.
“Thank you for opening a conversation roundtable where you are not interrupted or shouted down by talking heads,” he wrote at 9:42 p.m. on Oct. 18. “The public is so tired of spin.”
Civility the key for 2008?
Ever since that premature posting, Internet experts, political observers and the thousands of pioneering community members like Tucci have wondered whether it was possible to live up to HOTSOUP’s promise: Create a forum for smart, civil debate in an era of harsh partisanship.
The answer, so far, is yes. HOTSOUP community members are policing each other’s behavior, respecting each other’s opinions, and on occasion, changing each other’s minds on important issues. In short, they’re acting nothing like their political leaders.
Electorate '80% disgusted'
Politicians and their strategists are starting to realize that the public wants them to be more open-minded, civil and substantial. “Partisanship has run its course, but civility will be a key word for any candidate running for president in 2008,’’ said Democratic consultant Donna Brazile, campaign manager for Al Gore’s 2000 campaign. “Voters are simply tired of the hard-edge, hard-knuckle, I’m-tougher-than-tough type of politics. They want politicians to get things done.”
Brazile, a battle-hardened partisan, has softened her tone in time. She proudly claims as friends Republican strategists Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman. And she jumped at the chance to be a HOTSOUP panelist, one of more than 100 political, business and religious leaders drawn to the promise of an issues-based social network.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who helped give birth to an era of partisanship under Presidents Clinton and Bush, said the public is tired of gridlock. “My take on the electorate is that it’s 20 percent Democratic, 20 percent Republican and 80 percent disgusted,” said the likely 2008 presidential candidate. “And I think there is a tremendous opportunity for somebody who can rise above the clutter and promise a civil process instead of destructiveness.”
Yes, even Newt Gingrich craves civility. He said he plans to challenge leaders in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina – key presidential states – to conduct debates and other political activity in a bipartisan manner, forcing Republican and Democratic candidates to share the same stage and perhaps even find common ground.
“People are tired of seeing their leaders fight,” said independent voter Ian Broverman, a robotics engineer from Bethesda, Md., who is a regular at HOTSOUP. “A site like this gives people an outlet for the kind of debate we don’t see in Washington.”
HOTSOUP was only a few days old when Broverman asked a fellow member to knock off the vulgarity and name-calling, and stick to the issues. The man backed down. A few days later, a 23-year-old community member named Justin sarcastically challenged anti-war writers in one of the Iraq discussion boards (called Loops). When his tone was challenged, Justin said, “You are right. The final question on the initial post was loaded and unfair. I will ask another.” A defender of the war, John Galt, got a little too personal in another Loop and agreed to soften his tone. “Here’s a nicer way of saying what I meant ….”
Exposing your inner waffle
How often do you hear that in Washington? Another better-than-our-leaders moment: A HOTSOUP contributor who goes by the name Demon23 said he was conflicted on immigration and was “open to debate and willing to see all sides.” Pelk77 kindly spelled out the case for work visas. “Thank you for your reply,” Demon23 wrote. “You have made a fine point. I did not think of that before. Please tell me more of what you think.”
There is at least one Loop on HOTSOUP.com devoted to tough issues like abortion, immigration and the death penalty where the highly opinionated community members flaunt their willingness to be persuaded from one side to the other. Who in Washington has the guts to expose their inner waffle?
Like the folks in HOTSOUP, Gingrich said there also needs to be more substance to politics. Why not hours-long debates like the Lincoln-Douglas affairs?
“Let’s have serious people have serious conversations about the challenges we face instead of the petty, consultant-driven stuff that we do now that has shrunken American politics to a game of pygmies,” Gingrich said.
Tucci, a small-town mayor with big hopes for his HOTSOUP, couldn’t have said it better.