Published On: 8/27/2005 1:00:00 AM
I got back a little while ago after a full day at the Sorensen Institute's "Summit on Blogging and Democracy in the Commonwealth." It was a fascinating day spent with about 60-70 bloggers (including RaisingKaine colleagues Josh, Teddy, Brian and Kenton), reporters, and politicians -- past, present, and future. Topics included: 1) "The State of Political Leadership in Virginia" by Sean O'Brien of the Sorensen Institute; 2) "Bloggers and the Campaign Finance Disclosure Act" by Chris Piper of the State Board of Elections; 3) "Common Ground" by Mark Rubin of the McCammon Group; 4) an absolutely superb presentation by Ken Stroupe, Chief of Staff at the University of Virginia Center for Politics and the Director of the National Youth Leadership Initiative; and 5) "Blog Ethics and Regulation: Towards Developing a Blogging Code of Conduct."
I found it all interesting, but I probably learned the most from Ken Stroupe, the former Communications Director and Press Secretary for George Allen. Stroupe spoke about Virginia legend Harry Byrd, who basically ran the state during the first half of the 20th century, and Byrd's version of "The Virginia Way," which to some extent we are still living with today.
What on earth IS the Virginia Way? Before the Summit, I've got to say I knew little about it, although I had certainly heard the term. After listening to Stroupe, however, my head was swimming with phrases like "hatred of public debt," "pay as you go," "machine politics," "poll taxes and literacy tests aimed at preventing blacks from voting," "Dillon's Rule," and "massive resistance to school desegregation." Fascinating stuff, and in some ways not a pretty picture at all. But this is our state's history, and I believe it gave many of the issues that have come up during the current gubernatorial campaign some much-needed perspective.
The death of Harry Byrd in 1966 spelled the beginning of the end of the Byrd version of "The Virginia Way." Since then, Virginia has experienced massive changes. I learned, for instance, about the end of one-party Democratic rule, and the rise of the Republican Party in Virginia. I learned about Virginia's shift from a rural to a suburban and even an exurban state. And I learned about the decline in civic engagement over the past few decades, with emphasis on the danger this poses to our Democracy. According to Stroupe, turning over the functions of government to rule by referendum -- as Jerry Kilgore proposes to do -- is definitely NOT the answer. In fact, Stroupe spoke scornfully of imposing such a "California style system" on Virginia. I couldn't agree more.
On the issue of civic engagement, today's summit in Charlottesville was a hopeful sign. The fact that 60 or so private citizens spent a whole day, on their own dime, to talk about the state of blogging and politics in Virginia, definitely demonstrates that people can get involved if they want to do so. Among participants today were most of the political bloggers in Virginia, from right-wing conservatives to left-wing liberals. For me, it was fascinating to meet these people and to participate in a discussion where people disagreed, but were never disagreeable. Kudos to the Sorensen Institute for organizing this event, and hats off particularly to Waldo Jaquith and his fiancee Amber Capron. Great job.
The next question, of course, is what next? We'll see what happens in coming weeks, but I am definitely hopeful that the Virginia political blogosphere can be a leader in ratcheting up the stature and respectability of political blogs in general. It's hard to know, of course, given that the medium is so new and also that it is evolving and expanding so rapidly. However, that also makes it exciting. Just looking around the room today demonstrated the youth and energy being poured into Virginia politics by today's cyber-citizen-activists. The only thing I would have liked to have seen was more diversity, particularly more African Americans and Hispanics. Perhaps that is something that will start to change in coming months and years, along with a move towards a true "Blogger Code of Ethics." I certainly hope so, on both counts.