Political Avatars

Based on the results of the recent elections in Israel and Italy, the Mediterranean has resumed its historic role as political incubator for the Western world. The rise of Yair Lapid and Beppe Grillo, while perhaps not as profound as the idea of voting and democracy itself, may be a harbinger of an electoral revolution that challenges the very foundations of the political process.

Avatars at Large

There has been a tremendous amount of commentary in Israel and Italy about the rapid rise of these two politicians. The similarities are striking—no prior elected position, no party organizational structure except the Web, few advisors, fame as a media personality and a platform that challenges the basic assumption that political experience and insider expertise are useful.

Yes, outsiders have challenged the political establishment before. Military heroes (de Gaulle, Eisenhower), movie stars (think Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger) and powerful businessmen (Berlusconi) have often run for office. Yet in doing so they always participated in or modified the existing structure of organizations and political alliances. They clawed their way, using existing party structures, into the power circle; they did not parachute in.

The elections of Yair and Beppe signal something new. In order to understand it, it may help to know a little about computer games. In order to play a computer game one must first select an avatar, a word (from the Sanskrit) meaning the incarnation of a Hindu deity. The avatar represents you, the player. You can choose whatever you like; the avatar can be everything you’re not yet aspire to be. The avatar can be bold, sexy, powerful and strong; it can be super wise too. You can project onto the avatar all the traits you yourself lack.

Cyberspace allows and encourages this activity. The virtual world is a fertile medium for daydreaming, wishful thinking and fantasy. As nothing really happens beyond the computer screen, it is a safe world in which to indulge your hopes and dreams for a different and perhaps better life.

The campaigns of Yair and Beppe were perhaps the first use of the virtual political world. In this world there is no “back room” to cut deals in. The cloud server itself becomes the secret room. The organizational structure is controlled by an entity like the Wizard of Oz; levers are pulled from behind a Web-based curtain. The campaign path is virtual, not subject to human error, scheduling mistakes or even poor choices in alliances. The “blog” as the form of communicated speech ensures that the voice will never get hoarse and raspy. There are no boots on the ground; everyone online is equal in influence and effectiveness.

Why Israel and Italy, and why now? I think some very powerful forces have just collided. One is the utter disgust with the dead end, socially and economically, that the established parties have put their constituents in. There is a desperate desire, bordering on nihilism, for sweeping change in both Israel and Italy. As for those who threw the bomb at the czar’s coach, whatever follows cannot be worse. Chaos is a form of change; the Web can act like Samson, empowering everyone to bring down the pillars of the temple. The stench of rotting vested interests and self-dealing marginalized large parts of the Italian and Israeli electorate to the point where any non-politician seemed better.

For the young the Web, with its video and social-networking tools (Facebook, Twitter) have given millions vast new powers; the computer savvy were the primary force behind the two candidates. So much has moved online: job searches, music and book purchases, medical information, even dating and love are now a virtual experience. Thus it is logical that the political world would follow. In the virtual world you can project onto politicians the goals and ideas you want them to have, and they can return the favor. Their platform then is not a hodgepodge of compromises left over from a world of primaries and alliances; the platforms of Yair and Beppe are pure statements of intent. Like those of Moses on Mount Sinai, their ideas are handed down directly, without caucuses and comities. This is the online political revolution that leaders like Yair and Beppe have both fomented and reaped the fruits of.

Of course, as in the Obama campaign and election, when reality intrudes it will be different. The existing cauldron of alliances needed to create political power and then to govern is different from the process of getting elected. Compromises and half-baked alliances are the hallmarks of democracy; the Knesset and the Italian senate are not as pristine as your Apple screen. So it will be a while till we see the results of these avatar political insurgencies, but the revolution has begun. The cloud-based Web can be as disruptive to the political process as it was to travel agents, booksellers and music makers. Look out below.

About the Author
Jonathan Russo has been observing Israel and its policies since he first visited in 1966. He is a businessman in New York City.