A New Kind of Political Leader: The E-Boss

Change.org aims to help voters tap into their "trust network."

You don’t trust campaign ads. You don’t heed endorsements. You don’t read newspaper editorials. You won’t pay close attention to 2016 campaign coverage because journalists are as unreliable as the jokers they cover. If you’re at all typical, you’ve lost faith in these and other political institutions.

So who helps you decide how to vote? The few people you trust—friends and friends of friends, family members, neighbors, and, yes, certain political and media figures who’ve proven their worth to you. The problem with your network of trust is these people are far-flung and their opinions are hard to quantify.

Now imagine walking into the voting booth in November, pulling out your smartphone, and downloading a briefing from your trust network—aggregated opinions and ratings on every race, from municipal ballot initiatives to the presidency, from the only people whose opinions matter to you.

“It would be revolutionary,” said Ben Rattray, founder and CEO of Change.org. “The smartphone is the most valuable resource in politics on Election Day, and we’re going to be the first to fully leverage it for people.”

Change.org, the world’s largest platform for civic action, with more than 130 million users worldwide, on Thursday launched “Change Politics,” a mobile platform designed to increase citizen participation and shift influence in elections.

Change Politics allows people to submit questions directly to candidates and to vote to help favorite questions rise in the site’s rankings. The group boasts as “early adopters” Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, GOP presidential candidate John Kasich, conservative gadfly Grover Norquist, the Alzheimer’s Association, and the College Republicans.

The site also allows people to easily find endorsements from the people and organizations they most trust.

These may not sound like unique features, but the size and backing of Change.org ($50 million in investments from the likes of Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Reid Hoffman, and Pierre Omidyar) allows for outsized ambitions. As the election nears, Rattray told me, people will be able to create a personalized ballot guide powered by endorsements from their trust network.

“This puts control in the hands of the voters, not institutions,” Rattray said.

Whether or not Change Politics takes off, it’s clearly another sign that politics is ripe for the kind of disruption that has rocked finance, commerce, entertainment, media, and other big institutions.

“We’ve really democratized everything but democracy,” said Rattray, a 35-year-old entrepreneur who made the Time 100 list of the world’s most influential people in 2012. “If companies had a user experience as bad as voting, they’d be out of business.”

Rattray agreed to meet me for an interview at National Journal’s offices in the Watergate complex, the cold heart of institutional Washington. “We thought technology would make for a better form of politics,” he said. “But instead we mostly got better ad targeting.”

Polarization. Misinformation. Cynicism. These are the hot stocks in today’s politics, Rattray said, but he hopes to make a dent in the process by shifting the power of influence from politicians and institutions to people.

His voice rising with excitement, he asked: What if somebody from outside politics was able to build a huge following on Change Politics? What if this person proved capable of shifting opinion and mobilizing huge chunks of the electronic community? What if this person decided to draft a candidate—somebody from outside politics? What if that candidate wasn’t a Democrat or a Republican? What if that candidate won?

“I think we will eventually show,” he said, “that 10,000 followers is more powerful than $10,000.”

What his platform might lead to is a new kind of political leader: an e-boss, the 21st-century equivalent of the Gilded Age ward boss who ruled via patronage and derivative power. “It’s not about who the richest or who’s been around the longest,” he said. “It’s about who is most trusted.”

The idea is to educate voters without pretending you can change their behavior—to nudge low-information voters to the polls by giving them what they want, which isn’t more ads, more media coverage, or more political speeches. It’s access to a reliable navigator. Quoting the typical voter, Rattray said, “Just tell me what the people I trust think.”

What if this works? What if Change.org can tap voters more directly into their trust networks, disrupting the methods for targeting, communicating, and persuading during campaigns? Perhaps then, trust navigators could rally their followers behind policy changes in Washington. Perhaps this is how we, the people, reform government.