Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously labeled state legislatures "laboratories of democracy." It was recognition that American government was a work in progress, and that lawmaking bodies were testing grounds for innovative approaches and for sustaining the republic.
Brandeis would've paid attention to a growing phenomenon that has largely gone unnoticed. With legislatures incubating ideas online, lawmaking bodies can also be "lablogatories of democracy."
The National Council of State Legislatures' The Thicket keeps a running tab of legislative blogs from both political sides and in all parts of the country. Virginia Delegate Kristen Amundson blogs at 7 West with her colleague Bob Brink from the commonwealth's General Assembly. In a post that Brandeis would've surely applauded, Amundson wrote: "Most of us got into public service because we care about issues. Blogging gives us a way into policy debates."
The ability to voice opinions and jumpstart debates gives blogging legislators great promise and definite advantages.
First, unlike corporate or institutional blogs in which there is still a tendency to edit the spontaneity, authenticity and eccentricity out of a good idea (or even an excited utterance), individual blogs reflect the personality and relatively unvarnished views of the author. The second advantage is that legislators are individuals -- for whom old-school party loyalty has become much more like a franchise relationship.
And that brings us to the promise. Candidates in this new environment win elections by the narrowest of margins -- Amundson won her last election by only 337 votes. In Minnesota, only 20 votes meant victory for fellow blogger State Rep. Ray Cox. That margin grew to 600 in Cox's most recent election, even in his highly competitive district, thanks largely to constituent contact through his blog.
Legislators win and lose in every-vote-counts environments, and some are betting that the margin of victory lies in the blogosphere. Blogging reaches the generational cohort that's put off by traditional institutions, but would engage in vital public conversations if the conversations take place on their home turf.
Although lablogatories of democracy aren't the exclusive domain of the legislative branch, other public institutions face greater blogging dilemmas.
The judicial branch has a long tradition of being circumspect on matters that may come before the court. But a growing number of judges now weigh in on the merits of blogging, even if only through surrogates, such as the Law Professor Blogs Network.
Then there's the still nascent practice of blogging in the executive branch where smart people serve, but whose voice is expected to harmonize with that of the executive, if heard at all.
However, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger may be pointing the way forward with his Web site's blog. Dozens of administration officials post comments on the events and issues of the day. The governor himself, most famous for his onscreen performances, is conspicuously absent -- an especially curious fact given that the online journals on the site are exclusively vlogs, more formally known as video blogs.