Better Democracy Through Technology
Bryan Gottlieb Special to the Jewish News
Does Michael Brodsky have an algorithm to fix our electorate?
Above: Michael with his parents, Susan and Marc, and sister, Olivia
As America counts down to next month’s midterm elections, a frenetic drive to bolster civic engagement is playing out across the republic and a transplanted Silicon Valley wunderkind named Michael Brodsky believes technology can provide the cure to our ailing democracy.
The 29-year-old Metro Detroit native, a vice president at the San Francisco-based technology and media company Countable — a free, subscription-based information clearinghouse that informs users of upcoming legislation currently under consideration in Congress — believes the platform is the most effective way to offer voters the information necessary to make informed decisions.
Brodsky’s role is on the enterprise side of the company, which provides media outlets and various civic-minded companies the back-end infrastructure and related content that disseminates the information. His client roster includes media heavyweights like NBC and ABC.
While the content itself is nonpartisan, given the nature of the work, it is inherently progressive. The site acknowledges that only legislation having a reasonable chance of receiving a floor vote is presented. It all aligns with Brodsky’s worldview, which can be summed up in a few fragments: more inclusion, more information and more engagement; it all makes for better democracy.
“Democracy flourishes in daylight, which is what Countable offers users,” Brodsky explains by phone while walking home from work. “The more people who truly understand what legislation is being considered in Washington make our democracy stronger and our representatives more accountable.”
Brodsky is on a mission to make democracy stronger, and he thinks technology is the tool to make that happen. He believes the intersection of social media and civic engagement is the sweet spot, or “nexus,” for capturing voters’ attention, especially millennials like him.
Countable founder Bart Myers, who made his money after his first tech company SideReel was purchased by TiVo in 2011, and who is Brodsky’s boss, compares his young employee to the protagonist Truman from the 1998 movie The Truman Show; the two share an earnestness that sets them apart from others. “He believes in the best in people, wants to do his best and expects a ton from himself … extraordinary,” Myers explains.
“He’s incredibly thoughtful and diligent in his work and interests, applying himself and challenging himself to do the best he can,” Myers adds.
Brodsky will be honored this month with the New Generations award by the New Israel Fund during its annual Guardians of Democracy dinner Oct. 14 at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco.
For someone who has both achieved so much and is unarguably beloved by so many — and all before age 30 — Brodsky grew up in a self-described “unremarkable” way in 1990s West Bloomfield. His parents’ secret sauce in raising a mentsh? “We were loved,” he says matter-of-factly.
The Busiest Man in America
As the oldest of Drs. Susan and Marc Brodsky’s two children — his younger sibling, Olivia, 25, is attending graduate school in New York and studying to becoming a cantor — the general agreement by his family is that young Michael was, shall we say, highly enthusiastic.
“He was hyper,” Susan states, as only a mother could. “He would run from one end of the house to the other and talk nonstop.” However, never once did Susan, a retired dentist, express any exasperation when describing her son’s energy. In fact, she painted a picture of a little boy whose passion was endearing and appreciated — as only a mother would.
“Michael has a special gift and it’s his personality,” Susan says.
“It’s his strong sense of seeing the potential in humanity that drives him.”
— Olivia Brodsky
Brodsky’s mother shared several stories to color the picture of a young Michael and his ability to befriend just about everyone. She recalled the time when 17-year-old Michael was in recovery after having his wisdom teeth removed and was waking from the anesthesia only to ask the oral surgeon how the doctor became interested in dentistry. “Who else would think to ask that of someone [post-op]?” Susan asks, laughing at the memory.
His father, a cardiologist at Beaumont Hospital, added how much he admires his son’s intellectual prowess in addition to his kindness.
“He’s thoughtful about his actions and whether and why he believes what he does or takes the positions that he does,” Marc says, citing the reason Brodsky is a vegetarian and his son’s concern for animal welfare.
“The reason you do things is sometimes more important than the action itself. Michael is a very reasoned person and whether I fully agree with his politics, for example (he doesn’t always), I have the utmost respect for the rationale behind his beliefs. He extends that same courtesy to me and everyone else.”
Brodsky attended Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit through the eighth grade and then graduated from West Bloomfield High School. He was popular among his peers, a star tennis player and a high achiever.
After high school, Brodsky enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, earning an undergraduate degree, Summa Cum Laude, in history. He spent his junior year abroad as an exchange student in England at University of Oxford. While at Oxford, Brodsky was a member of the university’s famed Oxford Lawn Tennis Club and was chosen to compete in the school’s annual tennis competition against University of Cambridge. Called “The Varsity Match,” the tourney dates back to 1872.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree, Brodsky returned to the UK and earned his master’s in international history at the London School of Economics. It was his thesis topic, exploring the origins of Mandatory Palestine and why the British chose to invade the Ottoman territory during the first World War, that fostered his understanding of Zionism’s true origins.
As a lover of history, Brodsky noted the endeavor was more an “academic exploration” of events during WWI versus any intrinsic affinity for Israel. However, he became enchanted with the work of Chaim Weitzmann, Zionism’s founding statesman, and the labor unions that helped underpin the movement for an industrial, pluralistic society grounded in Jewish values.
The synergies between his intellectual muscle, love of history and natural bent toward politics led Brodsky to his first job, post-grad, at a think tank in Tel Aviv. It was during his time in Israel that brought into relief his desire to facilitate civic engagement, then as a way to address divisions within both Israel’s body politic and its civil society.
Can Technology Save Democracy?
The critical takeaway from his time in Tel Aviv was a then-nascent concept of harnessing technology to facilitate civic engagement. During his tenure, Brodsky recalled how a mentor suggested he find some niche that was of interest and become the expert — own the space; he did.
After eight months of working diligently, an energized Brodsky, now eager to use his newfound knowledge of community organizing powered by technology to further American ideals, returned stateside, settling in Northern California and joining the bipartisan political organization Fwd.us as an organizer in San Francisco. Funded by several Silicon Valley entrepreneurs including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Fwd.us seeks reforms to issues long unsettled in American politics, including criminal justice, education and immigration.
Nearly a year into his role at Fwd.us, Brodsky says he was missing the “Israeli-centric component of my life” and went to a meet-and-greet featuring author Peter Beinart, whose book The Crisis of Zionism is “a must-read for anyone looking to understand the crisis facing Israeli democracy,” he says.
As it happens, his current boss was also in attendance and was so impressed by the young man that he was essentially offered a job at Countable on the spot.
Three years after returning to the United States, and now faced with challenges to America’s democratic institutions in addition to those plaguing Israel, the stakes for this “dreamer of a better tomorrow” seem more consequential than ever.
His two loves, America and Israel — beacons of democracy founded on similar principles of equality and meritocratic prosperity for all — are increasingly coming under threat.
It takes a certain type of person to look at the needs of the many and not become cynical or jaded when a 2017 poll by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center reveals how shockingly ignorant too many Americans are when it comes to the most basic elements of their government and the Constitution: More than one in three people (37 percent) surveyed could not name a single right protected by the First Amendment. Only one in four (26 percent) could name all three branches of government. One in three (33 percent) can’t name any branch of government. None. Not even one.
And while it might be easier to throw in the towel and declare democracy dead, there are others like Michael Brodsky out there, seeking a fix to our republic’s morass.
“It’s his strong sense of seeing the potential in humanity” that drives him, Olivia Brodsky says. “He gets so upset when it seems the world is letting itself down, when countries don’t live up to their potential and systems aren’t the best versions of themselves. That’s what drives him.”
To learn more about Countable, go to countable.us.