UPDATED 29/12/03: There has been much online coverage of the role of the Internet (especiallly weblogs) in Howard Dean’s campaign for the Democratic nomination in the 2004 US Presidential election, and this is certainly becoming a media phenomenon of some significance. A classic example that Ross Mayfield picks up on is a recent New York Times article that suggests weblogs will transform the campaign in much the same way that radio did for Roosevelt in the 1930’s and TV for J.F.Kennedy in the 1960’s
Heady stuff indeed, but are we really witnessing a meaningful change in the make-up of the US political system, or is this just another novelty that will be quickly assimilated by the existing parties and eminences grises in maintaining what has proved to be a remarkably stable system of hegemony in modern times
Although the Dean campaign has certainly achieved something remarkable with its use of the Internet in support of grassroots campaign work, they are not the only ones using this approach. Dave Pollard writes about the campaign of Denis Kucinich for the democratic nomination, which is using similar techniques as the Dean camp to bring more progressive ideas to the attention of the public, bypassing the traditional media who have defined Kucinich as “unelectable” because of his consistently outspoken opposition to the war against Iraq and other key policies of the Bush regime. General Wesley Clark is also running a techno-savvy campaign, using weblogs, online communities and even the Clark TechCorps – “a framework for involving open source software developers in … the collaborative development of open source code… for critical Clark campaign infrastructure.” Indeed, even the Bush campaign has jumped on the weblog bandwagon. On a more frivolous level, others such as the excellent weblog Crooked Timber have tried to get their message across by contriving Googlebombs that make George W Bush the top result for the search term unelectable
However, it is the potential of the Dean campaign that has people most excited. Clay Shirky writes about a recent Washington Post piece that takes Roland Coase’s famous economic theory about “firms being information gathering machines” and applies it to political parties to suggest that Dean’s campaign is using the internet’s low cost of information gathering to take over the Democratic party from below. In an amusing and unnecessarily detailed response, Stephen Bainbridge, professor of law at UCLA, retorts that “most people – including most voters – are [un]willing to give up watching Survivor, surfing porn sites, or playing Grand Theft Auto in order to use the internet as a source of political information “ There is a long way to go before we can be sure that a real change is taking place
“Look at it this way: Howard Dean has used the internet to assemble a coalition of just under 540,000 contributors (as of today). Al Gore got 51 million votes in 2000 — and still lost the Electoral College! … My guess is that you cannot get from half-a-million to 51 million without the benefit of a well-established party brand. When a third party candidate proves you can use the internet to win the presidency without the benefit of a major party brand label, then I’ll be impressed
Bottom line? I would be willing to place a Long Bet that every President between 2004 and 2024 is either a Democrat or a Republican.”
The current issue of Wired magazine carries an intelligent feature by Gary Wolf entitled “How the Internet Invented Howard Dean,” which analyses the Internet’s role in the campaign (including an excellent reading list of key books that have influenced Dean’s thinking), and argues that the success of the Dean campaign has been a truly bottom-up phenomenon led by creative uses of technology
“I wish I could tell you we were smart enough to figure this out,” says Dean, “But the community taught us. They seized the initiative through Meetup. They built our organization for us before we had an organization.”
Elsewhere in the piece, Wolf recalls a conversation with well-connected blogger and social sofwtare investor investor Joi Ito, who has previously written about the potential for weblogs and similar tools to support what he calls emergent democracy
I contact [Joi Ito] to ask if he thinks there’s a difference between an emergent leader and an old-fashioned political opportunist. What does it take to lead a smart mob? Ito emails back an odd metaphor: “You’re not a leader, you’re a place. You’re like a park or a garden. If it’s comfortable and cool, people are attracted. Deanspace is not really about Dean. It’s about us.”
David Weinberger, an influential supporter/organiser of the Dean Internet campaign, agrees that this aspect of the campaign – the candidate as place – is one of the key differences between Dean and his opponents, and he links to an article in baseline magazine that covers the practical workings of the campaign in more depth, focusing in particular on the important role of meetup.com as a means of galvanising and organising volunteers and campaigners in the real world.
Another aspect of the Dean-Internet ticket that herlads a welcome change is the fact that non-US citizens can play an active role in the process, because Internet campaigns traverse state borders. Ben Hammersley notes that whereas he is ineligible from making campaign donations as a non-US citizen, there is nothing stopping him from contributing code, for example, to Wesley Clark’s TechCorps initiative, nor is there any barrier to activists in other countries using the Internet to persuade US citizens to vote for Kucinich or Dean
“Considering how much the United States is involved in elections (or other changes of government) in other nations, I would suggest that it shouldn’t complain too loudly when those people show an interest in the outcome of American votes.”
Without doubt, the Dean campaign has set the standard for US political parties and their use of the Internet as a campaigning tool, but we should bear in mind that the “excitement” surrounding this dimension of the wider campaign is limited to the type of people who would anyway have vociferous opinions on the 2004 election (mainly bloggers), with some limited bleed-through into the more intelligent areas of the US media
The importance of this debate, then, is constrained by the fact that it is such a minority interest – given that less than half of the United States even bothers to vote (and fewer still pay any attention to the issues), many people will ask what the fuss is all about. However, there are some valuable lessons to be learned here about the interplay between well-established systems such as the US ruling elite and grassroots Internet campaigns. It would take an incorrigible optimist to believe that the Dean campaign (or indeed any mainstream campaign) might actually change the US political system, its economic reliance on the military-industrial complex or its underlying foreign policy consensus, but we will certainly have
a better understanding of the Internet’s potential for galvanising change by the time the next President is chosen in November 2004.