« Different from you and me, and that makes the world ... | Main | Film, Stage and CD »

Hatchet Job

Having said nice things about the Internet recently, Your Humble Blogger feels compelled to take the old hatchet to it today. Actually, it’s not the Internet, as such, that is the focus of my ire. It’s the people who believe in the Internet. Particularly, the people who believe that Politics is now About the Internet.

Zack Exley has written an essay called Will Obama put on the makeup? full of unsolicited advice for one presidential candidate, but the advice is meant to be generalizable to all candidates for all offices. He says that he’s “had a chance to make this pitch to many candidates and politicians over the last several years”, and evidently took that chance. So Mr. Exley isn’t talking about Sen. Obama; he’s talking about the Way the World Is Now. And he’s wrong.

His main point is an analogy between the Internet now and television in 1960. If y’all don’t know the story, it’s a fundamental how-the-world-works story for modern politics, so it’s helpful to know it. In 1960, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy had a television debate, and because then Vice-President Nixon refused to wear makeup, he came off very badly. People who listened over the radio thought that the veep had won the debate (vaddevah dat means), but the larger television audience thought that the young Senator won it (again, vaddevah dat means), and that was the difference in the election. This story is no less powerful for being essentially false; Senator Kennedy squeaked through in a very close election for more reasons than his comfort with television, and besides, it was certainly close enough that the less television-friendly candidate might well have been elected.

Mr. Exley insists that “For the Internet in politics, it’s 1960 again.” Or, of course, it’s 1956. Or 1952. You know, years where television existed, but failed to make any significant difference in the election. How does he know that it’s 1960, rather than 1952? He’s very experienced with the internet, true, but that’s exactly why he is in the worst position to judge. I’m sure that loads of television people, including Adlai Stevenson’s (and Richard Nixon’s) teevee advisers in 1952, told him that this was like FDR and radio, that the first candidate to “get it” would win in a landslide. And, of course, Mr. Exley himself was telling people that the Internet was It in 2004, and quite likely in 2000, as well. He was wrong.

By the way, in 1952, Richard Nixon went on television to tell the country that he wasn’t a crook, and that Pat Nixon wore a respectable Republican cloth coat, and that his family was going to keep Checkers, the dog. People who watched on television thought he was a crook, but the far larger audience who listened over the radio supported him. That, too, is a story with layers of falsehood, but it’s just as instructive as the 1960 one, I think.

Gentle Readers, it’s possible—just—that 2008 will be The Year That The Internet Was More Important Than Previously, that we have reached some sort of tipping point where most voters will use the internet to make up their minds about the candidates. I doubt it, myself. I could be wrong. My point is that we won’t know until we are wrong. We will know that the internet is king when someone who ought to have won if it weren’t for the internet loses. Nobody wants to be that candidate, but nobody wants to be Gov. Dean, either.

Remember Gov. Dean, when he was a candidate? He was the proof that Everything had Changed. Unlike all the other times when non-voters were going to realio trulio vote, his non-voters were going to realio trulio vote. Except they didn’t. Because everything hadn’t changed, and even though he ran a very nice campaign on the internet, he didn’t do so hot when it came to all that old-fashioned stuff, like convincing people who actually vote to vote for him, rather than a different guy. Yes, there were lots of other reasons for that. My point is that Gov. Dean was always a longshot, and the claim was that his campaign would overcome that because of the power of the internet, and it just wasn’t powerful enough. Sure, and this year, it’s more powerful than it was. That doesn’t mean it’s powerful enough.

Finally, I’ll point out that Mr. Exley seems to want Sen. Obama to run a campaign focused almost entirely on the Internet as a medium. I know, he doesn’t say that he needs to stop doing the old-fashioned retail politics and going to potlucks with union guys and street-corner rallies. He just wants Sen. Obama to take the time and energy he had put into campaigning the old way and put it into campaigning the new way. Yes, Mr. Exley seems to think it would just be the fund-raising t&e, but he’s also suggesting a public-relations ploy that would take all the focus off every other issue, style or coalition, and put it plumb spang on the Internet. Maybe that is a good idea. But it certainly isn’t what John F. Kennedy did with television in 1960, and thank the Lord for that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I think Exley's analysis deserves a bit more credit than you have given it.

While the internet is not used by a large enough percentage of the population for it to be a sufficient medium for political candidates to reach voters, so that the internet has not fundamentally altered political campaigning, the internet is used by a large enough percentage of politically engaged poeple to play a very significant role in building a campaign organization through volunteer recruitment and fundraising. This is Exley's most substantive point, and I think he is correct to make it.

I think, in fact, that the truth of this claim has already been demonstrated in the 2006 Congressional elections, where strong support derived the "netroots" was proably decisive in several close elections. Exley would have done a better job of making his point by referencing the Senate campaigns of Jim Webb and John Tester, and various House races that had a strong presence on active progressive blogs. That's much more pertinent data than the Nixon and television anecdote.

Exley's idea about the candidate writing personal e-mails is a bit silly, though. He just doesn't grasp the scale of a Presidential campaign. Now, the candidate could, at an early stage in the primary, cultivate more personal connections with on-the-ground organizers in this way, and the candidate could (and should, I believe) write her own major posts on widely-read blogs. But she has to to work through her staff most of the time. That's true in the later stages of a campaign even for the House.

The story of Gov. Dean is more than a cautionary tale about the limits of the internet as a campaign tool, however, because while his work building a grassroots organization through the internet couldn't get him the Democratic nomination for president, it did get him the chairmanship of the DNC, despite opposition from the DLC/Washington-insider types. And once he got to work there, his main focus was on rebuilding the Democratic Party apparatus from the ground up, spending money. Not just through the internet, but through supporting organizers all over the country through the 50-state strategy. And that worked out pretty well, I think. The internet is a tool for organization building. Organization building takes time, and so it ultimately is more useful to political organizations than in ever can be to a single candidate for a single political campaign.

Exley is also overstating the enthusiasm for Obama among the politically-engaged crowd on the internet, I think. In a straw poll yesterday on Kos, Edwards and Obama placed an easy #1 and #2 among the field of declared Democratic candidates with about 25% each, but Edwards did much better than Obama in the run-off poll, with 51% to Obama's 42%.

Sure, the netroots are _much_ more enthusiastic about Obama than they are about Hillary Clinton, but the netroots are not just breathlessly waiting to embrace his campaign when it invites them on board.

The internet is a tool for organization building.

I think this is true, although largely untested within the context of political campaigns. It's also not at this point predictable. I would say at this point that good on-line organization would help a candidate who was otherwise good, but not put over a candidate who was missing more traditionally organized support. That's my estimate, of course, and it's not necessarily better than Mr. Exley's, except that (of course) I think it is.

In general, I would be wary of any advice of the general "do this to appeal more to people like me, and then you will win" sort. Most people aren't people like me, for any value of me. If there are a million people (and I don't doubt there are) who would get excited about Mr. Exley's dream candidate, that would leave a hundred million for the other candidates.

Your point about Chairman Dean is extremely well-taken. I think that leans more toward my (possibly unclear) point, though, which is that the Internet is not a good focus for an election campaign. When used as an election campaign tool, Gov. Dean's list failed. When used as an organizing tool, for long-term networking and the building of other organizing tools, it's already wonderful and only likely to get better. But that's exactly why an Internet-focused campaign is (I think) unlikely to be successful, or more to Mr. Exley's point, why an otherwise successful campaign is unlikely to be harmed by the lack of "getting" the Internet. Campaigns use organizations. Ideally, a campaign is a loose coalition of other organizations (the fifty state parties, along with unions, PACs, and all the other stuff), each with common ground, each using the kind of strong bonds within it that to be effective must be based on something longer even than our presidential primary season.


i agree with much of both above, because i'm split.

people who believe the net is reality or is a useful approximation of reality need to get out more. specifically — if you're a democrat or generally leftish — to churches. not to "get religion" but to get in on the physical organizing that the church-going people are doing, to make sure those folks are included in the program.

for instance, consider the political power of these two competing popular virtual reality enterprises: myspace (population, 50M) and houston's lakewood church (population, .025M). if you wanted to make something happen in texas, one of the four big places to make things happen in the USA, which place would you visit? there are probably more than a million myspace users in texas and surely a hundred thousand of them can vote, or care to.

second point against all-net-all-campaign, when it came to gettng the feet on the pavement, the republican revolution(tm) and the recent americanos organizing were done primarily over the radio. where you can build narratives because people are listening for narratives, not jeopardy trivia. like people go to churches to have the story told. it's very much like how high-power people read weekly news magazines.

ra-di-o. it does somewhat favor autocrats, in terms of feeding the public's wish for flattery and received wisdom, but, you know, most people work a lot of hours (in and out of house) and rely on their favorite likable, smart, trustworthy talkers to keep them in the loop. it pisses people off that so many get news and analysis in the same sentence but that's how we've worked since before the written word. we're probably wired for it. show-and-tell, i mean.

the internet is an incomparable mechanism for organizing and rote learning. relying on it for knowing is a bad idea.

finished reading the exley. i like the idea of obama blogging through email and i like the idea of using the net more strategically. i also like an early commenter's idea to change from "click to donate" to "wish/opportunity list, click to help" tho i think public financing is the better answer.

the weakness in the article is the nixon/tv thing — very misleading example. what he's talking about is more like how big time direct mail changed politics. (only hopefully the net would be a change for the better.)

on the other hand, john edwards is liable to have thoughts on the internet as a liability. free-speechers do tend to talk, don't they.

Oddly enough, somebody was just telling me (two weeks ago, maybe?) that this time around, there were going to be enough people taking the bloggers seriously to do oppo research on them, and that was going to make some people very unhappy.

This didn't even hit that level. Ms. Marcotte is often hilariously rude, and as far as I can tell, the main reason her blog was so popular is because she could both (a) point out how various aspects of current events were rooted in a system that is very, very bad for women, and (2) be hilariously, viciously funny rather than depressing while pointing that out.

To my mind, this is more evidence that we're not at 1960 yet. I would be shocked if Mr. Edwards had regularly read Pandagon (or Shakes, or any other individual blog) before this hire, or he would have been offended earlier and thus prepared. For someone in that position to even consider taking Mr. Exley's advice and begin blogging and emailing his own good self would be crazy, doomed to failure and mockery.

Now, I'm not saying that we won't someday have somebody who realio trulio is comfortable with the web before running, and parlays that comfort into real success with real people. I'm just saying that we don't have that now, and faking it is not the same.


Side note about the Obama/Internet thing: it seems to me that a lot of Obama's appeal is that he's tremendously personally charismatic, in a way that plays well on television, and an extremely good public speaker. His ideas are fine, but I think it was his delivery at least as much as his content that impressed everyone (including me) when he spoke at the convention a couple years ago.

So I don't think that putting his ideas in text, in a blog or email, would be the best way to bring him more support. I'm sure he (and his writers) would do a fine job of that, but I think his biggest strength is his electrifying delivery, and I think it would be a bad idea for him not to play to that strength.

(Though on a side note, I thought his Internet video the other week was a little weak in this regard; in particular, he didn't seem to know what to do with his hands. I suspect he speaks better in front of a crowd than in front of a single camera.)

PS: I get the impression that something similar is true of Bill Clinton--I didn't see him in action much, but I gather that he can be extraordinarily charismatic in person, and is really good at working a crowd. I wouldn't have recommended to him that he focus his campaign on a text-based medium either.

PPS: Of course, there's lots more to the Internet than text. But one of Exley's main points seems to be that candidates should write their own emails, because that will connect better to the public. Which I think is silly. Candidates don't write their own speeches; why should they write their own emails? And even if they did, why would anyone believe that they did? I don't require or expect strong facility with the written word from a political candidate, just like I don't expect writers to be good at making speeches or running the country.

PPPS: I'll grant that the power of the blog is (primarily) the power of the personal voice. But again, written voice is different from spoken voice. Some people are really good at writing, and you get a strong sense of their personality from reading their work; others are really good at public speaking; those two skills don't necessarily have anything to do with each other.

Elizabeth Edwards does the blogging in that family.



I'd make it a nice linky thing, but I can't remember how to do that off the top of my head.

on or about january 30, 2007, elizabeth edwards said:

> I don’t edit. I suppose I go back and do a little editing,
> but not the sort that you’d expect a handler to do: "oop,
> can’t say that, can’t say that."

well, hell, elizabeth, you were a lawyer for 20 years and you've been a political spouse for the last 10. who needs to edit? you can probably write the "smart" thing in your head, asleep.

Comments are closed for this entry. Usually if I close comments for an entry it's because that entry gets a disproportionate amount of spam. If you want to contact me about this entry, feel free to send me email.

Fatal error: Cannot redeclare is_valid_email() (previously declared in /usr/home/azaz/public_html/cgi-bin/MTOS-5.2.13/php/mt.php:931) in /usr/home/azaz/public_html/cgi-bin/MTOS-5.2.13/php/mt.php on line 937