Sunday, December 21, 2003

The Next Political Force

You’re looking at it. This. A blog. And according to Frank Rich in the New York Times, this and the advances the Internet has made since 2000 will be what shapes the next election and the future of politics and campaigning in the future, just as radio did for FDR in 1932 and television did for JFK in 1960. And just as those new media were greeted with skepticism and derision in their time, so is the web being given the back of the collective hand of newspaper columnists and pundits who wouldn’t know a blog from a load of hay.

Such has been much of the reaction to the Dean campaign’s breakthrough use of its chosen medium. In Washington, the Internet is still seen mainly as a high-velocity disseminator of gossip (Drudge) and rabidly partisan sharpshooting by self-publishing excoriators of the left and right. When used by campaigns, the Internet becomes a synonym for “the young,” “geeks,” “small contributors” and “upper middle class,” as if it were an eccentric electronic cousin to direct-mail fund-raising run by the acne-prone members of a suburban high school’s computer club. In other words, the political establishment has been blindsided by the Internet’s growing sophistication as a political tool and therefore blindsided by the Dean campaign much as the music industry establishment was by file sharing and the major movie studios were by “The Blair Witch Project,” the amateurish under-$100,000 movie that turned viral marketing on the Web into a financial mother lode.

The condescending reaction to the Dean insurgency by television’s political correspondents can be reminiscent of that hilarious party scene in the movie “Singin’ in the Rain,” where Hollywood’s silent-era elite greets the advent of talkies with dismissive bafflement. “The Internet has yet to mature as a political tool,” intoned Carl Cameron of Fox News last summer as he reported that the runner-up group to Dean supporters on the site was witches. “If you want to be a Deaniac,” ABC News’s Claire Shipman said this fall, “you’ve got to know the lingo,” as she dutifully gave her viewers an uninformed definition of “blogging.”

Fortunately, the future of this new force does not rest on the interpretations of Carl Cameron, David Broder, or Claire Shipman.

Should Dr. Dean actually end up running against President Bush next year, an utterly asymmetrical battle will be joined. The Bush-Cheney machine is a centralized hierarchy reflecting its pre-digital C.E.O. ethos (and the political training of Karl Rove); it is accustomed to broadcasting to voters from on high rather than drawing most of its grass-roots power from what bubbles up from insurgents below.

For all sorts of real-world reasons, stretching from Baghdad to Wall Street, Mr. Bush could squish Dr. Dean like a bug next November. But just as anything can happen in politics, anything can happen on the Internet. The music industry thought tough talk, hard-knuckle litigation and lobbying Congress could stop the forces unleashed by Shawn Fanning, the teenager behind Napster. Today the record business is in meltdown, and more Americans use file-sharing software than voted for Mr. Bush in the last presidential election. The luckiest thing that could happen to the Dean campaign is that its opponents remain oblivious to recent digital history and keep focusing on analog analogies to McGovern and Goldwater instead.

And what we here in the blogosphere must remember is that while there are still plenty of ways for this next wave to collapse like the Pet Rock fad – overconfidence and hubris on our part being chief among them – there is still the very good chance that, like what television did for another Northeastern candidate from a small state, it could make the difference between the old way and the new.