Patrick Ruffini, former E-campaign director for the RNC, and Dean Barnett, former driver for Mitt Romney in his 1994 Senate campaign, are debating the relative merits of activism (Ruffini, an activism activist, here and here) and punditry (Barnett, a punditry activist, here and here). I basically agree with Patrick, as my framing should indicate, but I think that is mostly because Barnett doesn’t understand what he is doing.
In the last several months, I have had to explain to people in the private sector and in the European political class why I think that the new media matters. I have also given a presentation at Heritage on this subject, focusing primarily on blogs. The fundamental fact is that technology has made information cheaper to distribute. It is easier to link up supply with demand in smaller and more specialized markets. Blogs create content on one or more subjects, and they get readers. Other technologes have similar effects. For example, social networks allow people to externalize their likes and dislikes and match them with others’, whether it is jobs and expertise (LinkedIn, Xing, etc.), dating (Match.com, etc.), or social interaction (Facebook, etc.), and increasingly these are all commercialized.
Some blog content is new. For example, Dan Rather’s forged documents, Trent Lott’s unfortunate comments, NZ Bear’s making the text of the immigration bill available in a useful way, or nearly everything out of TPM Muckraker. These create new information. Others frame and redistribute information. This is mostly what Barnett does. Marc Ambinder makes a good distinction when he refers to his blog as a “reported blog”. He is trying to break news, as opposed to repeating narratives and facts.
The point of this is, in part, to clarify what is going on. Barnett is not really a pundit. He is a distribution mechanism. Contrast this with Fred Kagan, who he points to as a pundit. But Kagan isn’t a pundit. He is an expert. He creates ideas, which he has to peddle to people who redistribute it. Barnett, or really Hugh Hewitt, offers a way to get out facts that other mechanisms, such as the MSM can’t or won’t distribute. Of course, distribution channels can be activist. Just look at the New York Times or Fox. Full of (often dishonest) spin with an agenda.
Getting back to a standard question that I like to address, the deficiencies of the online right. We need more people creating good information. For example, state and local bloggers, issue specific bloggers, etc. And we need more people distributing and framing good information in a way that is politically useful. We have plenty of people who distribute information that they like, with their own personal biases. For example, Barnett attacks Ruffini’s support for a Massachusetts Republican who is, to Barnett’s mind, soft on the war. Of course, Barnett doesn’t attack Mitt Romney, also soft on the war, he never claimed to be consistent. There is no unified conservative movement framing online, although Redstate tries sometimes. There is no establishment Republican framing. There is no framing that is driving the message of the House or Senate leadership or the White House. Etc. This is a form of activism that we don’t have and that Barnett is not interested in participating in. Neither are Glenn Reynolds, James Joyner, Ed Morrissey, or most other leading conservative bloggers.
Now, often attracting attention to something is enough to change the perspective of our politicians (that is, change legislative votes or actions) or of voters (getting them to elect new politicians). Sunlight hasn’t stopped John Doolittle, John Murtha, or Ben Nelson. Many conservative bloggers argue that they stopped immigration. It seems more correct to say the the conservative groups expressed their anger through blogs, meetings, phone calls, etc. Coordinated activism was more valuable in driving the actions of the politicians than a bunch of self-appointed (and market reinforced) opinion leaders. So sometimes you need to generate energy or anger on legislation or money and volunteer energy during campaigns. And we need tools to harness the energy that is out there.
The point, in the end, is that you need a basket of tools and information. The internet gives you the tools to target information with increasing precision and leverage with decreasing transaction costs the responses to that information into the kinds of actions needed to actually change what politicians do. This is clearly not an either/or debate. It should be a both/and debate. Synergies lie ahead.
I suspect that people like Barnett poo-poo this thinking because, in the end, it marginalizes them. He, Hugh, and a couple of others are the voice of the online right. If the online right were truly functional, I don’t think that they would be that important. This is perhaps too psychologized and intentional of an explanation. They like what they do and think it works. The hammer and nail problem. Ruffini, on the other hand, being a campaign guy, in addition to a great blogger, recognizes the need to mobilize to effect change.