Blogs, communication, and demographics

An important discussion is emerging on the role of social conservatives in the righty-blogosphere. Joe Carter, who organized the blogger row at FRC’s Values Voters summit, had this to say about the experience:

Anyone who wonders why the audience for the right-side of the blogosphere is stagnant at an estimated 200,000 readers should look at the supply and demand curve. The right side of the blogosphere continuously focuses on secondary issues and ignores the primary concerns of American conservatives.

I talked to the bloggers on the panel, many of whom are the same bloggers I read daily and interact with here in DC. Then I talked to the people from the audience, most of whom are not political junkies. The differences in the discussions was eye-opening. The top four issues that voters said were important to them are "life" (e.g., abortion, euthanasia, embryo destructive research, etc.), marriage, tax cuts, and permanent tax relief for families. Aside from tax cuts, these issues are rarely talked about by the bloggers on the Right. Three out of four issues are ignored–and this is just the top of the list.

The stark contrast between the heartland conservatives and the DC-centric bloggers became apparent in the panel discussion I moderated on Political Blogging. Although most of the panel members could be classified as moderately social conservative, few of them focus primarily on social conservative issues.

Several things strike me here. First, and in my own experience, I started blogging to impact politics, not discuss the issues of the day. The metric that I have used in doing that has not been "readers" it has been the more amorphous concept of "quality readers". And I am quite pleased with my results. In the same way, Redstate has an objective: to discuss the right side of Capitol Hill. Let’s be clear. These are elite projects. They try to move members of Congress and the media.

Second, the demographics. On a broader level, this suggests something. At least for now, the blogs are an elite project, meaning that the people who read and write them look like the elites in America. They are mostly white, mostly upper-middle class, etc. You could see this on the left when you got the angst over YearlyKos looking lily-white. Where are the black people? The union members? (the real union members, like the guys who threatened to beat me up at a polling place in Philly. Not the Orange County, Dupage County, Montgomery County, Cherry Hill, Bergen County, Greenwich, Fairfax County rich kids who are union members out of solidarity) The fact that this demographic — the modern version of the Eastern Establishment that Nixon so hated — has moved into the Democratic Party in such as big way is why there is a critical mass for a movement on the online left.

On the right, you get the libertarians because that’s the politics of the righty-voting, upper-middle class, whites who read blogs. (not in total, but "on the average") This demographic is shrinking on the right, but it is the group of people that talk the language of the media. I was at a recent panel, not at FRC, where as Republican asked a reporter why the reporter didn’t write about the conservative perspective on the S-CHIP bill. The reporter responded that he never heard that perspective. His friends were almost all liberal and they talked about the lefty argument. He had a couple of libertarian friends who told him the libertarian argument. No one ever told him the conservative-populist argument. The blogs are, in some ways, a microcosm of that. To Joe’s broader point above, I would point out that the number of conservative Evangelicals in the MSM is quite small. A number of them write at the great blog, Get Religion.

Third, on the right, blogs have become an important part of mediating between the mainstream media, the ideological media — talk radio and Fox –, the interest groups, etc. On the left, they don’t really have an important ideological media, they just have the MSM, which does lean their way, for the reasons discussed above. That is, on the right, blogs serve a role in an overall communications strategy that is unique and valuable, but they are just a part next to Rush, et al. DailyKos is trying to be Fox, talk radio, and the righty blogs, all at once. They are winning online, but that is only because the people that look fetishize online.

So let’s talk about activism for a moment. The lefty blogs work as an activism tool because it is the primary communications mechanism for a bloc of voters. It has calls to actions, etc. The unions do that through a variety of mechanisms, but the one that was clearest to me growing up in Chicago was the bulletin board in all union shops. Near election day, these things were plastered with things like "Teamsters for Kerry-Edwards" or whatever. I don’t really understand how it works for African-Americans and Latinos. The anecdotal evidence that Obama raises a lot of money from rich African-Americans by email is important.

On the right, the calls to action seem to come out of talk radio, etc. They also are driven by email. All of the email lists are much older, much more socially conservative, etc. Again, a totally different demographic. Today, Redstate announced a great experiment. We will be sending regular call-to-action emails out to readers of Redstate and (perhaps) other people. See if we can start to tie these together. I think that this will depend on reaching into the older activist crowd.

Finally, I want to point out that there is no reason for things to stay the way that they are.

First,  on the issue of the changing demographics of, at least, American Protestantism, and of American elites. I would argue that it is a unique feature of the current Great Awakening that significant numbers of upper-middle class Americans are keeping their Evangelical beliefs and practices. In earlier times in American history, people would assimilate, in part, by becoming Presbyterians or even Episcopalians. The suburban mega-church is a new, new thing. I mean, Rick Warren is setting the tone for American Protestantism from … Orange County? It is a new chapter in the history of innovation in American Protestantism.  In some sense, I might even argue that one of the successes of the conservative movement and the religious right is that it has started to really make space for openly evangelical Christians in the American elite class. The New York Times had a recent story of the transformation of the Harvard Intervarsity Fellowship into a nearly completely Asian-American organization. At the same time, Ken Starr, one of the leaders of the conservative legal community, is trying to turn his denominational law school (which is itself a new thing) into a leading law school in America. If you are not stunned by this, it is probably because you aren’t paying attention.

Now, all is not roses for the conservative movement here because, while this crowd is more wealthy, it does not necessarily share all of the conservative movement’s values. You just have to read a little Cizek, Gerson, or Warren to know what I am talking about. The leftward shift of the evangelical community on a range of issues has really started to transform the American right on things like foreign aid, immigration (although not nearly enough yet for my taste), and the environment.

Second, Redstate’s innovation should have some impact. In general, righty (and non-political) blogs have been the most successful when they work as a cross-over into other media. If blogs end up driving activism through email, then online righty activism will be at least as powerful as online lefty activism. In part because we will have figured out how to combine all the parts of our coalition online, something that the left has struggled with.

And, third, technology will take its toll on this. Ultimately, more and more activity of all sorts will move online. This is simply an economic fact, given the low transaction costs, etc. Although much will remain in email (private online communications) versus blogs (public online communications).

So to return to Joe’s point. While his criticism is interesting and telling, I am not sure if it is fair. On a certain level, he is asking people to be who he wants them to be, not who they are. Over time, I think that he will get what he wants. It might happen because he organizes it. It might happen because, in the end, demographics are on his side. Although, perhaps not his exactly. The demographic shift is not going to "Focus" on the family, in the sense of the name of Dobson’s organization and his letter to the National Association of Evangelicals urging them not to include global warming and torture in their stable of issues.