Punditry versus activism; False dichotomy?

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.

Obama using LinkedIn for politics

So I went to accept a LinkedIn invitation. You’ll never guess from who. But, in any case, I get to the screen, and there is Barack Obama asking a question.

This strikes me as a pretty clever way to use LinkedIn. This is a crowd that, if you engage, can probably turn donor. And they are probably pretty well connected to other people. They are relatively wealthy. And, if someone responds, Obama can highlight answers. By answering, people take some ownership. Wiki-politics plus social networks. Very impressive.

A little discussion of why this is so clever. When you ask a question on LinkedIn, it appears to 3 degrees of seperation. There are 1.4m people within 3 degrees for me. That’s a lot of people. And they are relatively well targeted. After all, if someone responds, they are, by definition, a friend of a friend of a supporter. (and probably wealthy) If someone responds, you know which of your supporters to have work the guy over.

Rudy Giuliani, via Katie Harbath, also has a LinkedIn account, but so far they just offer "friendship"

I am consistently impressed by the way Obama uses social networks and technology

College Republicans encourage YouTube questions

I thought this was an encouraging sign. The College Republican National Committee is encouraging members to engage on YouTube. I don’t recall the College Dems doing this:

The CRNC has started a YouTube group, College Republican Debate Questions, to encourage College Republicans across the country to submit questions for the Republican YouTube debate in November.

Charlie Smith leads by example with the first video question.

H/T to CRNation.

Why “Why not a righty Kos?”?

It seems that every couple of months, there is a discussion about the state of disarray of the righty blogosphere. This time it is mostly a different crowd moving it. Dean Barnett of HughHewitt.com writes, ironically, in the Weekly Standard. But then, in response, we get both Dave Wiegel at Reason and Sh+Sh from Newsbusters. Yesterday, Patrick Ruffini got into the game too.

I am consistently struck by the wrong nature of these questions. Especially in media contexts which are subject to very strong network effects, you can usually find the source of relevance in history. The guys at Newsbusters capture this:

First, both of these articles ignored how Daily Kos got its start virtually at the same time America was discussing going to war with Iraq in 2002. Irrespective of the poll numbers at the time favoring an invasion, the anti-war crowd is always active, vocal, and easily incited.

However, the press, understanding the public sentiment and eager for a sensational high-tech story, used to be far less skeptical of the war than they are now. This left quite a vacuum for anti-war expression in the media. ABC News filled it in the television world — its ratings went up while it was the lone ardent anti-war establishment media voice.

In other words, at an important moment, the Democratic and progressive establishments failed to connect to substantial portions of, at least, their base. Kos spoke to it. Kos organized it. Kos grew because it created a way for a group — namely white, rich, anti-war liberals — to communicate at critical moment. As this has gradually become a dominant force in Democratic politics, you get things like John Kerry and Harry Reid participating. But let’s be clear. This is an effect, not a cause. In some sense, Kos is not interesting because it so no longer growing. The question should be how and why it grew.

Ultimately, the answer is that Kos filled a gap that was experienced by a sizable constituency. It solved a concrete problem for a substantial market. There are certainly lessons to be learned about its open framework, but those are, to a great extent, atmospherics rather than fundamental. In some sense, it has maintained its relevance because it has become the primary way for the Democratic party to communicate with its base.

So let’s ask a similar question for the right? What (probably unorganized) mass constituency is there that the party or the movement is not communicating with or does not have a mechanism to communicate with?  Perhaps this would be organized around a negative principle (anti-Clinton like Free Republic oranti-Bush and anti-war, like Kos did) or, hopefully, something more positive. And then, what form or forum is the appropriate way to harness the energy and power of that constituency to activism? But, even if we don’t answer that now, it will probably be answered with various forms of experimentation when the time comes.

Right now, I don’t have answers to either part. In the meantime, there are important, incremental things that we can do. We can build local and state blog networks to move information around. We can build tools, etc. But we will not be able to achieve anything disruptive online until there is something disruptive to achieve off-line.

So, back to a fundamental question: Where is this party and this movement going?

Grasping new tools

As my friends Patrick Ruffini, Rob Bluey, and Justin Hart have pointed out, a bunch of us organized a new media training workshop at Heritage, sponsored by Google, on Wednesday. It was a success. About 200 people attended. It was truly extraordinary.

The goal, more than anything else, was to begin a discussion on how organizations, candidates, etc. can move move messages and engage people on line. We are planning to continue this in several forms:

  1. Smaller workshops for congressional staff, campaigns, and interest groups in Washington. We need to build their effectiveness.
  2. A road show. As a number of us have pointed out, the problem is less acute in Washington than it is in the state capitals and municipalities around the country. Simply put, if we had 100 more people like GraniteGrok and GilfordGrok — politically active, smart, technologically savvy, and very, very dilligent online activists –, Republicans and conservatives would be in a much better place.

Ultimately, this is a human resources and a skills question. We also need online tools like RightRoots, but you cannot produce information and framing of information. Ultimately, at all levels, the left is successfully framing the messages, especially at the local level, where the quality of reporting is lower, the amount of genuine news content is smaller, and the ability to speak directly to readers is larger.

One of the leading lefty blogs, Atrios, made an important point that we should keep in mind:

Now that’s not how I see things as I think blogs should be seen more as an opportunity to influence media coverage and narratives, as well as helping to stitch together a broader-based political movement.

But it isn’t very surprising the Democrats don’t really understand how blogs work within the media, as they’ve long failed to understand how the media works generally. So it’s difficult to communicate and explain the "good" the blogs can do when a lot of them just see us as a noisy sometimes-pain-in-the-ass. This isn’t true of everyone in DC, of course, but one has to remember that of congressional staffers are often shockingly young and really can’t be expected, no matter what their talents, to have a grip on all this stuff in a sophisticated way.

I think that we should take this and separate out his points.

First, blogs are a media tool. They have fundamentally changed the economics and ecology of all types of information in our society. The Democrats have an apparatus to move the media narratives to the left. Without a comparable force pushing back, the media and their narratives will go there. And the only way that we can apply that pressure is to develop bloggers at the grassroots and train staff to work with those bloggers effectively.

Second, movements use contemporary tools that match their constituencies. A number of liberal bloggers have told me that they feel like Barack Obama doesn’t care about them because he thinks that he can get his attention somewhere else. Well, he is getting the level of mobilization that he needs from  young, rich  activists through social networking tools like facebook and African-Americans through email. He is building a new movement. It looks like it may be going nowhere in the short term, but it may in the long-term. When conservatives figure out how to add to our coalition, we will use the tools of the day. And we will help build those tools and have the experience to maximize them.

In the end, football comes down to blocking and tackling. In politics, that means:

  1. GOTV. The RNC and the state parties are better at that than anyone else right now, if we can get the volunteers.
  2. Fundraising. We aren’t looking so good, but it is clear that "online" fundraising isn’t the answer, or the difference.
  3. Media. We are losing here big time.

Our effort on Wednesday is the beginning of a long, slow, necessary, and, ultimately, very valuable process to move on the third.

Dems building national precinct organization?

This is the first thing that the Dems are talking about in 2008 that actually scares me. Mike Dukakis is talking about building a real national precinct organization:

"We have to organize every damn precinct in the United States of America—all 185,000,” Mr. Dukakis said. “I’m serious. I’m deadly serious. I didn’t do it after the primary [in 1988]. Don’t ask me why, because that’s the way I got myself elected from the time I was running for town meeting in Brookline to the time I ran for governor.”

What’s he talking about?

I’m talking about every precinct,” he said, “with a precinct captain and six block-captains that make personal contact with every single voting household. And I mean starting a year in advance. I’m not talking about parachuting in with two weeks to go. That’s baloney. And these people are people who’ve got to be from the precinct, of the precinct, look like the precinct and talk like the precinct.”

The real "idea" behind the RNC’s 72 hour program is: live voter-to-voter contact works. If the Dems actually built this, it would be transformative in American politics because this stuff actually works and turns out votes. Especially when tied into the government (usually corruptly) so that people get city services or no parking tickets if they support the incumbents.

What’s more, I bet that you can do this with soft money. George Soros, Tim Gill, and their buddies could turn on the tap, and it would be almost lights out.

ONE’s activation (update)

Last week, the ONE campaign released some polling about the support that they have. It claimed pretty deep support. I didn’t write on it because who says "no" when asked, "do you want to end international poverty?" Apparently there are a few people who won’t.  These numbers were not surprising to me. Back in 2005, the Program on International Policy Attitudes did a poll and found that 65% of Americans want to increase foreign aid to (Millenium Development Goal level) 0.7% of GDP per year. For the US, that would be about $77b.

The problem with this polling is that it doesn’t have a trade-off. What are you taking money from, etc. My involvement with PIPA, while I was a Hill Staffer, taught me that it is very, very hard to gauge, with polling at least, people’s dedication to these issues. So I asked ONE for some activation numbers. Here’s what they told me:

In February 2007, ONE members sent over 200,000 letters encouraging Congress to protect $1 billion in funding for the fight against extreme poverty and global disease.  …

In fall 2006, ONE members delivered over 250,000 letters to Capitol Hill, requesting that Congress help up to 300,000 Africans make a living through renewal of a special trade provision within the African Growth and Opportunity Act …

In one targeted campaign in 2005, ONE generated over 500,000 e-letters to President Bush asking for a historic deal for Africa. …

These are real numbers. Any organization that can produce 200,000 contacts to Congress is doing something right. It would be interesting to see a partisan and/or age breakdown. Are these college students? Are they churches? Who are they?

I would also want to know why the half-million to President Bush, but only half that to Congress. That sounds like an overwhelmingly Democratic list to me.

It seems to me that the challenge for the ONE Campaign is drive its numbers up and make sure that the coalition includes people from all parts of the political (although not necessarily ideological) spectrum. This shouldn’t be hard. Students, churches, businesses, etc. should be easy partners in this coalition.

Update: The ONE campaign responds with this:

the 2005 petition was our sign up petition for the 2005 Live8 concerts. The other actions were just that, actions. A whole lot more resources went into building our list that summer.

That makes lots of sense. Getting people to sign up once, the first time, is a lot easier than getting them to act again and again and again. And I want to be clear. I am very impressed by what the ONE campaign is achieving.

What’s a movement? Do we have one?

Patrick Ruffini wants a "Movement 2.0." While I agree with the sentiment, I want some specifics. Ruffini starts with:

A common thread is that the other shoe won’t likely drop until we have Hillary to unite against. I’d like to pick apart that assumption.

The basic assumption is sound. The online right was ascendant in the Clinton years, just as the online left was in the Bush years. Opposition galvanizes political movements, and not just online.

Is that a movement? Ruffini answers the question at the end:

And, finally, is there any way this gets started without Hillary Clinton? I’ve read the same history books, and I don’t think the New Right was built on personal animus towards JFK and LBJ — and it thrived in power in the ’80s.

As I have tried to point out repeatedly, the online left is really more about basic politics, constituencies, etc., rather than technology. Sure, the technology was innovative, but if you were designing a tech-savvy movement today, you would do what they did, just better. After all, if you started a business today, you wouldn’t use Windows 95, you’d buy Vista. (I recognize that using a desktop operating system analogy when talking about infrastructure, is poor, but it is comprehensible to everyone) What the online left did is:

  1. Organized a new voting bloc into activists. The voting bloc is upper-middle-class, mostly white, mostly social liberals. Often, they are former Republicans (Kos?) who left the GOP for particular reasons (war, social conservatism, secularism, etc.) and harp on those reasons.
  2. These people were organized using tools that are relatively more appropriate to their context. The New Right did this with direct mail, which was both innovative, but it also opened up avenues of political participation for people who couldn’t participate for a lack of time, mobility, etc.
  3. It organized around a certain ideological position. (opposition to Bush and, to some extent, the war) I shouldn’t go so far as to call this an idea so much as an organizing principle.

This has had a dramatic effect on the party. The voices have gotten even more rich and more white and WASP. (Terry McAuliffe, a Catholic, was replaced by the WASP Howard Dean, scion of an investment banking family from the upper east side)

So what would it mean to have a movement in the GOP? Certainly, we can develop tools to do our jobs better. The GOP is better at that than Democrats anyways. That’s just productivity, lowered transaction costs, etc. But it won’t be transformative until we can attach these tools to a constituency. What are our options?

  • New pro-war voters. Recall from the Elephant in the Mirror that 1/4 of the base is now basically pro-war voters. This would be a clear base for a Rudy Giuliani or John McCain nomination. (in the case of Giuliani, that is a base that could, perhaps, overcome his potential losses, in a primary at least, amongst social conservatives, another important part of the base. More on this later) While this is probably not a complete answer, as long as there is a war on terror — and perhaps diffuse security threats in the context of globalization and various clashes against modernity — this will probably be part of the answer.
  • There might be a special subset of these, people who politically came of age and conservative with 9-11. I bet an awfully large number of those are using Facebook…
  • Yesterday, one of the stand-ins at Andrew Sullivan’s blog argued that perhaps we could add African-Americans through railing on immigration. I, personally, find the idea both morally repugnant and unlikely to succeed. We want to get African-Americans back by increasing racist sentiment? Probably not a winner. Nevermind that we would lose our Hispanics, so it might not even add votes. And business wouldn’t tolerate a protectionist agenda.
  • Another option would be to continue to play for the working class, as Bush so incredibly succeeded in 2004, with "the party of capital" winning the white working class vote by 23%. The problem is that we lost a bunch in 2006, and we are unlikely to succeed in 2008. However, that would be the strategy of the Sams Club Republican advocates.
  • Another would be to try to organize and reach out to Hispanics.  Bush tried that with immigration, and the party revolted. (wrongly, in my opinion)
  • Another option would be the resurgence of a reformist movement in the GOP.  This would be a strategy for holding on to the upper-middle class and appealing to students. There would be process reforms like earmark reform, which is clearly a Republican issue, and ethics reform, which could be. There are more complicated parts like redistricting, which is a Republican issue in California, but Democratic in places where GOPers lose from it.  There’s actually a natural technological niche here with things like the Sunlight Foundation, Ruffini’s open API stuff, etc. There is a historical antecedent in the TR Progressive movement, and it doesn’t damage the existing coalition too much. Right now, this is a post-partisan issue rather than a partisan one. But once the Democrats take charge, it will quickly become a partisan one. It is already starting. In fact, we could use the cover of a Hillary Clinton presidency to co-opt the anti-Hillary anger into a constructive direction.

I am most inclined towards the last, but it is, perhaps, too post-partisan for many. I am sympathetic to the first, but I am not sure how it works politically.

So perhaps we need other ideas. But you can’t organize a movement without bodies or ideas. You can cheat, as the Democrats are doing, with anger directed at a person, but it only works for a little while. What are they going to do when they have Hillary Clinton to defend?

In the end, I could see a future clash in the party between potential reformers (Bobby Jindal and Charlie Crist) and future Sams Clubbers (Tim Pawlenty) over this question.

In the meantime, the technologists in the Republican Party either have to pick an answer or build tools and add productivity.

YouTube GOP success, several different ways

Eric Pfieffer from the Washington Times says, basically, that the Save the Debate coalition has won:

The majority of Republican presidential candidates are backing off their objections to participating in the unconventional YouTube debate.

Candidates’ reservations about the seriousness of the format, which features videotaped questions from voters, and the original September date are being resolved and the field is growing, said sources close to the campaigns and debate organizers. …

Initially, only two of the 10 declared Republican candidates agreed to participate: Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

The number is now at four and, the sources said, the full field could be announced as early as this week. The debate now likely will take place in November or December.

This last is a very important point. The date will now be in November or December, when people are actually paying attention to the race. Hopefully, the format can help us achieve a large number of younger viewers, like the Democrat debate achieved:

Monday’s CNN-YouTube debate brought in pretty good numbers, delivering the highest viewership for a debate among adults 18-34 in cable news history.

The GOP CNN/YouTube debate has been converted from an interesting idea and gimmick to, in all likelihood, one of the most important debates of the primary cycle. Also, with nearly 4 months of run-up to the debate, we can expect an enormous number of questions that will have to be sifted through. CNN might have to come up with some better ideas for how to do that.

What the online left is; Both left and right are wrong

It is amusing to read the stories coming out of YearlyKos. You have Chris Bowers’ "Why the Progressive Movement has stalled." And you have Townhall’s Amanda Carpenter’s "Laptop Liberals Plan Takeover at YearlyKos." Both are realizations that the online left isn’t quite what they thought it was.

The left thought that it was a broad-based movement that covered the entire Democratic coalition. Nope. It really was just a bunch of recent college grads and late boomers. The statistics were right. Mid-forties, kids, $90k, white, etc. Somehow a project created by these guys didn’t have broadbased appeal. Who woulda thunk? Bowers is particularly worried about the issue of diversity:

This is something we have seen repeatedly discussed on Open Left and in other places. No matter what other forms of diversity we have in the progressive blogosphere and netroots, we still generally lack racial and ethnic diversity. Also, this statement is applicable just as much to the “leadership” of the blogosphere and netroots as it is to the audience of the blogosphere and netroots.

Now, this is unsurprising to anyone who actually is engaged in politics. Democratic campaigns are very coalition and silo-oriented. In Markos’s and Armstrong’s book about what is wrong with the Democratic coalition and the liberal groups, they talk about the pro-choice groups, the women’s groups, the gay groups, etc. They never talk about the Hispanic groups, the African American groups, etc. They are playing in the liberal white part of the coalition, and it doesn’t expand beyond that. Maybe, it can, but there is probably something else going on.

This reminds me of something Jerome Armstrong said about the Barack Obama’s fundraising:

Obama "raised at least $32.5 million including at least $31 million that we can spend on the battle for the Democratic nomination."

Impressive; I wonder how much came from the internet.

It expressed, as did many other lefty blogosphere posts at the time, that while Obama was succeeding, it wasn’t online, so it only sort-of counted. They are simply fetishizing their own vision of their own movment. What is really happening is: (1) African-Americans sometimes respond to email more than blogs and (2) Obama is bringing new money to the process, including, probably, substantial upper-middle class African-American money, and (3) his post-partisanship is hated by a blogosphere built around Bush-hating and partisanship.

Now, Amanda is typical of the right. What?? This isn’t a bunch of hippies with laptops? No, again, as the surveys have indicated, these are upper-middle class white people with real jobs. And they care about changing the world. And they have found a way to be engaged.

They have created a genuine movement that is mobilizing a new class (in both sociological and Marxist senses) of people. It has been focused on Bush-hating, but it is self-conscious enough to know that it has to evolve.

All of this needs to be a lesson for both the right and the left. For the right, the lesson is that this isn’t just about technology. It is also about actual constituencies and voters and activists. The power of the (second generation, as opposed to the FreeRepublic generation, of the) online right won’t really come together until we find either a new set of people we can activate either financially or on the ground. (the netroots has done both) This will probably take an idea. (the netroots had partisanship and Bush-hating, which are not long-term, but effective in the short-term, and they might yet come out with policy ideas attached to the New Democratic Network)

For the left, they need to realize that they really are socio-economically located.

Either side can break out of their mold if they figure that out. But neither side has.