May 12, 2004

Guest Post: Matt Stoller

How to Leverage the Fact that Democrats are Right on Everything

Matt Stoller is a communications consultant, and edits BOPnews at www.bopnews.com.  He can be reached at matt@bopnews.com.

It’s frustrating to be a Democrat these days.  Not just because, being in the minority, we lose, though we do.  And not just because the other side is able to promote an agenda that every fiber of our beings just intuitively knows is dishonest and about centralizing power in the hands of irresponsible people.  But because there’s a sort of ridiculous moral equivalency in the public sphere, where all politicians are considered mendacious, and so Clinton’s dishonesty about his personal life is equated to Bush’s scary politicization of governmental apparatus and reckless leadership.  Indeed, being a Democrat these days is like arguing with a child about the need to eat something other than dessert, and having the child win, and tweak you in the eye to boot.  It’s… it’s… it’s beyond upsetting.

However, there is a bright side, one hinted at in the Dean campaign, the Kerry surge, and the recent turning out of Spanish and South Korean right-wing political leadership by a newly energized left-leaning electorate.  It’s pretty clear that the left is correct on most of the policy issues of our time; we’re smarter, fairer, more thoughtful, and more republican (little r) than the right-wing.  And since the Democrats are unquestionably correct on issues of governance, the overriding political question of our times boils down to one of communications strategy.  So let me start by talking about blogs and the blogosphere, and what that means to the potential for political communications.

What are blogs and why are they (un)important?

A blog is a journal on the web, or a simple content management system.  Most blogs are personal in nature, and some of the most popular blogs are not political at all.  No one knows how to measure the impact of blogs on our economy or media, or how many people read them or use them (between 2-7% of the population, the last Pew study I saw).  Many blog readers don’t even know they are reading blogs.  And that’s sort of the point; blogs don’t matter.

They are, in and of themselves, unimportant.  What is important is that they are part of a digital transformation that is allowing groups that could never before talk to each other and organize to, well, talk to each other and organize.  And while blogs don’t matter, the blogosphere, a networked group of people and organizations having a massive conversation, is the closest analogue to the public sphere that has ever existed.  And that public sphere matters.  After all, money in politics is mostly used to buy ads, and what are ads, if not meant to impact the public sphere?  Indeed, what we are seeing is the relative value of money in politics decreasing (though this is a long-term shift, so do give to the DCCC right now because money still matters).  Howard Dean had more support before he spent his millions, and Bush’s huge recent ad buy didn’t do much to Kerry that ridiculously stupid free media coverage on Kerry’s medal ‘controversy’ and Kerry’s flip-flopping didn’t do.

I realize at this point that many of you are thinking, well, blogs are great and fun, but TV and old politics is still where it’s at.  To which I would respond, of course.  Blogs won’t instantly reverse the last thirty years of right-wing dominated political discourse, they won’t replace GOTV work, they don’t substitute for good ideas, and they alone aren’t going to win you an election (though they may provide the margin of victory as Jerome Armstrong talks about here: http://jerome-armstrong.mydd.com/story/2004/4/28/32321/0325).

The blogosphere, though, is important because it maps human interactions online.  People start blogs and their friends read them, link to them, and forward them around.  Unlike most media, which are dictated by which pipes connect the consumer to which distributor, the blogosphere, listservs, Meetups, and email are built around pipes that are constructed on top of people’s social interactions.  These new networks have the potential not only to bring in new donors and volunteers, but over the next thirty years to politicize entire networks of people who had previously celebrated individual atomization, political apathy and detachment.  Indeed, something just like that happened in South Korea, where voting rates among twenty and thirty somethings have skyrocketed over the past five years, leading to a historic left-wing shift.

It is important for another reason that should embolden progressives.  Candidates that sold well on the internet – from Ross Perot and Jerry Brown in1992 (yes, there were rudimentary listservs back then and politics was brought up) to Jesse Ventura (voting rates among young males jumped in Minnesota when he ran, leading to the first real web-fueled victory), to John McCain (his campaign modeled themselves after the Ventura campaign), to Howard Dean and Wesley Clark all have a certain authenticity (or some might say nutty old white-guy hipness to them) that encourages people to talk to each other about the candidate and their message.  There’s a certain restoration of dialogue that’s going on because of the public sphere manifesting itself online so purely.  And to the extent that honesty in politics is being promoted, progressives will benefit (note that it’s too early to tell the impact of this, that honesty isn’t always going to work, that special interests are still very powerful, yada yada – I’m just pointing out that there is a small bright spot of hope).

But Matt, I Want to be Cynical/Pragmatic

Ok, fine.  TV and special interests still dominate.  I agree with you.  Happy now? 

Let Me Explain How the Blogosphere Is Important And TV Still Dominates

Political strength comes from the ability of policians to draw on reliable supporters for money, organization, political help and votes, and then to use that base to launch outward and capture votes and support from other less reliable places.  To the extent that a politician can rely on a party, he will be beholden to the party.  To the extent that a community provides that base, the politician will be beholden to the community.  If it’s all special interest donors, you get the point.  Democratic politicians have been hamstrung for thirty years by the channeling of progressive energy away from politics; it’s all become a fundraising game, with a small bit of governance thrown in for good measure.  The key to reversing the reactionary tide is to attack this problem, to provide a consistent base of support for progressive policies and governance.

This the blogosphere can and will do because it is actually a community.  Well, not really.  It’s more a group of interlinked communities that talk to each other.  So now it’s possible to build a base to use as a jumping off point for electoral gain, much like the city machines prior to TV (some of the big bloggers, such as Markos of the Daily Kos act kind of like non-corrupt ward bosses who aggressively tend to needs of their communities).  But here’s the catch; no one wants to be treated as an ATM, and people won’t tend to organize their lives around individual politicians.  Instead, they will organize their lives around the groups they join (some like NARAL are big, some like Billionaires for Bush are not), the friends they’ve made, and politicians will have to figure out how to form these groups into effective coalitions.  The potential to have a strong base more powerful than church networks is indeed there.

But then, that’s only a base.  And that’s where TV comes in, and finishes the election.  Still, it’s nice not to have to start from scratch as a party.

Ok, Cool, Let me in!

Does it make sense to start a blog for political purposes?  I don’t know, though the answer is ‘probably.’  Blogs are at the very least useful tools to communicate with your constituents, the media, and your own organization.  The deeper question is, are you willing to invest in building a multi-election cycle political machine?  There’s no shame in saying no; many aren’t cut out for it, and tactically, building a viable political machine is much less important than, say, oh, winning the Presidential election. 

A good blog is a space for discussion.  And frankly, most campaigns aren’t that interesting or fun to talk about (this is why crazy white guy hipsters were the first successful internet campaign subjects, I think – those guys are just fun to talk about, as everyone has a crazy yet benign uncle who does weird stuff).  But campaigns don’t need to be interesting, they just need to win.  My suggestion, if you’re not sure, is to figure out what you want to talk about, and if there’s a space that already exists to talk about that subject, use that space.  Ask to guest-blog on blogs you know and read.  Build coalition blogs focused around specific issues to increase.  Most of all, participate in the communities that already exist online to discuss the issues that are important to you (searching Yahoo Groups is a good place to start). 

How to Run a Good Online Media Compa…er, Campaign

Ok, so you’re interested in running a good online campaign.  But what exactly does that mean?  Well, it means that every time you send an email, or post to your blog, or your web site, or a listserv, or whatever, people will read it and get an impression of you.  If they like it, they will continue to read what you write.  If they don’t, they won’t.  In other words, you are the media.  As the media, you can be boring, or you can be interesting.  Being boring is safe but somewhat pointless, because you are wasting the most valuable thing you have: attention.  It’s easy to be boring.  Just do what everyone else is doing.  Soon, people will stop reading you.

Being interesting isn’t easy.  You have to have a unique perspective, interesting sources, or the willingness to take risks and pick fights.  Taking calculated risks is tough, but if you want to get something done, it’s worth it.  One of the best ways to use your newfound media power and amplify it is to not be grossly partisan, but to describe, in measured tones, what is going on.  Don’t mince words and do admit mistakes (this is called taking responsibility for your actions, something this administration doesn’t think is very much fun at all).  Call out the Republican leadership, but do so in a way that reflects honorably on the citizens who support the Republican party.  After all, people are reading you because they trust you, and they know that no situation is just a simplistic fight between Democrats on the side of good and Republicans on the side of evil.  Most of the fights we lose have to do with Republicans corrupting themselves, succumbing to temptation, and the media failing to do its job.  This is an interesting story, and one you can tell to great effect without getting all angry and partisan.

After all, your greatest asset is who you are.  You know Washington, the personalities, the watering holes, the foibles, the fights, and what Congressmen are really like.  You have access to a huge trove of information that people outside of DC want to get their hands on, even if you don’t realize that you have a tremendous shared interest with all the people outside the city who are just as smart as you, but who work in non-political professions (ie. real jobs, har har har).  Or maybe you work outside of DC and understand finance really well, or fundraising, or advertising, or just knock on doors all day.  It doesn’t really matter.  Your perspective is valuable to hear, as long as it’s interesting.

A lot of running effectively online is getting people to talk to each other about you.  So start conversations, instead of putting out press releases, and be credible.  (Note that this is different from online organizing, which is more complicated and beyond the scope of what I’m talking about here).

Be Generous

If you do start a blog or public space online, be generous.

There are no spacial limitations online; unlike most spotlights, the more you shine the online spotlight away from you on the internet the brighter you look.  That’s what Google does, for example.  It gives people other places to go that are not Google.  And so of course Google is one of the heaviest trafficked sites on the internet.

Invite lots of people and groups to share your blog or online space - that can only make your space more relevant and your cause more credible.  Bring in supporters to talk to each other, bring in non-supporters, bring in allies, or just get interesting professors to write about your region or subject matter.  Link to groups and articles that are interesting, push people away from your site, and engage with the issues of the day.

Keep Your Eye on the Real Enemy

Finally, remember, the real opponent is not the Republican Party, per se.  They are the party of Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves, Teddy Roosevelt, the first environmental President, and Nixon who, er, bad example.  But still, you get the point.  The problem in our political system is not the other side of the aisle, for there are honorable men and women who call themselves Republicans, and every election, Republicans vote for Democrats, and vice versa.

The problem is much more basic: dangerous concentrations of power that rise to tyrannical levels.  It is dangerous concentrations of power that undo our system of checks and balances.  A New York Times that gets Whitewater wrong and doesn’t bother to correct itself because it doesn’t have to, a corporation that pollutes at will, a Tom Delay who can seemingly threaten and bribe without consequence, a vicious school principal – these are all examples of gut-level tyranny that our system was designed to protect against.  Tilt your rhetoric in this direction, against tyranny rather than the other political party, and what you say can still be harsh, but it will not sound like partisanized bickering.  In fact, your words will cut deeper, because they will ring fair and true.

And finally, a question I want to put to rest.

Is Liberalism More Complicated or Boring Than Being Conservative?

No.  Being liberal is fabulous.

Seriously?

Yes.  Now go be liberal.


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