Britt Blaser is starting a protracted and useful screed on the meaning of online activism. He starts by taking on Dick Morris, now of Vote.com, whom he describes as a kind of lapsed visionary — frankly, I think Morris was a successful political operative, but not a visionary. Anyhow, here’s the nut of Britt’s argument:
You can hear the shock and dread in Lydon’s dulcet tones as Dick Morris tells him that Karl Rove and the Republicans have been gathering 20-30 million email addresses while Dean’s grabbed a half million or so. Lydon’s summary:
“The essence of the Internet,” he said, “is not that it provides a new set of eyes and ears, but that it gives the voters a mouth, which they’ve never had in the media. The impact of that is absolutely historic.”
But Morris makes it a mighty Republican tool in 2004, especially in the hands of Karl Rove, a direct-mail master. With email, Rove simply saves the postage. “Let’s remember,” Morris observed, “that the Internet is more male than female, more right-wing than left-wing, more upscale than downscale.” The vast right-wing conspiracy which grew up outside the mainstream media is savvy now about spontaneous on-line community building. Not all the grassroots on the right are Astroturf. “The Republican base is seething with activity,” Morris said. “Also, c’mon, you can’t think of any community that is better connected, and better wired to itself, than the religious community. There are all kinds of prayer groups around the country, and the fact is that people who attend church regularly vote Republican by 2 to 1, and those who don’t vote Democratic by 2 to 1. The gay marriage issue is going to accentuate that divide. So I think this kind of viral bottom-up growth (which is what the Internet is all about) will be as much Republican as Democratic.”
… and that it will be a battle of the extremists the presumptive Dean “liberals” vs. the real rightists.
We Deaniacs, according to Dick Morris, are living in a naive echo chamber where bad news is unwelcome and our breathless enthusiasms insulate us from the harsh realities of the political marketplace.
It’s the Community, Stupid!
What people want is to reach out to their neighbors and have an agreeable conversation. A real connection with a human trumps Morris’ vision of mechanical intermediation by his own Internet startup, vote.com. His analysis is spot on, but his vision is a business plan. I’m searching for the web applications that, like meetup.com, connect me with you so we can find agreement on the issues that matter and discover how trivial are the things that seem to divide us.
Morris has a point, not one quite so schoolmarmish as Britt believes: All movements tend to obliterate the bad news and opinion that don’t agree with the prevailing logic of the movement. And, Morris is also right that the bottom-up nature of political activation is equally accessible to the Republicans and Democrats.
Nonetheless, there is an essential difference between the phenomenon that Morris is describing and the ideal of bottom-up politicking represented by the Dean campaign: The Bush strategy will be to dictate a party line and demand obedience. That’s just plain old fucked-up top-down politics using a new mechanism of communication to reinforce its claim to the loyalty of its supporters.
So, what remains to be seen is whether the new bottom-up system can contend successfully with the old top-down system that has access to the Internet and has seen in the Dean campaign how to use it.
What Britt needs to recognize is that Morris isn’t saying Dean people are naive, but that they need to be careful not to be taken in by the freshness of their approach to politics, which is still susceptible to most, if not all, the faults of human nature. Granted, Morris doesn’t mean to give advice, but the good and bad news and, especially, criticism, need to be taken with equanimity if the bottom-up system isn’t to fall prey to cultish naivete.
It’s a mistake to accept an engineered solution as a substitute for human nature. Alas, this is already happening in digital democracy, where the Bush Administration has implemented a voting system, known as SERVE, that will be used by a dozen or so states in the 2004 election. Amazingly, the technology is presented as so exciting and new that no one is even asking why the Department of Defense, an agency of the Executive Branch, is counting votes in an election that will determine control of the Executive Branch. We get all caught up with the elegance of our systems and forget that political systems are designed to deal with human shortcomings, like the tendency to cheat when the opportunity is available.
We need to consider all the factors, not just the technical, when anticipating new social systems.