October 24, 2008
Henke begins by contesting my claim that there are ironic echoes of Markos Moulitsas in his and Patrick Ruffini’s writings:
Actually, I don’t think it’s ironic at all that the analysis of problems on the Right is similar to the arguments made by the Netroots Left. For one thing, the “claims made by Markos Moulitsas” are in many ways intentional recycling of the movement on the Right.
This is certainly a fair point to make (although the link to the TNR article was broken, so I’m not totally sure what evidence he’s using to supoprt his point). While I suspect kos might disagree strongly, I can see how there are some ways in which his strategic push for a populist, patriotic Left powered by mass participation borrows from the playbook of the Right.
Nevertheless, an underlying assumption in much of kos’s work has been the idea that there is something inherent to the culture of the Left which has made it particularly well-suited to decentralized action online. To me, it sounds like Henke and Ruffini don’t agree with this piece of kos’s thinking at all, but I’d be interested to hear more from them on this.
Henke then goes on to build off my argument that the current cross-ideological differences in networked organizing have not been determined by technologies per se:
The underlying systemic inputs are very similar. The political/electoral culture and incentives, and the emergence of the internet (sic) as an important social and technological phenomenon impacted both the Left and Right at approximately the same time.
The difference in uptake and evolution is predominantly due to the political cycle. Democrats went through the wilderness from 1995 to 2003; they found their way from 2003 to 2008. Republicans entered their wilderness in 2007, though I would argue that the Right has been in the wilderness for longer. How long the Right wanders in the wilderness depends, in large part, on how seriously they take the lessons they can learn from the Left.
The emphases to underscore what I take to be the key points here. The notion of an evolutionary political cycle is an interesting one that I’d like to think about more. While I am not aware of rigorous empirical research that supports this kind of idea, I agree that it’s an attractive explanation of political dynamics in this country since the mid twentieth century. It would be great to find out if someone’s tested the theory more carefully.
In my offline conversations with Gene Koo, we’ve also been throwing around the idea that a stint in the wilderness may speed up the process of partisan innovation by unleashing some old fashioned creative destruction. Gene frequently uses the metaphor of a political business cycle to describe this and argues for something like a leapfrogging effect as the parties alternately innovate, win power, and then grow complacent until they are forced to innovate again. This is very similar to Jon’s point. It’s also clearly reflected in the recent experience of the Left, which had to overcome the flawed strategies of the Clintonian Democratic Leadership Council to build a much more impressive grassroots machine for the 2006 mid-terms that may be on the vege of delivering a knockout punch two weeks from now.
Finally, Henke concludes by addressing what I see as the greatest obstacle facing an honest-to-goodness Rightosphere/Rightroots movement:
Does the Rightosphere not organize as well because of the nature of the online Republicans? Or do the online Republicans not organize as well because of problems with the Republican Party? I think it’s mostly the latter – something that can be fixed – but it will not be changed until a number of other changes happen within the Right and the Republican Party.
Unfortunately, there are powerful, entrenched interests maintaining the Republican status quo.
Once again, I think Jon and I mostly agree (apologies to any of you who came here looking for rhetorical fireworks – that was your first mistake). The main difference is that where he underscores the opportunity for a more profound break, I emphasize that a great deal of continuity is inevitable.
This same emphasis on continuity underpins my earlier claim that organizational/cultural differences will shape a Rightroots movement into something very distinct from the Progressive Netroots. The communications practices that helped the Republicans achieve electoral success in recent cycles – micro-targeting, direct mail, exceptional party discipline, and centrally-coordinated messaging – have “hardened” into organizations and personnel with a big stake in self-preservation (that’s those entrenched interests Jon’s talking about). New pathways to electoral victory for the Right will, at least in part, stem from the adoption of new organizing tactics. Nevertheless, I suspect that traces of the old institutions (in the form of people and organizational structures) will find a way into whatever comes next.
(Correction: I apologize for adding an “h” to Jon’s name in the original version of my previous post. I have subsequently changed it.)
October 23, 2008
My trusty RSS feeds have turned up two interesting recent posts on the subject of the Obama campaign and it’s implications for the future of governance in a networked society.
First, David Lazer, professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Director of the Program on Networked Governance, asks some big questions (emphasis added):
The lights are not going off on this operation. If Obama loses, the network provides him an instant infrastructure to run again. The more intriguing question to me, as a student of politics, is what happens if, as seems likely right now, he wins. There are inter-related political and strategic questions. On the political side, the question is how Obama might use the apparatus to help him govern. Does he directly appeal to his e-mail list to support his policy objectives? There are, on average, about four thousand politically active Obama supporters in each Congressional district–that could be a lot of letters to Members.
And a few lines down:
…On the strategic side, the question is to what extent does the apparatus continue to evolve to allow grassroots involvement, and to what extent does stuff flow up as well as down? In the long run, the only way that there will be some stickiness to the structure is if the people who have been involved can mobilize for local action, can connect to each other, and feel that their voices matter.
Meanwhile, Joshua-Michele Ross at O’Reilly interviews Jascha Franklin-Hodge (founder and CTO of Blue State Digital, or BSD), who offers some partial answers to many of the same questions.
I recommend reading the whole post (and watching the videos, if you’re more of a visual person or whatever), but here’s the bullet-point version of Ross’s claims if you absolutely insist (emphasis removed from the original):
- Online U.S. political communities will morph from a campaign fundraising role to a governing role.
- Rather than one centrally governed behemoth, MyBO is enabling a thousand small campaigns to flourish…This kind of swarm politics has generated enormous amounts of energy (and money) from ordinary citizens.
- Technology (infrastructure and know-how) will become a necessary core competence in all U.S. political campaigns…Campaigns that maintain or are able to tap into a continuity of software, infrastructure and human capital will have serious advantage.
- When lobbyist data, earmark data etc. is available in standard formats it will be a great leap forward for more transparency in government.
Responses 1-3 are in varying stages of already being true. Number 4, on the other hand, has a long way to go (although the folks at the Sunlight Foundation are plugging away on that front).
Whether Franklin-Hodge’s vision of digital democracy comes to fruition, the devil will be in the details. An underlying concern voiced by Lazer is how the nodes (citizens and groups) at the edges of U.S. politics might use digital networks to enhance traditional mechanisms of representation (politicians and political parties). I would build off this insight to ask both authors whether they think the architecture of the network and the technologies that run it will also play an important role in determining the fate of netwoked democracy? If so, how do we design networks to facilitate democratic practice?
As a number of folks have argued, the choice of particular platforms and standards will enable certain forms of civic engagement while foreclosing or devaluing others. Furthermore, just because voters could gain access to the same kinds of technologies doesn’t mean they’ll use them equally effectively or even in the same ways (check out Eszter Hargittai’s research on skillful Internet use if you want some really sobering examples).
All of this is to say that the prospect of a networked polis (like a networked public sphere) presents a number of problems and challenges that few (if any) societies have been able to resolve with earlier communications technologies or institutional formations. In the ancient Greek version of the polis, a narrow class of citizens (land-owning men of means) had the ability and the right to participate. While contemporary democracies have become more populist and inclusive, the reality is that the playing field remains wildly uneven in favor of the wealthy, the well-educated, and the well-connected.
If the future imagined by Franklin-Hodge, Lazer, and others indeed comes to pass, all the fiber optic cable in the world will not make the democratization of effective citizenship any less of an uphill battle.
October 14, 2008
As people begin to wonder how Obama has managed to separate from McCain so convincingly in the polls, a wave of coverage looking at the Obama campaign’s ground game has suggested some interesting lines of analysis.
Today, I started digging around in my RSS feeds and discovered that Ari Melber also took a close look at the Obama campaign’s “web-savvy” organizing at The Nation last week.
In addition, Gene Koo also pointed me towards a Sunday Washington Post story by Alec MacGillis that gathers expert/insider perspectives over the phone comparing the Obama and McCain approach (although the McCain coverage is really thin, it seems like he didn’t actually get quotes from anyone in the organization).
If you’re into this kind of thing, you should check them all out. Taken together, they provide a comprehensive portait of a GOTV machine the likes of which have not been seen for quite a while.
For the rest of you, here’s the executive summary: the conclusions are largely the same all around. Obama’s success is all about leveraging technologies and strong messaging to engage volunteers and put them to good use.
Here’s a good quote from MacGillis’s WaPo story that connects the dots:
“The basic concept is not a new or revolutionary one,” said Jon Carson, Obama’s national field director. “Campaigns have always wanted to have a grass-roots, volunteer-driven effort. The two pieces that came together for us . . . was the sheer volume of the people who wanted to get involved and the technology making it easier than ever before to find us. It wasn’t that Democrats didn’t get it” in past campaigns. “It was that . . . they weren’t able to make it work on this scale.”
And another that gets at the tension between what I’ve been thinking of as centralized and distributed organizing:
“You have to have really good message discipline so that the whole organization down to the local level is echoing the central message, which for us now is all about the economy,” said Jeff Blodgett, the Minnesota director. “It’s decentralized, but that there’s a control point around the message and around data and accountability.”
Melber, on the other hand, chips in some fascinating big-brotherish details on how the campaign manages their resources.
Mind-bending quote #1 (about how the campaign harvests and integrates data coming in from the web):
“Every night there’s a data sync on who is new and who is a longtime MyBO [Obama social network] user who started making calls,” says Joe Rospars, Obama’s new-media director, explaining how the campaign integrates virtual actions with organizing on the ground. A swing-state supporter who signs up online will swiftly receive calls from local staff and targeted e-mails. “Fifty percent of our e-mail is on state-specific items, like volunteer recruitment,” Rospars told me one Sunday night in September, at a Chicago bar a few blocks from Obama headquarters. Each time a supporter interacts with the campaign, Rospars says, data specialists “create new layers” for targeting that person by region, engagement and volunteer preferences.
and, mind-bending quote #2 (about the use of volunteer text messaging and cell phones):
On September 28 the campaign launched a turnout application on the popular iPhone. In a break with typical voter contact models, it empowers users to call their personalized list of voters. It sorts friends’ phone numbers by “key battleground states” to focus on the people with potentially decisive votes. Tapping personal networks can also unearth people who are not on the grid for conventional outreach. Scott Goodstein, the guru behind ObamaMobile, the campaign’s cell outreach, anticipates the program “will generate thousands of additional personal contacts.” Within a week of its launch, the tool broke into the Top Ten free downloads on iTunes.
I’ve been wondering whether and how the campaigns were responding to the explosion of cell phone use and the demographics of “cell only voters.” I now have a much better idea.
Melber goes on to discuss the campaign’s extensive GOTV efforts (and their nominally non-partisan under-the-radar voter registration website, VoteForChange) and then wraps up the piece with an interesting reflection on the long-term implications of this kind of campaign.
If his strategy succeeds, all presidential politics could change. First-time voters–both this generation of the young, black or marginalized as well as future rookie cohorts–might become a constituency that candidates pursue. The long shot, if Obama wins big, is a larger electoral universe that forces Republicans to play catch-up. The party that spent decades stifling voter turnout, from illegal suppression to court-sanctioned ploys like ID requirements, could find electoral salvation depends on the ability to register its own new voters. Couple that grassroots pressure with an economic crisis stoking intense bipartisan populism, and a “new politics” might really be on the horizon.
Point taken, Ari, but that’s a llittle high-flown for my taste. While I’m hardly in a position to cast doubt on such a radical alternative political future, there’s good reason to believe that the Obama campaign’s (hypothetical) extraordinary success with first-time voters is going to be much harder to reproduce than it’s Internet and cell-phone based organizing tactics. While deeply connected with Obama’s brand and message at the moment, such digitally-enhanced practices will translate seamlessly into new and ideologically opposed contexts.
That said, there’s also no guarantee that Republicans will embrace the same organizing technologies as the resurgent Dems. Along these lines it’s interesting to note that I have yet to come across a single example of a Democratic campaign using Rovian direct-mail techniques with great success. That’s not to say there aren’t any such examples, but the fact that I’ve been paying attention to this stuff and never seen them is illustrative.
In the event of an Obama victory, we will only hear more about the campaign’s remarkable efforts. There will also be a lot of hand-wringing on the right as to where things went wrong and how best to blaze the trail back from the political wilderness. For the next few weeks, however, it’s still an open contest.