A few recent posts at The Next Right have confirmed that Jon Henke and Patrick Ruffini are the only conservative bloggers I know of seriously considering how to build a netroots movement on the right.

(blue lightbulb by Curious Zed, cc-by-nc-nd)

(blue lightbulb by Curious Zed, cc-by-nc-nd)

Henke builds off of Ruffini’s assessment of the Obama campaign, elaborating the idea of “long tail empowerment” to describe the distributed organizing structure currently employed by the Democratic candidate. He then juxtaposes this decentralized and market-based approach to campaigning with the top-down “command and control” approach currently being used by the Republicans.

Finally, Henke offers his explanation for these differences:

“I believe a great deal of this is attributable to the state of each Movement.

  • Consolidation: The Right is behaving like a company within a declining industry, which focuses on increasing market share, rather than expanding the actual market itself.  Declining industries are defensive, seeking tradition and efficiency rather than innovation.  The Right – and the Republican Party – is trying to manage the decline by consolidating successes and attacking their opponent to limit the Left’s market share.
  • Expansion: The Left is behaving like a company within an expanding industry, making speculative investment to build for market growth, for competitive advantage within the emerging market. The Left is playing offense, innovating.  The political pendulum is swinging their way, and they are working to turn that momentum into permanent infrastructural gains.”

The irony here is that Henke’s (and Ruffini’s) analysis mirrors the claims made by Markos Moulitsas over the past five years on Daily Kos as well as in his books Taking On the System and Crashing the Gate. You can almost hear Kos chuckling to himself in the background of this post in which Ruffini spins out a fantasy in which Sarah Palin emerges as a latter day Howard Dean for the conservative movement:

Sarah Palin’s legacy as the VP nominee will matter inordinately in defining the Next Right. If the experience is seen as a constructive one (much like Dean), reminding us that it’s possible to get regular activists excited about being Republicans again, that Barack Obama ain’t the only one who can pack the arenas, and injecting a positive vibe into the GOP at the grassroots level, then I am optimistic about the GOP bouncing back. If instead the lesson of Palin is that we need to pick safe, uninspiring candidates (who will get utterly clobbered by Obama’s $1 billion+ re-election campaign, btw) who don’t offend Christopher Buckley, then I fear we are in for a long winter indeed.

Is that the theme song from the Twilight Zone playing in the background?

In all seriousness, I believe these guys make some excellent points and that their perspective merits sustained consideration by those on the left and the right

The question I have for Ruffini and Henke is whether a netroots of the right would (or even could) look like the netroots of the left? There’s a great case to be made (and some of us here at The Berkman Center are planning to publish some research in the near future that provides empirical support for this case) that technology usage patterns on the left and right of the blogosphere are significantly different. Combine that kind of evidence with some recent studies in cognitive psychology and some genetics-oriented political science work (pdf) and you can see the outline of an argument for the co-evolution of genes and political institutions.

The full extent or significance of this hypothetical argument is something I’m interested in exploring further. In the meantime, I should underscore that I’m neither advocating nor endorsing such a view just yet. It needs a lot of additional research to back it up and is in danger of sounding very deterministic at this early stage in its development.

Nevertheless, the nascent evidence for the co-evolutionary theory of U.S. politics gives me just enough rhetorical leverage to push back against some of Henke and Ruffini’s claims. It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to predict that it’s highly unlikely that the varieties of netroots activism that may evolve on the right will produce identical outcomes to that of the left. In building the fundraising and organizing capacity of the blogosphere, the Dean campaign, and the Obama campaign, the left has not used a single tool or technique that was not also available to the right. Likewise, individuals and organizations on the left have made conscious decisions to utilize the tools and techniques in particular ways that made sense within their existing organizational and institutional contexts. Those contexts are distinct from the ones on the right. As a result, the tools may or may not translate especially well.

I don’t have any answers here, just more questions. But I’m very curious to hear what Ruffini, Henke, Kos, and others would make of this issue.

Update: Henke posted a thoughtful reply to this piece. I’ve just posted a reply to his reply.

Update #2: kos responds to Henke and Ruffini (and even me, a little) and I reply to him too.

In typically thought-provoking fashion, Gene Koo has jumped in to offer a response to my half-baked thinking about the network structure of the Obama campaign. He gives us this graphic:

Obama campaign network structure (by Gene Koo)

Obama campaign network structure (by Gene Koo and Rachel Anderson)

He also explains it:

The superstructure of the campaign is traditional, top-down command-and-control (with information flowing upwards, of course). At the roots the campaign — as is typical for most volunteer efforts — comprises ad hoc mesh networks. It’s in inserting strong, tightly-knit teams that the campaign has made the greatest innovation. Each team, as a whole, functions like a paid staffer, with similar responsibilities and accountability.

Gene draws on Rachel Anderson’s experience with Camp Obama as well as Zack Exley’s HuffPo article to support his analysis of the Neighborhood Teams (illustrated as the “local team” in the graph) and, if we accept Exley’s analysis at face value, I think this hits the nail on the head.

If nothing else, I suspect Gene’s graph reflects the system’s design as it was envisioned by Marshall Ganz and others. Nevertheless, I have my suspicion that the neighborhood teams are somewhat inconsistent in reality (just a hunch, no data to back it up).

Whether my hunches are confirmed or not, the degree to which actual practices deviate from the system’s design will help determine the success of campaign’s efforts. It may also determine the extent to which this campaign serves as a model for future organizing efforts.

In relation to Gene’s diagram, I’m also curious about how to account for the effect of technologically-enhanced data collection and social networking capacities that the campaign is also utilizing. Does this operate outside or alongside the organizational network diagram?

Updated: My apologies to Rachel Anderson for not providing proper attribution in the original version of this post. I have altered the title and text of this post to reflect Gene’s comment (below). Since the post has already been published, I’m going to leave the URL unchanged, however.