July 08, 2003
Back and Forth on Micropolitics

Two pieces published in the last couple of days in the Washington Post take differing views of the significance of Howard Dean’s success in using the Net as an organizing tool.

In Sunday’s op-ed piece entitled “An Online Revolution? I Don’t See It”, Yankee Group analyst J. P. Gownder makes the case that the buzz about Dean is a tempest in a teapot. Then, in today’s editorial page, political columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. takes the opposite tack in his piece “Dean’s Grass-Roots Cash Cow”.

Regular readers of this space will be unsurprised to learn which one I agree with. But first, an observation: does the Post require, or at least encourage, its columnists to drop their first names and just go by initials? I only ask because “J. P. versus E. J.” sounds like the lede on a story about an arm-wrestling match in a truck stop.

But seriously, folks… (try the veal, tip your waitress, thankyouverymuch)

In all seriousness, I do think that Dionne argues his point better than Gownder does. Gownder’s argument basically boils down to this:

  • Howard Dean’s staff think the Internet has changed the rules of political organizing.
  • The Internet changing things! Well, we’ve heard that before, haven’t we?

This kind of argument by innuendo and false analogy is pretty easy to swat down — just because Pets.com didn’t change how dog food gets sold doesn’t mean that Dean can’t change how political money gets raised. Gownder does make one point, however, that I think is worth addressing: that Dean’s organizing success has meant more in terms of dollars than it has in terms of actual people.

So far, Howard Dean Meetup affiliates have held six nationwide events. I attended my first on June 4 in Boston’s financial district. I arrived 30 minutes early — and I wasn’t the only one. In addition to the 14 Meetup volunteer “hosts,” a steady stream of upbeat, up-and-coming, prosperous looking types — just the kind of crowd you might expect to see at an event for a liberal Democrat — arrived well before the event started…

The procession of the well-heeled continued. A few people looked like computer programmers I might have seen at the premiere of “The Matrix: Reloaded.” Of the 120 or so attendees, my informal tabulations suggested a 60-to-40 male-female ratio, a fairly even distribution of younger and older adults , and — without exaggeration — 99 percent white…

Told they were part of Internet history, many attendees cheered enthusiastically. Individual supporters expressed a strong belief that the Internet was enabling Dean to tap into a limitless source of new blood. And for some participants, the Internet itself was central: To borrow a phrase, the medium was the message. The first two people I encountered were former dot-com employees, one of whom was still looking for a job following his second layoff.

But had Meetup.com helped Dean reach new constituencies, such as African Americans, other ethnic communities, working class people, non-liberals? Not based on what I saw. Without the Internet, it was likely that Dean would find support among affluent, white, liberal professionals. With the Internet, he attracted affluent, white, liberal professionals who spent a lot of time online. Meetup.com was just a continuation of politics by other means.

Gownder seems to think that this sneering at the folks he met at the Dean Meetup seals his argument; but a preponderance of young white professionals at a Howard Dean event could be caused by any number of factors. For one thing, Dean’s signature issues — universal private health care and opposition to pre-emptive war — are issues that will resonate more with young white professionals than they will with other communities, which may be more oriented towards lower unemployment, civil rights/affirmative action, or other issues. In other words, Dean’s Meetup demographics may have as much to do with the platform he’s running on as they do with how the events are organized. Also, Gownder neglects that the Democratic field right now is extremely splintered, and there are two candidates — Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley-Braun — who are fighting directly and fiercely for the attention of black voters. Therefore, a lack of black Democrats at a Dean Meetup does not mean that Dean is necessarily failing to build a true coalition — instead, it’s more a reflection of how the proliferation of Democratic candidates is forcing each one to play to a niche audience and hope they survive long enough in the primaries to get to address the party as a whole.

Dionne’s piece, on the other hand, hits the nail so strongly on the head that I had a sneaking suspicion he’d been writing from my notes:

In the old soft money system, the most efficient way to raise $100 million was through a small number of very rich people. One hundred people giving $100,000 each quickly gets you to $10 million. But Joe Trippi, Dean’s campaign manager and an evangelist for the gospel of online politics, describes the alternative: You can raise $100 million if a million people contribute an average of $100 each. If Democrats can’t find a few million people willing to part with a couple of bucks a week, they’re in trouble.

Exactly. He even addresses the complaints some have made that the attention Dean’s getting as an innovator should more rightly go to John McCain using the exact same argument that I’ve been pushing:

Rosenberg (Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democratic Network — ed.) thinks the Web helps any candidate of any ideology who demonstrates “the passion, the cause and the commitment.” This description applies quite well to Sen. John McCain, who took the first steps in making effective use of Internet fundraising. McCain made his splash only after beating Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire primary. Dean has shown that an insurgent can use the Internet to bypass the usual political powers long before a single vote is cast.

See, that’s the thing with the McCain example — McCain was a trailblazer, but he was already a well-known Republican when he used the Net to start raising money. Bush knew to count McCain as a serious rival long before either one of them put up a Web site. Dean has done something different — he’s used the Net to make himself into a serious candidate. How many more people in John Kerry’s campaign are sweating over Howard Dean this week, do you think? I’d be willing to bet it’s waaay more than was the case, say, a month ago.

E. J. gets my vote as the Clueful Pundit of the Week!

Posted by Jason Lefkowitz at July 08, 2003
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