January 21, 2004
The Real Test For Dean and Netroots

Since I’m a pretty outspoken proponent of the “netroots” theory of political organizing, I’ve had plenty of people ask me over the last couple of days what my take is on Howard Dean’s third-place finish in the Iowa caucus. The one point I think is most worth addressing on this issue is one that always seems to come up in these conversations — that the real test for whether or not netroots is going to be able to deliver for Dean will be the New Hampshire primary.

That’s a sentiment with which I respectfully disagree. The real test for Dean and netroots is not in New Hampshire — it’s here, and in dozens of other forums just like it.

That link points to a forum on the Dean for America blog called “People Powered Campaign Ideas”. It’s a place for people to make suggestions and post ideas for the direction the Dean campaign should take.

Why is that important? It’s important because one of the core values of netroots is that politics is a conversation. The traditional model has been all about one-way communication — the campaign shouting its Message from on high to the ignorant masses. Netroots replaces that with two-way conversation — with an approach that’s as much about listening as it is about talking.

Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi has been fond of calling his approach to this campaign “open source politics”, drawing a comparison between it and the open source software movement. One of the keys to the high quality of open source software has been precisely that the guts of the product are available for anyone who’s interested to take a look at. Of course, most people will never look; but in a world of six billion people, even if only a tiny fraction ever do, that’s still thousands of people. And when thousands of people are looking at the same thing, flaws tend to be found very quickly — much more quickly than if you paid one or two people to do the same task. (As open source evangelist Eric Raymond has put it, “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”)

However, pulling together enough eyes to find the problems is only half the task of open source software development. The other half is being willing to listen when the bug reports start rolling in. For some developers, that can be downright painful — getting what sounds like criticism from total strangers. These developers don’t fix the bugs; they clap their hands over their ears and pretend not to hear the chorus of frustrated users. Eventually the users get the idea and give up on the project, leaving the developer to his lonely, blissful ignorance.

Other developers, however, recognize that these bug reports are Good Things. They mean that people are using the software, and that they like it and care enough about it to want it to get better. These developers track the bug reports, do their best to fix as many bugs as they can, and ask their users for ideas for improvements and new features. These projects are the ones that thrive and grow.

So, what does all this have to do with Howard Dean? Well, you can think of the Iowa experience as a kind of system crash. Trippi loaded up his pride and joy for the first time and then saw the political equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death.

The real question — the real test — is, what happens now? One of the more intriguing potential benefits of netroots is the way that a campaign’s local people could become the equivalent of those bug reporters — helping keep the campaign anchored to reality, and allowing it to correct its course much more quickly, after a reverse than it could if it depended solely on central planning. If a bad strategy is a bug, then all those eyeballs should make it shallow.

Some will say that this is all moot because New Hampshire is less than a week away. I say that’s not thinking expansively enough. Nobody cares about winning New Hampshire for its few delegates — they care about it because winning there gives them the “Big Mo”, the momentum of a front-runner, which they can convert into fund-raising mojo. But Dean has got tens of millions in the bank, he’s got the lead in the overall delegate count even if he loses New Hampshire (thanks to early commitments from “superdelegates” and New Hampshire’s small number of actual delegates), and he’s got people on the ground in all fifty states. The traditional thinking is that you can’t raise money after New Hampshire without the “Big Mo”, but Dean has shown a new way to raise money — a self-financing community — that treats the candidate the way a nation looks at its currency: it has value as long as they believe in his viability. So as long as he brings his community with him — as long as he can keep some sizable fraction of those people convinced that he can win, and that they shouldn’t all close their wallets and shift allegiances — thinking of New Hampshire as a critical field of battle feels almost quaint.

To work, though, this would require the campaign to pull a Cortes: burn its ships and turn its back on the conventional wisdom completely. And it would require them to engage their followers in a kind of dialogue about What Went Wrong that no political campaign in modern times has ever undertaken. Would it lead to victory? Who knows? But in a way, it would be a fitting kind of return to form: when Dean adopted the netroots strategy, he did so because he was the longest of long shots. As the song said, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose; and Howard Dean had nothing to lose, so he was mighty free. At some point, though, as the endorsements and money and magazine covers piled up, they lost that freedom; they stopped playing to win and started playing not to lose. Now they’re on a fast track back to where they started. If ever there was a time for creative thinking, for laughing in the face of fear, now is that time for them.

But can they do it? Are Trippi and Co. the developers with their hands over their ears, waiting for those annoying users and their bugs reports to go away and leave them alone to do it their way? Or are they mining the bug reports from the Iowa beta test and issuing patches even as I write this?

In forums like the one I pointed to above, there are Dean people contributing ideas right now. The next big test for Dean with netroots will be to see if he and his people are listening — and, if so, what they do with the things that they hear.

Posted by Jason Lefkowitz at January 21, 2004
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Ant's Eye View is edited by Jason Lefkowitz, a consultant and Web developer in Alexandria, Virginia. Got a question, comment, or concern? Let me hear it!

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