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Anders Bylund: Out Of His Depth


Anyone who has spent a good deal of time working in politics will tell you how annoying it is that everyone else considers themselves an expert on politics. That doesn’t happen in other fields. I read about technology, but I don’t consider myself an engineer. I would never walk up to a guy that installs robotics units in semi-conductor plants and tell him what he’s doing wrong, or all the problems with robotics.

For some reason, though, nobody feels any compunction to remain silent on matters of politics when talking to professional campaign hacks. Suddenly they are experts on what it takes to organize and mobilize supporters around a cause. That’s where Anders Bylund comes in.

    In prehistoric times, i.e., before the Internet, getting a political movement off the ground meant getting your hands dirty. You had to go find your target audience and talk to them, find volunteers to go knocking on doors or cold-call people on the phone. There were letters to write and envelopes to stuff, and it was just a lot of work. Then along came the ‘Net, where you could publish one web page and the whole world could find it. Easy-to-use e-mail lists, and later on, instant messaging and blogs, also helped simplifying the process of drumming up support from your friends, neighbors, and countrymen.

The article goes on to quote the same Democrat stooges who believe that Internet activists represent some surge in civic involvement, rather than recognizing them for what they are – the grassroots of America’s political structure.

I wrote a piece for the e-Voter Institute’s book Crossing the River: The Coming of Age of the Internet in Politics and Advocacy on this very topic. Republicans, after the 2000 election, looked at their narrow loss and realized that they needed to reconnect with the grassroots – to do the hard work of organizing. Democrats failed to grasp that point and, instead, stumbled into 2004 under the same failed roadmap they had used in every election since Kennedy.

The Democrats did, however, get lucky. Howard Dean, in a fluke accident, reconnected with the grassroots of the party and began to get them moving – online. Unfortunately, the Democrats saw this not as the grassroots of their party (and a rabidly liberal grassroots at that) but as a social movement indicating that they would be swept into power in a Reagan-esque landslide.

When it all shook out, the GOP, who had spent their time doing the “hard work” that Ars Technica seems to believe is no longer necessary given the advent of the Internet, beat Kerry by nearly 4 million votes. The difference was a focus on organizing – rather than a belief that with Meetup organizing would take care of itself.

If Bylund, and other Democrats, believe that politics has become “easy” and grassroots campaigns are as simple as setting up a website and collecting e-mails, they are deluded. If they believe in the “great social movement” theory that Trippi and other espouse, they are in for huge disappointment.

The Internet is a facilitator. It allows you to do the things you want to do on your terms. If you choose to be politically active (as political activists are wont) then you can take action easily. If you are not inclined to be politically engaged, as most of America is not, then you will not become engaged simply because the Internet exists.

eBay and Amazon created a way to shop that takes the travel, lines, and hassle of crowds out of the equation. What they did not create is new shoppers or even a burning desire to shop. People still shop about as often now, but they don’t have to leave home to do it. Online politics will afford the same opportunities as online commerce – you can do it at home, it’s relatively easy, and once your done you can forget it – sign a petition, send a check, whatever. It will not make you more inclined to get in your car and go vote; improve your memory so you remember Election Day is next Tuesday; and it will not instill you with passion. Those are still the jobs of the candidate and his campaign. And Bylund is right, they are hard work.

Online campaigning brings the campaign to you via the website, e-mail, podcasts, text messages, etc. What online campaigning cannot do, without a great deal of the organizing for which Bylund has such disdain, is get people off their couch, and into the voting booth. It’s a lesson that Kerry and Dean – who raised a mint online, and attracted a lot of online activists – were unable to learn. They failed at the mechanics of organization, not the use of the Internet.

Another thing Bylund gets wrong, in a big way, is the popular misconception that Dean fell apart because of “the scream.” He fails to acknowledge that Dean screamed because he came in third in a state he was widely favored to win – and a state where he had marshaled the resources of out-of-state “online” activists who failed to mobilize voters.

Those out-of-state activists, tromping through Iowa in their ridiculous orange hats, sent a signal to Iowa voters – outsiders were messing in their election. These were not Iowans that support Dean. These were people from Massachusetts, or Vermont, or Ohio, or Kansas, or 45 other states that aren’t Iowa. In the end, Dean was unable to win because he was unable to organize effectively and because he turned his online activists into a liability.

Political campaign professionals will tell you two things are critical to a campaign – speed and organization – not necessarily in that order. The Internet can gather people, but it cannot organize them. It can reach people, but it cannot move them. It can attract supporters, but it cannot lead them. To do that, you need a good candidate, and a hell of a good organization.

Anders, I respect the publication for which you write, but honestly, stick to writing about something you know. You’re way out of your league on politics.

Written by Michael Turk