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The GOP, The Internet, And Jack

PoliticsTechnology(Author’s note: I kind of got off on a rant here. Before you start reading, you might want to pour a drink or have a sandwich. You could be here a while.)

Jack Kingston’s conference call with blogger’s on Monday should make for some interesting chatter in the conservative blogosphere. It’s likely to focus solely on blogs, however, and that is actually detrimental to our cause. Kingston is right that the GOP needs to pay attention to the Internet, but way off the mark in how that needs to happen. It’s not about blogs as talk radio. It’s not about blogs as magnifying glasses on the thoughts of the GOP base.

The trouble with all the media attention and attention of elected officials being lavished on blogs is it detracts from the real strength of the Internet.

I can listen to talk radio and get much of the same discussion I get on blogs. As a bellwether of political opinion, they’re really not that useful. The role in which blogs are most useful is the amount of manpower and experience they can bring to bear.

If you look at the bright shining moments in the relatively brief history of blogs – none of them have been about the base and what they’re thinking. The two best examples – Trent Lott’s downfall and the CBS Memogate fiasco – were about the collective knowledge of bloggers. They were about having relevant information – Lott’s past remarks and a knowledge of fonts and typography – to the discussion and inserting that knowledge into the debate.

In that role, blogs are useful. As a communications vehicle, they suck.

Bloggers (with certain exceptions) don’t want to be seen as shills for the party. The party can reach out to them, and make their case, but the individual blogger is usually writing about their own beliefs, not what the party told them to say.

Take me, for instance, I share my opinions, not the party line. That has gotten me in trouble with the GOP leadership on a couple of different occasions. The arguments I have made in favor of the administration or the party were not acknowledged or quickly forgotten. The party doesn’t want to hear from blogs, they want to shape the message. Why else would you have blogger conference calls? They’re trying to tell their story through the blog platform.

Therein lies the problem. The GOP sees the Internet as a message vehicle – and not much more. That’s why we’re getting our ass kicked online. They’re producing the same content online and off, and wondering why they aren’t more effective.

Kingston said:

“People expect to see white guys, Sunday afternoon, on ‘Face the Nation.’ And people with a direct interest in politics do watch those shows. But not a lot of normal people watch those shows. But, ‘Real Time With Bill Maher,’ it’s unbelievable how many people watch that.”

“Plus, if you’re funny, if it’s interesting, you’re joining the joke, rather than being the point of it,” Mr. Kingston said.

That comparison is magnified even more by the Internet. People aren’t watching Meet The Press OR Bill Maher on iFilm. They’re watching real people with web cams, clips of guys getting hit in the nuts with baseballs, coverage of high speed chases, higher speed crashes, and cats falling off TVs.

The Internet is the equivalent of America’s Funniest Home Videos. It is user produced content. It is unrestricted. It is often very real. Most importantly, it is not the same pre-packaged crap and forced messages you get on TV, radio, or offline.

If the GOP wants to be successful, they need to focus less on figuring out ways to force the same message points into a new medium and figure out what’s unique about the new medium and use it to tell their story.

We figured that out with TV – TV allowed us to communicate broadly.

We figured it out with radio – radio allowed us to communicate interactively.

We figured it out with direct mail – direct mail allowed us to target specific messages to specific voters.

With the Internet, we have all three of those possibilities, but we’re limiting our understanding to only those three possibilities. Sure, the Internet allows you to communicate to a broad audience, or a narrowly focused audience or both. It also allows interaction.

The Internet, however, is much more.

For instance, the GOP has yet to figure out that the Internet is social. No one passes on direct mail to a friend. With the exception of a few well done ads, few TV commercials are recorded and passed around. While we may talk about what we heard on the radio, those conversations, for the most part, are in our distant past.

The Internet, however, allows a simple message or thought to take on a life of it’s own and circulate across the globe instantly. It allows for rapid dissemination, and sharing.

The material that goes viral is not a slick, packaged political “news” program complete with makeup, stage lighting, an expensive set and a host from central casting. It’s two idiot punk rockers that broadcast from a retired dairy farm in Wisconsin. It’s a studio apartment turned Tiki Bar studio for a low budget show about drunkenness.

The GOP’s biggest problem in this arena is our sense of success. We have held the reins of power in Congress for 12 years now. We’ve held the reins of power in the White House for all but 8 of the last 30 years. It has created a massive ego. That has caused us to lose our edge. What made Reagan great was his sense of self – that he was no different than those he represented.

We’ve lost that.

We approach the tremendous responsibility of leadership with the same detachment we would bring to selling sandwiches or cars. We package our talking points, our tested lines, and our plastic candidates and parade them in front of cameras like the package of cheese they are. Then we look at the Internet and see it as another opportunity to show the world how great we are – to have our minions carry the party message to the masses.

The Internet, however, abhors egos. That’s what brought down Dan Rather. That’s what brought down Trent Lott. Rather was cocky and tried too hard to bring down a President. He overreached, and the Internet killed him. Lott’s crime was simply a lack of originality. He figured he could use the same words to praise Thurmond for the better part of four decades. In doing so, he allowed the Internet to paint him as a man clinging to a past he should have left behind.

To quote the Apple ads, we need to think differently. We need to think bigger. We need to remember what it was that made us identify as Republicans and tell that story – openly and honestly. We need to use the Internet to make people understand that the GOP is not the party of slick and fake. If we continue to miss the point of the Internet, and attempt to use it as a glossy brochure, we’re unlikely to succeed.

If Kingston wants to be helpful, rather than jumping on the media bandwagon, and telling Republicans the secret to success lies in getting bloggers to parrot your message, he should teach them to be humble, to be honest, and to be real. People online respond better to that than to all the focus grouped talking points you can generate.

Written by Michael Turk