Friday, December 19, 2003
A. SEE BELOW
Everett Ehrlich writes in the Washington Post:
Back in 1937, an economist named Ronald Coase realized something that helped explain the rise of modern corporations -- and which just might explain the coming decline of the American two-party political system.
Coase's insight was this: The cost of gathering information determines the size of organizations.
It sounds abstract, but in the past it meant that complex tasks undertaken on vast scales required organizational behemoths. This was as true for the Democratic and Republican parties as it was for General Motors. Choosing and marketing candidates isn't so different from designing, manufacturing and selling automobiles.
But the Internet has changed all that in one crucial respect that wouldn't surprise Coase one bit. To an economist, the "trick" of the Internet is that it drives the cost of information down to virtually zero. So according to Coase's theory, smaller information-gathering costs mean smaller organizations. And that's why the Internet has made it easier for small folks, whether small firms or dark-horse candidates such as Howard Dean, to take on the big ones.
For all Dean's talk about wanting to represent the truly "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," the paradox is that he is essentially a third-party candidate using modern technology to achieve a takeover of the Democratic Party. Other candidates -- John Kerry, John Edwards, Wesley Clark -- are competing to take control of the party's fundraising, organizational and media operations. But Dean is not interested in taking control of those depreciating assets. He is creating his own party, his own lists, his own money, his own organization. What he wants are the Democratic brand name and legacy, the party's last remaining assets of value, as part of his marketing strategy. Perhaps that's why former vice president Al Gore's endorsement of Dean last week felt so strange -- less like the traditional benediction of a fellow member of the party "club" than a senior executive welcoming the successful leveraged buyout specialist. And if Dean can do it this time around, so can others in future campaigns.
. . . Consider, for example, the first "modern" political campaign -- the Whig campaign for William Henry Harrison in 1840. Apart from some success as an Indian killer, Harrison had minimal credentials, but the Whigs figured out how to use the tremendous organizational apparatus of their party to promote him. They fabricated the image of Harrison as the "log cabin and hard cider" candidate, despite his more patrician roots, and used the party organization to enforce discipline around the fabrication -- to get everyone to say the same thing at the same time. In America's first political mass media stunt, they constructed a 10-foot-high ball of twine, wood and tin, covered it with Whig political slogans, and rolled it first from Cleveland to Columbus and then from town to town across the country (hence the expression "Keep the ball rolling").
It seems quaint now, but then it was an act of genius, because it capitalized on the Whigs' brilliant use of their party's primary asset -- the ability to coordinate information on a national scale. They got the entire party on message and then managed the activities of community supporters around the country to pull off the ball stunt. It was, a kind of primitive, analog blog. But in 1840, only a well-organized political organization could have done it.
No longer. Now anyone with a Web site and a server, a satellite transponder and about $100 million can have -- in a matter of months -- much of what the political parties have taken generations to build. Technology, of course, has changed politics before. Television changed the two parties, for example, but it didn't make the parties obsolete. In fact, in the day of Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy, television strengthened the two-party duopoly (the economist's term for a shared monopoly), as only those two parties had the resources to use it competitively.
But the Internet doesn't reinforce the parties -- instead, it questions their very rationale. You don't need a political party to keep the ball rolling -- you can have a virtual party do it just as easily.
And that's what Howard Dean has done. Nor is Dean alone. The same forces make the evangelical right a powerful force in the Republican Party. With its TV stations, membership lists and money, it is a party waiting to happen. When Republicans of more moderate stripes express concerns about the evangelicals "taking a walk" on the party, they are recognizing that underlying reality.
The ability to have "virtual political parties" is the greatest challenge the two parties have ever faced. There are strategies available to them, of course -- deft positioning allows them to preempt competitors, as it does in every industry, and they can use the same technology, although Internet culture doesn't seem readily amenable to either Democrat.com or Republican.com. Being a Democrat or a Republican isn't enough of an advantage anymore -- there are simply too many other places where people can get political information and find political bedfellows in an age of low information costs.
The real question is whether -- really, how -- the two parties, like any other waning duopoly, will use non-market means to preserve their fading power -- by, for example, keeping third-party candidates out of televised debates, making it harder for other parties to get public funding or closing off "open" primaries that invite marauding forms of political organization.
Clinton rebuilt the party ideologically. He shed it of some of its more hidebound ways. Whether one agrees with, say, his support for welfare reform or NAFTA, it must be said that those moves took some political courage insofar as there wasn't much of a natural constituency within the Democratic Party for his positions. Moving something as large as a political party off a marker on which it has stood for a generation or two is no easy thing.
He also rebuilt the party as a fund-raising machine. This, as we know, has had both its good and its ill effects. But whatever the downsides, this rebuilding, too, was necessary. From the stock-market boom to the exorbitant price of gourmet mustards, the 1990s culture was about money. Politics was not immune. The Democrats, always cash-poor compared with the Republicans—and especially so after losing three presidential elections in a row—needed to join the financial big leagues to be able to compete.
But there is one way in which Clinton did not rebuild the Democratic Party: from the ground up. Beyond rhetoric, and the occasional action, he didn't really make it a party of the people. He and Al Gore did energize a youth vote in 1992, and he made millions of voters who'd been disaffected feel comfortable voting Democratic again, bringing important states like New Jersey back into the Democratic camp.
. . . If Deanism was, and is, a natural and entirely logical part of a larger historical process—there's still a question: It's the right movement, sure, but is he the right candidate?
The voters, the process and the man himself will tell us that in time. Dick Gephardt, John Kerry and John Edwards would all be perfectly good candidates. Each has an argument. With regard to Wesley Clark, we can't quite say yet whether he'd be a good candidate, though he brings a few qualities to the table whose potential appeal in November is obvious. And goodness knows, if any of the above manages to overcome Dean and become the nominee, he sure will have earned the title.
Unless, that is, he benefited from an insider-driven process designed to block Dean at all costs. At this point, after he has amassed the armies of small donors and bloggers and volunteers, blocking Dean is not blocking one man. It's blocking the hopes of millions of Democrats who—understand the importance of this—would walk through fire for a candidate for the first time in their lives. That isn't something that should be done cavalierly; in the long term, blocking the active participation of these millions may do more damage to the Democratic Party than four more years of George W. Bush.
There are two kinds of Democrats in George W. Bush's America: those who are on the outside and know it, and those who are on the outside and don't. And the peculiar fascination of the Democratic presidential campaign is to watch the interplay between these two groups.
. . . Disastrously, it's been the Democrats in Congress who've been the slowest to pick up on their new marginality. Some of the Democrats who voted to authorize the Iraq war in October 2002 did so -- or say they did so -- in hopes of prodding Bush to embrace a more multilateral approach toward Iraq.
Call this the Tony Blair Fallacy -- both the prime minister and our own legislators failed to realize that Bush wanted only their permission, not their advice. And this year it was Ted Kennedy -- long the wisest liberal head on the Hill -- who calculated that the Medicare bill would grow more palatable the longer it was deliberated. In any previous Congress, that could well have been the case. In this Congress, however, no Democrats are allowed into the deliberations that matter.
Today the Democrats finally have a legislative leader -- San Francisco's Nancy Pelosi, who heads the party in the House -- who understands that dealmaking with the likes of Tom DeLay is a chimera, and that the business of the Democrats is to oppose. The overwhelming vote of House Democrats against the Medicare bill is testimony to her success. Her tenure casts a cold light on that of her predecessor, Dick Gephardt, who, in his eight years as minority leader, never assembled a united opposition to the malignant follies of Gingrich and DeLay.
While the nation's Democratic leaders were unable to understand just how marginal they'd become, however, millions of rank-and-file Democrats and just plain disgruntled Bush-haters intuitively grasped what was going on. Bush was bent on repealing the New Deal and replacing the internationalist order that the United States had erected after World War II with a more nationalist vision of his own. If you weren't with him, you were against him. And he was against you.
Howard Dean's initial appeal has been to those Americans who always knew they were on the margins of George Bush's America. Not the socioeconomic margins, not the African American and Latino communities, but the political, cultural and existential margins -- the young, urban, white middle class in particular. Dean's are the people who were bowling alone -- not churchgoers, not union members. They shared a set of beliefs on which they'd never before had an opportunity to act collectively.
The secret of Dean's success has been twofold. Alone among the serious Democratic candidates he understood that the party was shirking its obligation to oppose -- indeed, that the grass roots was furious at the failure of its leaders to realize this. Second, his campaign became the real Meetup for millions of Americans who'd had no place to go to affect politics in the age of Bush. Dean's edge is that his campaign has provided thousands of young Deaniacs with a dimension of meaning that their hitherto disaggregated lives may have lacked. No other candidate is within light-years of offering that.
HANCOCK, N.H., Nov. 30 -- The sun was setting over the wooded hills of western New Hampshire as David Steinberg, 22, a Columbia University student from Baltimore, asked 12 local Democrats to gather their chairs in a circle. Mr. Steinberg proceeded to tell his story -- of how he deferred law school to come here to work for Howard Dean -- and asked the others to ''share a little bit.''
For 90 minutes the rural New Hampshire residents talked about their political passions, their views of the presidential race, and, most of all, their thoughts and concerns about Dr. Dean.
With little notice, the Dean campaign will, sometime this week, log its 1,000th neighborhood meeting like the one that took place here Sunday at the home of Jim and Polly Curran, two of Dr. Dean's earliest supporters. These sessions are led not by the candidate, but by paid out-of-state coordinators trained by experts in community organizing.
The meetings are designed to create a foundation of supporters with an intense personal commitment to a candidate that political consultants say cannot be created with a television commercial and that will be resistant to attacks on Dr. Dean by his opponents.
This show of organizing prowess is a tribute to the past and a nod to the future. These are the same methods that were used to organize farm workers in California 25 years ago. Mr. Steinberg is one of 45 Dean coordinators trained by, among others, Marshall Ganz, a Harvard University sociologist who helped pioneer these methods in 16 years with the United Farm Workers.
''The very first get-out-the-vote I learned to do from Cesar Chavez,'' he said. ''House meetings were the No. 1 organizing approach that we learned to use in the farm workers.''
. . . Rebecca Hutchinson, a former state representative, said that at the first house meeting she held last summer in Deerfield, she drew 150 people. Since then, she said, there had been six house meetings in the town, which has a population of 3,600
''There is so much activity happening without the candidate -- that's what is different,'' she said. ''It works. It's phenomenal.''
Mr. Ganz said the Dean campaign was particularly suited to this organizing model -- not only because of the unusual intensity of its supporters, but because of a campaign organization that, so far at least, seems eager to take chances. He said he had been startled when Dr. Dean's campaign aides turned to him for help.
''It blew me away,'' he said. ''They are open to learning. At least they seem to be. They don't seem to be -- 'Oh yeah, we've got it all figured out,' like the insider pros.''
T:. . . The response we are getting and the ideas that come off of it are just amazing. The comments section is just such an amazing thing. Little things you never would have thought of: Zephyr [Teachout] came up with the idea of having a poster that was downloadable and printable for each state, with a goal of getting a million of these posters put up — for example, "New Hampshire for Dean" — as a way to get visibility going. We put that up with the links of all fifty states and immediately afterwards, one of the first comments was, "I'm registered to vote, I'm working overseas in London, there's a lot of American expats here, and you know, you really, I'd love to have an Americans Abroad for Dean poster that I can put up and that my friends overseas can put." Two minutes later another post comment was, "I'm in Spain, and you guys shouldn't forget about us, you should do Americans abroad."
This is my 7th presidential campaign, but in every other campaign, the campaign never would have known that it had screwed up by not just creating the fifty-first sign. It's a small thing, but within ten minutes we had an "Americans Abroad" poster up with the rest, blogged about it, said, "hey, you're right, you caught that." And then right after that, someone posted, "Hey, you know, Puerto Rico's not a state, but it votes for President of the United States — votes for the nominee — and there's a lot of us down here, could you make a Puerto Rico for Dean sign?" All this is happening in the space of an hour.
There's this interaction going on between the campaign and every hole that we haven't plugged, or thought about. They're plugging it for us and saying, "Hey, you forgot this, you need one of those," and we're building them on the spot and putting them up for everybody to download.
I used to work for a little while for Progeny Linux Systems. I always wondered how could you take that same collaboration that occurs in Linux and open source and apply it here. What would happen if there were a way to do that and engage everybody in a in a presidential campaign?
L: So is this an open-source presidential campaign?
T: Yes. That moment when that was all going on made me think, "That's sort of what we're building here." I guess it's about as open as you can do it in modern-day politics.
. . . L: So let's say I'm a campaign manager of a different presidential campaign, and I say to you, look, I've got an email list that is ten times the size of your blog list, and I accept feedback, people can send me email back telling me where I screwed up. Why is what you're doing better than what I'm doing, if my list is ten times bigger than yours?
T: One, it's faster — sometimes almost in real-time, if you sit there and read the comments while you're doing it. You can really talk-out the ideas.
But I think more importantly, there's a sense of community that forms around the blog. That's really what the Net is about. It's about building a community. There may be zillions of communities within the Net, but you know, your own community builds around that blog.
L: So it's a community because people are both reading and writing at the same time about these ideas?
T: I think they're both reading and writing the ideas, but the other thing is that there is a sense of community. There's a sense of, "We're part of each other, and we're trying to find our way." No matter whether it's an issue of importance to the campaign or the nation, we're all exchanging these ideas in common cause — except for the trolls, of course.
L: Let's talk a bit about the trolls. If I'm a traditional campaign manager, the first thing I'd say is, "My God, you're giving up control here, and look what you're going to face: you're going to face a world of trolls and how are you ever going to get over that?" How do you answer the trolls?
T: Well, actually, they came up with that ingenious thing over at the blog. They actually created a Dean Team. We have a team-raiser thing where you can contribute money, and they created a "troll team-raiser," Dean-raiser, so that any time a troll comes on, everybody automatically goes and contributes to the troll Dean-raiser account. It's actually been pretty effective. Thousands of dollars have been raised because of the trolls. And this is no joke. It's not one of those things where they go, "Oh, a troll, everybody go pay the troll Dean-raiser." They actually go do it. So if you come on our blog and trash Dean, what you've done is help him raise $500 that half hour. So that's done some job in discouraging them
But in terms of the control thing: that's one of the reasons I don't think the other campaigns are having any success on the Internet. This is my 7th presidential campaign. In all of them, everything I ever learned was that you're supposed to have strong community control — military command over everything in the organization. You give commands to your state directors who give it to the county directors who order the precinct captains around.
I've worked with enough tech involving the Net to know that you will absolutely suffocate anything that you're trying to do on the Internet by trying to command and control it. It's hard to let go, but you know, we've decided that's what we were going to do. I don't think the other campaigns can do that.
There are a number of reasons this thing's working for Howard Dean. First, Howard Dean is who he is. He's different than these other guys. He's open, makes decisions based on facts, and really does believe that this is about engaging people in their democracy again.
Second, the campaign says, "Okay, we're willing to put the bat in people's hands, or put the blog in people's hands, and let them help us get there."
And third, regardless of where you are in healthcare, regardless of where you are on copyright or any of the issues that we've got out there, unless people stop complaining about them and actually get engaged in the democracy — unless this campaign can get them to participate in it — almost regardless of what our position is, there's no way those issues are ever really going to get addressed and solved. Because right now, in the end, it's all about the money.
This campaign is trying to say, "Look, you can do this differently. It doesn't have to be about the 33 lobbyists for every member of Congress in Washington. People actually have the power to engage and make a difference."
I think our blog helps do that. People get involved. They're actually participating in the campaign. And to the extent we keep building this community, then even people with positions different from the Governor understand that we're building this together. So that when we get into the White House, you know you're going have a fair hearing, and that we're actually going to have a discussion about some of these issues.
. . . That's one of the things this campaign really is about: the Governor believes strongly, and we believe strongly, that there's a responsibility for citizens to be involved in their democracy. You can't have self-government without it. That what's been missing for a good 2-3 decades now. It isn't something George Bush made happen. He's just put a magnifying glass on what we've lost.
What we need to do is to get people to participate in their democracy again. If people did that, and if thousands of them take small actions — a few hours of their time, a few dollars out of their wallet — there's a real chance that when a candidacy like ours wins the White House, the people will actually own their government again. And we'll actually have an honest discussion about all the issues that always get ground-down by the powers that don't want them to be raised.
We're trying to do a campaign that's on a different level than your standard presidential campaign — that's more than two people screaming at each other about who has employer mandates in their healthcare plan or not.
L: So when the Democratic Leadership Council attacks your campaign, are they attacking your campaign because they're not comfortable with this form of democracy?
T: Yes. I really think that's a good part of it. I think the one reason we have so much opposition — even within our own party — is because they like being in charge. They like it the way it is, or at least, too many of them do. And they're actually afraid of what would happen if people actually gave a damn again and started becoming involved and actually demanded that issues like healthcare got addressed without special interests whacking it down.
So yes, I have come to believe that a large part of why the DLC attacks Howard Dean so vehemently has a lot more to do with the power of what they're saying this campaign is about. They're not real thrilled with it.
. . . There is some natural cynicism about whether he really does mean it. Is he really for real? Or is he just one of those other guys?
Our campaign strives every day to make clear that that's not the case. But that's the other thing the blog does. Every day, day-in and day-out, you go over there, you can check what's going on, and you get that human feeling for the people who make up this campaign. For who and what they are. And somewhere along the line you hope that when you have that kind of connection, the people will begin to realize, "You know what? Maybe they really are different. Maybe this campaign really is different."
How you would get that over on a sort of flat, wallpapered website, I don't know. But on a blog, there can actually be that depth of a connection with people, as they communicate and exchange ideas together over months and months.
At least, I hope so, anyway.
L: So you believe the actual architecture of the blog is something that is enabling a deeper engagement with these issues than the television or the standard way?
T: Yes, absolutely. I really believe that there's a deeper connection on the blog for the exchange of ideas than I think you get over television or just a flat website.
L: One more question. Let's talk about the money issue. Just what are the numbers now? What are the averages that you are seeing? Has the success been a surprise, or did you expect it? And talk about the Cheney lunch.
T: On the numbers: We're up to 224,000 signing up to support Howard Dean.
On the Cheney lunch: the Vice President had something like 125 people who gave him $2000 each, for a total of $250,000. We had 9700 people, giving roughly $53 on average, totaling $508,000.
But there were a couple things that surprised us. We really didn't have much doubt that our supporters would respond to that and meet the 250,000. But we never thought it would happen as fast as it did. We weren't even sure that half the people would open their email, and even know that we were doing it. We thought a lot of people would go away for the weekend, get back, and not even know the thing happened, because of how late we sent the email out on Friday. So we were surprised by that.
On the other hand, yes, I think we knew the whole time that we'd been building this not for the money. That was the interesting thing. We've really been building this from Day One because we believed it wasn't enough to organize something on the Net. We wanted people to organize, to use the online community, to organize in their offline community. And we've seen amazing, absolutely amazing, things there.
We had, for example, an email list of 481 people in Austin and we emailed them and said "We're coming." We get to the event, and there are 3200 people there. The reason there are 3200 people there is that those 481 people went out, downloaded flyers, leafleted the Latino community, leafleted polling places for a city election that was occurring, made phone calls, and did all those kind of things on their own.
This happens all the time. In Seattle, we showed-up and there were 1200 people, half of whom have never been involved in politics before, all organized by small groups of people who had come to the blog, or somehow used our organizing tools, but are all part of this Dean community that we're building.
. . . Who can argue with $508,000 coming in over a $3 turkey sandwich?
. . . if Seattle was the birth of this new kind of organizing, last February 15's global peace demonstration marked its coming of age. That day, some 400,000 people turned out onto the streets of New York to protest Bush's impending war on Iraq, and close to 10 million more turned out in cities across the globe. It was arguably the single largest day of protest in world history; the New York Times dubbed its participants "the other superpower."
The day sent a clear message about the grassroots organizing power of the net: It enabled the antiwar movement to turn out its base quickly and cheaply, do an end run around corporate-controlled media and reach into the politically disaffected American mainstream. The coming months and years will test how deeply the new movement can tap this potential, and to what extent "nets roots" organizing will be adopted by more established political players, liberal and conservative alike.
Given this deepening embrace of the net by movement culture, it is fitting that the website of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), the national coalition at the heart of the February 15 protest, not only anchored the massive mobilization but preceded the existence of the organization and helped it to coalesce. In December, UFPJ did not have an office or a paid staff. The website, however, was already a one-stop shop for the many disparate strands of the peace movement. Launched the previous October, it was getting hundreds of thousands of hits a day.
"At the beginning, we had almost no money, not even enough to do a major mailing," says L.A. Kauffman, a staff organizer for UFPJ. The Internet allowed UFPJ to start serious organizing with only $5,000 to $10,000. "We pulled off a demo in five weeks that would normally take five or six months," she says.
Providing one place for UFPJ's hundreds of member organizations to list their actions and report their activities, the website quickly became an antiwar hub. Organizers put campaign materials and action kits online, and 15,000 copies of the February 15 flier were downloaded. People could easily find and plug into local peace activities in their towns or states, and time local events to coordinate with broader efforts. In the end, 793 protests happened around the world on that day, including more than 200 across the United States and Canada, with paid organizers put to work only on the biggest, in New York. All the others were self-organized by UFPJ affiliates--local church, labor and peace groups who used the website to facilitate their own coordination.
When I asked Leda Dederich, UFPJ's web director, where her organization would be without the Internet, she said, "Mostly, we wouldn't be."
A follow-up demonstration, on March 16, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, was even more a creature of the web. A wave of candlelight vigils, following the dusk west across the Earth, involved an estimated 1 million people in more than 6,000 gatherings in 130 countries and every state in the nation. This global action was put together in even less time--six days--by an organization with only five staff people, MoveOn. What MoveOn did have was a nearly 1.5-million-person e-mail list and a piece of web software known as "the meeting tool."
The meeting tool allows anyone anywhere to propose a meeting time and place in his or her own neighborhood--and makes it easy for others to sign up. The day before that Sunday in March, I went to the MoveOn website, entered my ZIP code and learned that three vigils had been scheduled in my neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, including one outside the apartment of prowar Senator Chuck Schumer. The website told me how many of my neighbors had signed up for each. It was already well into the hundreds, and I made it one more.
That Sunday evening, I joined 1,500 of my neighbors. Someone handed me a candle and lit it for me; at some point a rabbi and a pastor spoke to the crowd. But otherwise, there was no obvious leadership, and it didn't seem to matter. There had been no meetings, no leaflets, no clipboards, no phone calls--we were all there, essentially, because of an e-mail we trusted.
. . .By now, many well-funded advocacy groups (Common Cause, Environmental Defense) have developed e-mail lists topping 100,000, which they typically use to run traditional, tightly controlled campaigns, using e-mail as they would direct mail or a phone bank to mobilize their base to lobby legislators. Within the more radical global justice movement, on the other hand, there are a multitude of resource-poor grassroots groups whose e-mail lists are relatively small (5,000 to 50,000), but who use their websites to foster self-organizing--putting their organizing kit online and trusting their activist base to run with it. "What MoveOn has done," says Tom Matzzie, 28, the AFL-CIO's online mobilization manager, "is to bring the core elements of these two models together for the first time." MoveOn has a huge list that it carefully manages, and it also provides web tools that enable members to organize themselves. In the past eight months, as antiwar organizing exploded, their membership more than doubled, to a global total of more than 2.1 million.
A good e-mail list is not something you can buy or borrow. "Every MoveOn member comes to us with the personal endorsement of someone they trust," Pariser says. It is word-of-mouth organizing--in electronic form. E-mail is cheap, fast and easy to use, and it has made mixing the personal and the political more socially acceptable. Casually passing on a high-content message to a social acquaintance feels completely natural in a way handing someone a leaflet at a cocktail party never could.
This "tell a friend" phenomenon is key to how organizing happens on the net. It gives people who feel alienated from politics something valuable to contribute: their unique credibility within their particular circle of acquaintances. A small gesture to these friends can contribute to a massive multiplier effect. It is a grassroots answer to the corporate consolidation of media, which has enabled an overwhelmingly conservative punditry to give White House spin real political momentum, and the semblance of truth, simply through intensity of repetition.
MoveOn is often criticized from the left for not attempting to build permanent local structures or on-the-ground leadership. "They're great at getting new people involved, but it's not true self-organizing," says UFPJ's Dederich. The criticism is fair, but MoveOn's strength lies elsewhere, in providing a home for busy people who may not want to be part of a chapter-based organization with regular meetings. And given what MoveOn is doing--activating people on two or three different issues at a time, often for short durations as legislative targets change--it's hard to imagine a more appropriate model. By combining a nimble entrepreneurial style with a strong ethic of listening to its members--via online postings and straw polls--MoveOn has built a responsive, populist and relatively democratic virtual community.
. . . According to Pariser, most MoveOn members do not define themselves as activists. Rather, MoveOn is often their first step into political action--and what brings them to take that step is usually an e-mail message. "A lot of 'Take action now' e-mails feel like they were written by a focus-group e-newsletter robot," says Madeline Stanionis, who as a senior consultant for San Francisco-based Donordigital has developed scores of online advocacy campaigns. "MoveOn e-mails feel personal and fresh. They write from their hearts." The e-mails about the global vigil came directly from Pariser. His voice was strong yet level-headed. There were no ideological digressions. He got to the point early and kept it action-oriented. It was easy to trust.
Pariser says he crafts his messages with an eye toward taking MoveOn members on a journey, by providing a narrative that connects them to an ongoing social movement. As each campaign proceeds, short e-mail updates ("50,000 of you have already signed up...here's a typical response from a schoolteacher in New Mexico...") build excitement and a sense of community. This feedback loop is an example of how the Internet, when well used, can extend the shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity one feels on the street to fellow participants across the nation and around the globe.
. . . Dean enthusiasts have made great use of a free web service, meetup.com (a commercial cousin of MoveOn's meeting tool). It allows users to identify and then meet face to face with like-minded locals who might share an interest in knitting, motorcycles or, say, Howard Dean for President. Anyone who joins a meet-up can volunteer as a "host," someone who shows up a half-hour early to meet and greet. Members vote on a public venue for the get-togethers from a preapproved list in their area.
Tim Cairl, 28, a financial consultant whose only previous political involvement had been to call his Congressperson a few times when prompted by MoveOn, put himself forward as host of the Atlanta Dean meet-up when it was first coming together. In March, forty-two Dean fans crowded together in the back room of a downtown restaurant. The group was mostly white but ranged widely in age and occupation; the majority were new to political involvement of any kind. The typical attendee--upset about the war, and curious about Dean after seeing him on TV--had browsed his campaign website, and then found her way to meetup.com. "Meetup.com gets us in the same room," Cairl says. "We have to take it from there."
The feeling was social, almost fraternal. The agenda was simple: introductions, then, What do we like about Dean? What should we do? What the group did, given that no campaign organization yet existed in their late-primary state, was create one, appointing county leaders, scheduling tabling and showing up to local Democratic Party meetings. Subsequent meet-ups became a way to funnel new volunteers into this work; attendance grew to sixty-five in April, 150 by May, and soon meetings sprang up in cities across Georgia. Nationally, the 500 people who had signed up for Dean meet-ups in January grew to 60,000 by mid-July.
Trippi says traditional campaign structures run on a military model--from the national campaign director down to local precinct captains--are deadly for an Internet strategy. Indeed, the more typical Kerry and Edwards campaigns have only 5,600 and 1,000 members, respectively, on meetup.com. "The other campaigns see this Internet activity as chaos. They can't control it, so they don't want to waste time on it. We trust our members to be good representatives of their own views. Instead of trying to control the chaos, we feed it and give it a little direction."
Matzzie says all this activity is impressive, but could prove irrelevant in the general election if it doesn't take place in the right precincts. He notes that in 2002 only 94,000 well-placed votes would have given the Democrats control of Congress. He quotes recent studies from Yale's Institution for Social and Policy Studies showing that e-mail on its own--just like direct mail and commercial phone banking--does not increase voter turnout. "Anyone who gives you his e-mail is already with you," says Matzzie. "The trick is to get those people to talk to their neighbors, friends and colleagues offline. Those are the people we need to mobilize." He's been growing the AFL-CIO e-mail list by hundreds of thousands in the past few months with this goal in mind. But he'll combine online work with shoe leather and door-knocking. Stanionis says the discussion among online advocacy experts is similar--how to get beyond the just-send-an-e-mail consumer model to "escalate the ask" and achieve more real-world involvement.
. . . Although it replaces some organizing structures (e-mail makes for a far better phone tree than phones ever did) and invents whole new ones, like the campaign web hub or the meeting tool, the Internet is no silver bullet. But what organizing tool ever is? Rather, contemporary social movements will, more and more, straddle both worlds, in a synthetic feedback loop, at once real and virtual, online and off.
Last December in South Korea--the most densely wired country on the planet--a grassroots revolt streaming rich media across high-bandwidth connections helped elect an outsider human rights activist as president. Where will our own Internet-fueled movements take us?
In the first month after MoveOn installed its meeting tool on the Dean campaign website, supporters self-organized more than a thousand local events--testament, perhaps, to the stirrings of a democratic revival, in which large swaths of disaffected Americans are finding forms of political participation that feel fulfilling, effective and connected. MoveOn's Zack Exley asks us to imagine a political landscape, five years from now, with fifty MoveOns, each tapping different political currents, with a whole new ability to mobilize grassroots power. In June, United for Peace and Justice announced plans for a protest during the Republican National Convention in August 2004. But unlike the Philadelphia demonstrations in 2000, this protest will go global. Such plans are a sign of activists' growing confidence, post-February 15, in the potentially explosive convergence of common global concerns and the wide reach of the Net.
On Nov. 21, the Republican National Committee unveiled the first ad of the Bush reelection campaign, rebuking Democrats for criticizing the president's handling of Iraq. It begins with a clip from Bush's last State of the Union address, in which Bush warns of the catastrophes that terrorists may sometime unleash. Then words flash across the screen: "Some are now attacking the president for attacking the terrorists." Conflating the war in Iraq with the war against al-Qaida, its message is clear: Bush's opponents are soft on terror.
Within hours, MoveOn e-mailed its members, seeking $500,000 to counter the Republican spin. "When Republicans equate the war on Iraq with the war on terrorism, we'll remind the public of the truth," said MoveOn's message. "When Republicans raise money from wealthy donors and corporate CEOs to attack the Democrats, we'll raise it with hundreds of thousands of small contributions from people across America ... Today, we can show the GOP what they're up against. They're paying $100,000 to run their ad. Together, we can raise $500,000 today to run ads that get out the truth in key battleground states."
In five hours, they raised half a million dollars for the MoveOn voter fund.
"They get things done," says Todd Gitlin, the veteran activist and Columbia University professor. "They raise money, they hold straw votes, they're constantly dreaming up practical activities that have a constituency."
Though Gitlin says MoveOn has taught progressives about the Internet's potential, it's gained respect and influence in the Democratic Party the old-fashioned way: by raising cash. "The big watershed for them was the proof that they could raise piles of money before the midterm elections," says Gitlin. "They raised millions within a few days in various selective Senate races. After Paul Wellstone [the U.S. Senator from Minnesota] died, they were raising piles of money for [former Vice President Walter] Mondale. They demonstrated they could raise six-figure sums in a day or two. A few months later, they demonstrated they can be instrumental in organizing demonstrations. They were the force that organized the candlelight vigils [against the Iraq war]. That was international. They've straddled the discourse of mainstream politics and the discourse of outsiders. They seem to be both insiders and outsiders. That appeals to those who are both moralists and hardheaded."
. . . MoveOn's genius for drawing strength from right-wing attacks mirrors that of the Howard Dean campaign, with which the organization is often associated. Earlier this year Zack Exley, MoveOn's organizing director (and the creator of the infamous anti-Bush site "GWBush.com") took a two-and-a-half-week leave of absence to work on Dean's Internet campaign. MoveOn says the group volunteered to help other Democrats as well, but only Dean's people accepted the offer. Now the Dean campaign has grown to echo MoveOn in style and strategy. When MoveOn jumped on the Republicans' attack ad to raise money, Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi had the same idea. He sent out an e-mail to the 503,000 people on Dean's mailing list, lambasting the "fear-mongering that George Bush and Karl Rove are going to use" and appealing for funds to counter the Republicans. "Our goal," he wrote, "is to raise $360,000 by Tuesday at midnight -- $5,000 for every hour they are going to lie to the American people with their ad."
They didn't have to wait until Tuesday -- by noon on Monday, they'd reaped $395,640. And while MoveOn will use its $500,000 as part of a general campaign to expose what it sees as Bush's deceptions, Dean's ad takes on the Republican commercial directly. It mimics the Bush spot, showing the president giving the State of the Union address. This time, though, a narrator says, "He misled the nation about weapons of mass destruction." Then the scene changes to Dean on the campaign trail, and the ad says, "Howard Dean is committed to fighting terrorism and protecting our national security. But Howard Dean opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning. He believes it's time we had a foreign policy consistent with American values. And it's time to restore the dignity and respect our country deserves around the world."
John Kerry ran a similar response, with a commercial that makes use of footage of Bush in a flight suit. "George Bush's ad says he's being attacked for attacking the terrorists," says the spot's narrator. "No, Mr. President, America's united against terror. The problem is, you declared, 'Mission accomplished,' but had no plan to win the peace and handed out billions of contracts to contributors like Halliburton."
Both messages were similar, but the dynamic behind them was different: By mobilizing its supporters to fund such ads, Dean's campaign makes them feel like they're talking back to Bush. "This is a new kind of democracy happening right now," says Tiffany Shlain, the founder and director of the Webby Awards, the Internet version of the Oscars. Last year, MoveOn won the Webby in the politics category. Both MoveOn and the Dean campaign, says Shlain, "are tapping into a whole new group of people who weren't involved with politics because they didn't feel like they had a voice. They're making people feel like they can make a difference, and that's real and that's big."
"The hardest thing to get across to the political establishment is that this is not just another set of tools you use to manipulate constituencies and tap them for money," says Boyd. "This has to be seen as a way to engage constituencies and engage in a two-way conversation."
. . . Their sense that American politics had run off the rails began during the impeachment, but was driven home after the 2000 election. During the recount, the right mustered mobs, but Democrats were oddly quiescent. Gitlin, the Columbia professor, held a count-the-vote rally the Monday after the election at Manhattan's Federal Building. At its peak, there were 300 people.
MoveOn was among those that failed to act. "We totally blew it," Boyd says now. The reason wasn't a lack of passion -- it was a kind of disbelief that American democracy could go so awry.
"There was tremendous energy within our base, but we didn't engage because I thought for sure that the system would work, that the wheels would turn and a fair result would be found, and I was wrong," he says. "And we now know that the system, to be fair, has to be people screaming on both sides."
. . . Of course, MoveOn runs plenty of campaigns that don't ask anything more of users than sending e-mail or making donations, but the group also engages people in deeper ways. One obvious example is the "Bush in 30 Seconds" campaign, which allows MoveOn to freely draw on the creative energy of thousands while giving average Americans a chance to enter a process previously open only to campaign professionals.
"We're NOT looking for the same old slick political ads from Washington media consultants," says the contest Web site. "Instead, we're looking for really creative ads that will engage and enlighten viewers and help them understand the truth about George Bush."
Contestants e-mail their spots as digital files. They'll be posted on MoveOn's site, where users will vote on them. Judges will make their final decision from among the top-rated entries.
MoveOn is also moving into the kind of face-to-face community building pioneered by MeetUp.com and the Dean campaign. It's encouraging its members to hold thousands of house parties across the country on Dec. 7 to screen Robert Greenwald's documentary, "Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War." The film, becoming a key liberal account of the administration's duplicity, is sold or given away with membership dues on progressive Web sites, including John Podesta's Center for American Progress and AlterNet. Guests at these parties will be able to join a conference call with the director and submit questions for him online. "This'll be fun, but it's also strategic," says an e-mail from MoveOn to its members. "Coming together, we'll strengthen the MoveOn community. This is also a great way to get the word out -- you can invite friends and co-workers who aren't yet part of MoveOn."
. . . Given its scope and the nearly infinite number of projects it could undertake, there's very little division inside MoveOn or sniping outside it. Partly, this is because its membership has such a large role in setting the group's agenda. In June, MoveOn asked its members to interview each other about what values and issues were important to them. About 20,000 participated, interviewing each other by phone, producing 10,000 pages of feedback. MoveOn then hired a linguist to parse the data and figure out which concerns were most widely shared by the membership. The top three were security and Iraq, energy and the environment, and freedom and civil liberties. Boyd says they didn't put them in any order: Iraq was most cited as a top issue, but freedom was most often cited period, and that's where MoveOn has focused its resources. Even the slogan on MoveOn's new T-shirts, "Democracy is not a spectator sport," was chosen democratically: Members submitted more than 700 suggestions, with a vote determining the winner.
It's also no accident that all seven paid MoveOn employees work from home. Boyd and Blades deliberately chose not to have an office, to avoid the cliques that come with any real-world work environment. "You can't have two cultures, an in-person culture and a distributed one," Boyd says, because power will automatically cluster among those working together in the real world. MoveOn thrives in part because it keeps power dispersed.
Election Day is a year away and the Democrats don’t yet have a presidential nominee, but for labor activists, environmentalists, pro-choice advocates and other progressives, the battle for the White House is well under way.
About a dozen groups—backed by the likes of Emily’s List, the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club and MoveOn.org—are quietly building an infrastructure to undertake the most extensive door-to-door grassroots voter contact operation in U.S. history. Its potential to turn the election already is well understood on both sides: Longtime activists say they haven’t felt this energized in decades—and Republicans are using congressional hearings to shut down the operation or steal directly from its playbook.
“It’s never been done before on this level,” says Steve Rosenthal, the former political director of the AFL-CIO and current president of America Coming Together, a voter outreach group funded by Emily’s List, organized labor and private donors such as George Soros. “It’s something that the parties should have been doing but were neglecting.”
Cecile Richards, former chief of staff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, is director of America Votes, a coalition of 24 progressive organizations that will be coordinating field efforts. She echoes Rosenthal and adds, “For me, personally, that’s the best kind of politics, direct retail, engaging voters about issues. I think it’s a really welcome change and emphasis.”
. . . Each 527 has a specific geographic or demographic niche. America Coming Together, which with a projected budget of $98 million is the largest, is looking to register and educate Democratic-leaning voters in 17 battleground states. Partnership for America’s Families is focusing on registering minority voters in swing state urban centers like Cleveland and St. Louis. And Voices for Working Families is working on registering and contacting black, Latino and women voters in other hotly contested areas such as Dade and Broward counties in Florida.
Alongside groups that will manage and execute the field operations are a few 527s, like America Votes, dedicated solely to coordinating these efforts.
“We want to make sure everyone isn’t knocking over each other in the same neighborhoods,” Richards says. “It’s a big country and there are a lot of voters.”
Nearly all 20 organizations within the America Votes coalition routinely meet to share ideas and strategies. Richards says that groups with more experience, such as organized labor, have been mentoring units newer to the field: “It’s an opportunity for those who are established to work with groups that are newer, that have more flexibility.”
. . . TV ads no longer provide the value they once did.
“Really it’s been the orthodoxy of campaigns for the last 20 years that money for TV is the whole ball game,” says Dan Berwick, an associate at the grassroots consulting firm FieldWorks. “But you can’t cut through all the schlock that’s on TV, so you have to go for quality over quantity and that’s why people are ending up on people’s doors.”
If door-to-door canvassing seems a throwback to the oldest and most basic kind of politicking, the technique has been radically updated. “We’re doing a precinct-level analysis to figure out who the voters are we need to reach and then where they are and how we can talk to them,” Rosenthal says. “We’re using a pretty sophisticated Web-based voter data base and we’re using Palm Pilots so we can load all of the questions to voters into the Palms and then take their responses and hot sync back onto the system at the end of the day.”
By developing a detailed profile of each voter or potential voter’s concerns, organizers can target messages with an unprecedented degree of specificity. “What I think you’ll see is a significant amount of localization of message,” says Laurie Moskowitz, former director of the National Coordinated Campaign and co-founder of FieldWorks. “We’re not just talking about Superfund sites, but Superfund sites in your neighborhood.”
The local message also will be combined with a local face, as groups look toward hiring canvassers from within the communities. Arlene Holt-Baker, who heads up Voices for Working Families, says she’s hoping to channel the energy of local community activists angered by the war and the radical Bush agenda in their canvassing and registration efforts. “We are not sending people in,” she says. “We really believe that the people who are on the ground, the ones who are interested in what’s happening in their communities, are the best people to be going door to door.”
. . . Aside from updating their techniques, the field-oriented 527s are starting their operations earlier than ever before. “In 2002 you saw people paying attention to field, but they didn’t start early,” Moskowitz says. “That’s the biggest difference. The whole realm of activity and planning is going to be so different because people are backing up their timeline.”
Service Employees International Union Local 1199 in New York announced that it would pay the salaries of 1,000 union workers to take a full year’s leave from their jobs and spend the time canvassing in battleground states; America Coming Together began setting up field offices a year ahead of election day; and Voices for Working Families started knocking on their first doors in Florida in mid-November.
“We’re going to have a year’s worth of contact that is layered and meaningful,” Rosenthal says, “as opposed to bombarding people with a lot of mail and prerecorded phone calls that they just turn off to.”
. . . This year’s massive field effort is the culmination of years of efforts by Rosenthal and others to make grassroots politics the center of the left’s political agenda. In the ’90s, Rosenthal, then political director of the AFL-CIO, undertook a concerted effort to reassert labor’s political influence by turning out more union voters. He began a program of sustained voter registration and outreach among union members, and the results were impressive. Between the 1992 presidential election and the election in 2000, the percentage of the electorate who were union household members increased to 26 percent from 19 percent. Over the course of the last eight years, 15.5 million non-union household voters dropped out of the electorate, but 4.8 million more union household voters were added.
“The lessons were pretty basic,” says Rosenthal. “One, we found that when we talked to people about issues they cared about, they responded. Two, when you talked to people face-to-face, as close to where they live as you can get, they responded. Three, when you talked to them a lot over the course of several months, they responded.”
Rosenthal applied what he learned to the 2000 presidential election, where labor’s canvassing and voter contact operations helped Al Gore receive more votes than any other Democratic presidential candidate in history, and is credited with providing the margin of victory in a number of states that he won by less than 10,000 votes.
Working largely under the radar, McAuliffe has actually made the DNC better prepared for a presidential election than it may ever have been. While the innovations in fund raising and communications of Howard Dean's presidential campaign and MoveOn.org have been widely noted, the analogous changes at the DNC have largely escaped attention. So, too, has the ramping up of its 2004 field campaign, which, under the direction of general election strategist Teresa Vilmain, is taking place earlier than ever before.
. . . Indeed, much of the good news for Democrats these days is coming from a variety of organizations (dubbed "527s" in the argot of election law) that have been set up to do the kind of campaign work that, in theory, the DNC used to perform but which the funding restrictions of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law now make impossible. One such piece of good news came in the form of the re-election of Democratic Philadelphia Mayor John Street -- in a state that McAuliffe argues is more important than Kentucky or Mississippi. "We had a very good night in Pennsylvania," he effuses. "We need those 21 electoral votes."
Street's victory was, in fact, a big deal. Two months before election day, polls showed Street to be extremely vulnerable. Then came revelations that the FBI was bugging his office, which unleashed a wave of indignation at John Ashcroft and the FBI within the city's huge black community. But more important in terms of the implications for 2004 was the massive voter-registration drive in black and Hispanic Philadelphia. The first project funded by Partnerships for Working Families, a nationwide voter-mobilization program set up in the wake of McCain-Feingold, registered a stunning 86,000 new voters. In a city of 1.5 million residents, that's mind-boggling. Should it portend equivalent successes for the 527s just now gearing up, the turnout of Democratic base voters in battleground states next year could soar.
. . . "When I came here in 2001, I was horrified," McAuliffe says. "We were $18 million in debt. We were leasing space. We had 400,000 donors; their average age was 76! [At this, DNC Press Secretary Tony Welch interjects that he thinks the age was 67, but McAuliffe is on a roll.] Fifty million people had voted for Al Gore, and I could not go to my desk and pull up one voter from the Gore campaign. Not a single voter file was left in the building. Then, in 2002, I lost 80 percent of our disposable income with McCain-Feingold. So we changed all that."
And, to a large extent, he has. For reasons not just of legal but also of strategic necessity, the big-money guy is cultivating the grass roots. McAuliffe made two critical decisions shortly after he became chairman. The first was to devote major resources to building a small-donor list. The second was to assemble a master voter file, with the names, addresses, voting history and demographic particulars of every one of the nation's registered voters. The Republicans had long since had both.
In his first two, pre-McCain-Feingold years as chairman, McAuliffe retired the $18 million debt and raised an additional $25 million with which he bought and rehabbed a Capitol Hill building that will serve as the party's new headquarters when completed this December, and acquired the technology and the lists to reach donors and voters. The committee's techies dubbed the donor and activist list -- which has grown from 400,000 names to well over a million -- "Demzilla." Already the donations coming in from Demzilla, though they average just $38, bring in enough revenue to cover the DNC's operating expenses. McAuliffe is unsurprisingly bullish on its potential, announcing, "I will raise $100 million on Demzilla!" -- the amount of soft money the party raised in the 2000 election cycle.
Also notable is the DNC's creation of DataMart, its file on the nation's 158 million registered voters. Historically, lists of voters have been kept by state parties, individual campaigns and commercial list vendors. At the end of many campaigns, the results of the phone polling and precinct canvassing that the campaigns have done on voters -- often a pretty fair profile of those voters' politics -- are carted away by consultants or simply trashed. As for the state parties, most have lacked the technical capacity to maintain these lists. DataMart, ideally, will fix all that. "We had 27 million incorrect addresses and phone numbers," McAuliffe marvels. "In Florida alone, 1.6 million were wrong."
As election day loomed in 2002, the DNC was racing to get DataMart in working order, and attempted to use it in two last-minute experiments. In New Hampshire, working with the senatorial campaign of outgoing Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, the DNC developed a profile of a likely Shaheen voter and identified 60,000 of them for outreach. But time ran out before the Shaheen campaign could contact them. In Arizona, the DNC was able to identify areas of Tucson where voters were likely to support the gubernatorial campaign of Democratic nominee Janet Napolitano but where turnout had been historically light. The campaign put late money into Tucson voter mobilization, a move that's credited for Napolitano's victory.
The party has now cleaned up the lists and is making them available -- along with new technology and newly trained technicians -- to the various state parties. Predictably, Democratic state party chairs are among McAuliffe's biggest backers. "Only half our county chairs even had computers," says Denny White, the chairman of the Ohio party. "Now they all have computers with good voter files on them." The battleground states are also on a McAuliffe-accelerated calendar to get their coordinated campaigns -- the field campaigns for the presidential and other party nominees -- up and running. The DNC has directed the parties to do their hiring this winter (historically, hiring takes place in the summer of an election year) so that the coordinated campaigns will already be in place when the party's nominee emerges from the primary process in March.
McAuliffe plans to deliver another gift to the Democratic nominee this spring. The eventual winner, McAuliffe fears, is likely to emerge from the primary season battered and broke. At that point, Bush will have at least $200 million on hand for media buys. "In 2000, Al Gore was dark," McAuliffe thunders, meaning that the vice president ran no television ads because he didn't have the money, "for 92 days!" Such darkness, McAuliffe vows, will not descend on 2004's nominee. "We will have tens of millions in the bank the day we get a nominee. On March 10, or whenever it is, we'll give the nominee $25 million." In the next breath, McAuliffe whittles the figure down to the $18.6 million the law permits the party to transfer. But his point is that such funding has never gone to the nominee "before September or October of election year."
McAuliffe's fund-raising success may have to do less with anything Democrats support than with something -- or someone -- they oppose. George W. Bush has provided more incentive for Democrats to give money to their party than Bill Clinton did. "I'm sitting here with $10 million in the bank," McAuliffe notes. "In the first nine months of 2003, we've outraised our totals for '96 and 2000"(the last two presidential election years). "And that's with a garbled message! When I have a nominee and we got a message, it's gonna be great!"
. . . McAuliffe's critics question more than just his accelerated calendar -- doubting, for instance, whether the DNC's online presence resonates as deeply as it could. "Terry looks at Demzilla as a profit center," says one techie who's worked with the DNC. "Howard Dean's Web site gives his supporters something to do. Somebody in Peoria said, 'I want to build a Peoria for Dean Web site.' The campaign manager said, 'Great.'" At the DNC, there's no such two-way street when it comes to the flow of information. "They mainly want to clean up the state voter files and own the e-mail addresses of registered Democrats," the techie continues. "These are great ideas -- but then what?" The DNC is plainly reaching more Democrats than ever before, but when it comes to creatively engaging its rank and file, it is not in the Dean campaign's league.
New York City's Independent Media Center is just one piece of the rapidly expanding Indymedia movement, a four-year-old phenomenon that grew out of the trade protests of the late 1990s, and now encompasses a constellation of about 120 local collectives from Boston to Bombay. Each collective has a diverse palette of mediums it uses, including radio, video, print, and the Internet. Each is driven by political passions its volunteers don't find in the mainstream press, and each struggles to make the process of covering news as inclusive and empowering as possible for the community in which it exists.
Although the individual collectives have their political and cultural idiosyncrasies, they are united through their Web sites. To join the worldwide collective, a new Independent Media Center must have an online presence. This is the kernel of the experiment, the clearest expression of the movement's vision. The concerns and interests of these activist-journalists are immediately apparent on any of the local Indymedia sites. Go to the Melbourne, Australia, site, for example, for an article about aboriginal elders protesting the dumping of nuclear waste on their land; or to the Washington, D.C., site to read about the USA Patriot Act's many alleged violations of the Bill of Rights; or to the United Kingdom site for a piece titled new eu constitution threatens free education.
The sites all have a similar format and feature a newswire that employs a technology called open publishing. This allows a writer to post a story directly to the newswire from his or her own computer, without going through an editor. Using a simple form on the site, you merely paste in your file, click "Publish," and immediately see a link to your article appear at the top of the Web site's wire.
The open wire usually appears on the right side of the homepage of the local sites, while the center column is reserved for particularly relevant stories off the wire that a committee of volunteers has decided to highlight. The network of collectives also maintains a global site (www.indymedia.org) that pulls content from all the local sites. More than any other element of Indymedia, the accessibility of open publishing has allowed activists from Brazil to Italy to Israel to Los Angeles to answer the revolutionary demand that inspired this grass-roots movement: Don't hate the media. Be the media.
But Indymedia volunteers are also learning that being the media is not so simple. An open, representative form of media may be a worthy ideal, but in reality is often a messy thing. As the collective evolves, the volunteers are faced with difficult decisions many members never contemplated: about their Web site's usefulness, about editorial policy, about money. Whether they thrive or fade into irrelevance will ultimately depend on how well they keep their most extreme tendencies at bay. It won't be easy. Pure democracy can be chaotic, spontaneity can tip into incoherence, absolute independence might just mean poverty.
At their best, Indymedia Web sites serve as a sort of activist bulletin board and a space to report on and support a wide range of left-leaning causes — from environmental extremism and anarchism to fair-trade advocacy and universal health care. One IMC in Urbana, Illinois, for example, relentlessly reported about the detention of a local pro-Palestinian activist, Ahmed Bensouda, who was being held by the Immigration and Naturalization Service after 9/11 for a minor violation. After a few weeks of constant attention, he was released. Because each posting can be followed by potentially endless comments, Indymedia sites have also facilitated difficult debates within the activist community. A graphic photograph posted on the Prague IMC site of riot police being hit with a Molotov cocktail during that city's September 2000 International Monetary Fund/World Bank meeting inspired a contentious online discussion about whether violence was an acceptable form of resistance.
. . . As the WTO meeting neared, a group of Seattle activists began building this "different way" in a 2,500-square-foot space that was donated to the group by a local nonprofit housing advocacy group. It became the first Independent Media Center, a place where reporters could bring their articles, as well as video and radio reports, to be uploaded to a central Web site.
The activist community in Seattle coalesced around this center. Unlike previous efforts to coordinate the often fractious groups, the IMC became an energetic hub of collaboration. "It was like we were high," says Sheri Herndon, forty-three, one of the founding members of Indymedia. "The right people came and we plugged them in. And one of the things that was pretty powerful is that we weren't really fazed about working together. We had a short-term common goal. The smaller differences, you just let them go."
The use of open publishing made the Seattle Indymedia experiment revolutionary, even though the original motivation for the technology was practical. It would take too long to upload all the reporters' accounts manually in one location. The solution came from an Australian computer programmer involved with Indymedia who, three weeks before the protests, adapted an open-source code that enabled the activists to use any computer to simply post accounts or photographs of what was happening on the streets. "With open publishing, your experience of the news is different," says Jay Sand, thirty-one, another of Indymedia's early volunteers. "You really feel like you were there, even more so than TV. On TV, you are seeing one image at a time. Real life is more confusing and this comes through on the IMC site."
The result was a street-level collage of text and image: a photograph of a legion of police in riot gear. An account of a protester whose nose had just been broken. A video of the anarchist group Black Bloc smashing the windows of a Nike store. An analysis of the trade talks over fishing rights happening that day inside the convention hall. An explanation of the cause that drove activists to dress up like sea turtles.
Unwittingly, the Indymedia organizers had found a technology that fit philosophically with their ideas about how to transform the media. Everyone was now empowered to contribute to the creation of the news.
In the four years since the Seattle protests, it wouldn't be farfetched to say that Indymedia has become a brand — although that might not be the word activists would choose. From the time the first Web site was set up, Independent Media Centers have proliferated at a rapid pace, about one new one every eleven days. It soon became clear that the Indymedia format was attractive to activists around the world, not just as a way to cover protests but as a day-to-day accounting of the local and global concerns of social-justice and antiglobalization advocates.
. . . For the newswire, new technology is being developed by the tech geeks to make it easier to sift through the information and find the news a reader is looking for. Instead of deciding which posts are acceptable and which are not, Indymedia volunteers can be librarians, categorizing posts so that at a click one can find everything having to do with bioengineering, for example. The idea is to make the sites easier to use. The next step is to create themed Indymedia sites (about the economy, Israel-Palestine conflict, environment, etc.) that would include all related stories funneled from local sites.
. . . There is a surprising amount of talk about the need to expand the rules and processes and guidelines that govern Indymedia. "The ideal has not been abandoned," Chris Anderson insists. "But the great thing about Indymedia people is that they are not ideologues, they are pragmatists, not hung up on things. They have ideals but are also very practical."
This flexibility will be necessary to confront the challenges that lie ahead. IMCs continue to multiply. A group of young Iraqis are trying to set up one in Baghdad. They have begun work on publishing a newspaper, and British activists are helping the Iraqis with their Web site. A radio station in Amman, Jordan, has sent people to get them started in that medium. All this would have been impossible a few years ago
Besides introducing valuable new sources of information to readers, these sites are also forcing their proprietors to act like journalists: choosing stories, judging the credibility of sources, writing headlines, taking pictures, developing prose styles, dealing with readers, building audience, weighing libel considerations, and occasionally conducting informed investigations on their own. Thousands of amateurs are learning how we do our work, becoming in the process more sophisticated readers and sharper critics. For lazy columnists and defensive gatekeepers, it can seem as if the hounds from a mediocre hell have been unleashed. But for curious professionals, it is a marvelous opportunity and entertaining spectacle; they discover what the audience finds important and encounter specialists who can rip apart the work of many a generalist. More than just A.J. Liebling-style press criticism, journalists finally have something approaching real peer review, in all its brutality. If they truly value the scientific method, they should rejoice. Blogs can bring a collective intelligence to bear on a question.
And when the decentralized fact-checking army kicks into gear, it can be an impressive thing to behold. On March 30, veteran British war correspondent Robert Fisk, who has been accused so often of anti-American bias and sloppiness by bloggers that his last name has become a verb (meaning, roughly, "to disprove loudly, point by point"), reported that a bomb hitting a crowded Baghdad market and killing dozens must have been fired by U.S. troops because of some Western numerals he found on a piece of twisted metal lying nearby. Australian blogger Tim Blair, a free-lance journalist, reprinted the partial numbers and asked his military-knowledgeable readers for insight. Within twenty-four hours, more than a dozen readers with specialized knowledge (retired Air Force, former Naval Air Systems Command employees, others) had written in describing the weapon (U.S. high-speed antiradiation missile), manufacturer (Raytheon), launch point (F-16), and dozens of other minute details not seen in press accounts days and weeks later. Their conclusion, much as it pained them to say so: Fisk was probably right.
In December 2001 a University of New Hampshire Economics and Women's Studies professor named Marc Herold published a study, based mostly on press clippings, that estimated 3,767 civilians had died as a result of American military action in Afghanistan. Within a day, blogger Bruce Rolston, a Canadian military reservist, had already shot holes through Herold's methodology, noting that he conflated "casualties" with "fatalities," double-counted single events, and depended heavily on dubious news sources. Over the next two days, several other bloggers cut Herold's work to ribbons. Yet for the next month, Herold's study was presented not just as fact, but as an understatement, by the Guardian, as well as the New Jersey Star-Ledger, The Hartford Courant, and several other newspapers. When news organizations on the ground later conducted their surveys of Afghan civilian deaths, most set the number at closer to 1,000.
But the typical group fact-check is not necessarily a matter of war. Bloggers were out in the lead in exposing the questionable research and behavior of gun-studying academics Michael Bellesiles and John Lott Jr. (the former resigned last year from Emory University after a blogger-propelled investigation found that he falsified data in his antigun book, Arming America; the latter, author of the pro-gun book, More Guns, Less Crime, was forced by bloggers to admit that he had no copies of his own controversial self-defense study he had repeatedly cited as proving his case, and that he had masqueraded in online gun-rights discussions as a vociferous John Lott supporter named "Mary Rosh." The fact-checking bloggers have uncovered misleading use of quotations by opinion columnists, such as Maureen Dowd, and jumped all over the inaccurate or irresponsible comments of various 2004 presidential candidates. They have become part of the journalism conversation.
Thursday, December 18, 2003
John Ashcroft, the US attorney general, has been fined £21,000 for breaking election laws during his defeat by a dead rival for a seat in the Senate. During his unsuccessful campaign in 2000, America's top lawman illegally accepted £62,700 from a body set up to support a run for the presidency, the Federal Election Commission found.
A controversial, deeply religious figure, Mr Ashcroft was standing for re-election as a senator from Missouri. Humiliatingly, he was beaten by an opponent who died in a plane crash before polling day.
His rival's widow, Jean Carnahan, was later awarded the seat. One dissenting Democrat member of the FEC protested against the size of the fine, calling it "so low that I do not believe it adequately reflects the severity of the conduct at issue".
Dear Working Families e-Activist:
More than 75,000 grocery workers will spend this holiday season on the picket line. These brave workers are holding the line for health care and good jobs in the face of stubborn employer greed. They're on strike or have been locked out by their employers, including Safeway-owned Vons, Kroger-owned Ralphs and Albertsons for more than nine weeks now.
That is a long time for these workers and their families to go wthout their regular paychecks or health care coverage and
strike fund savings are running low. But these workers feel their struggle is essential to the well-being and future of
Maria Lopez, a five-year Vons employee, had this to say about the strike: "I've been out there [on the picket line] for 40
hours a week because I'm fighting for my health benefits. There are a lot of moms on the line. We are afraid to lose our jobs with this strike but more afraid to lose our health benefits if the company gets its way. If one of my kids gets really sick and I couldn't afford the insurance, I wouldn't know what to do."
You can donate to a special strike fund right now by clicking here
Bush goal of halving federal deficits draws skepticism, derision
President Bush's goal of cutting in half a projected $500 billion federal deficit within five years is being dismissed as too timid by conservatives, unachievable by analysts and laughable by Democrats.
Bush will include the objective in the $2.3 trillion budget for 2005 he sends Congress in February, nine months away from the presidential and congressional elections.... The deficit for the budget year that ended Sept. 30 was $374 billion, the highest ever in dollar terms.... White House officials say to achieve their goal, Bush will rely chiefly on two strategies. He will propose extending tax cuts that would otherwise expire, which they say will spur the economy, and limiting the growth of spending that Congress must approve each year, probably to 4 percent or less.
The Wall Street Journal's David Wessel appears unhappy at the Bush administration's decision that it is time to assume a simulacrum of fiscal rectitude. His main point: Potemkin villages are fine until it becomes time for somebody to try to live in them:
WSJ.com - Capital: ...Is it enough for Mr. Bush -- who stuck with his tax-cutting agenda despite the unanticipated costs of homeland security and Iraq -- to walk out of the White House with a deficit of bigger than 2% [of GDP]? Only if he has taken steps [which he does not plan to do] toward preparing the federal budget to absorb the retirement of the baby-boom generation and the rising cost of government health-care programs for the poor, elderly and disabled. Budget deficits don't kill economies. They disable them over time. The big economic threat isn't this year's deficit. It is the cost of keeping the pension and health-care promises the government has made. Adding prescription drugs to Medicare made the long-run cost bigger, and Mr. Bush has yet to show a strategy for forging a bipartisan consensus on fixing Social Security.
This President specializes in pain-free budgeting. Watch him resuscitate last year's discarded proposal to expand tax breaks for Americans who save. It actually will make money for the government during the first five years by encouraging people to take money from existing retirement accounts and pay taxes on that to move to the new accounts. It will widen the deficit only later -- beyond Mr. Bush's term. Watch him put down a budget in February that avoids estimating the cost of occupying Iraq, deferring that for later "supplemental spending bills." Watch him boast that if you set aside defense and homeland security (56% of annually appropriated spending this year), spending isn't going up much.
This may be smart politics. The chances are small that Americans will take to the streets to protest budget deficits. The chances are great Mr. Bush will bequeath his successor a deficit to fill. But one force could ruin the president's plan: The bond market. For now it's calm. Long-term interest rates haven't risen much despite a rebounding U.S. economy. But what if the Federal Reserve begins to raise short-term rates and the bond market follows...
George W. Bush's people do seem to be betting that the economy will be strong enough to push unemployment down and yet weak enough that rising investment demand won't send interest rates spiking. It is an uncomfortably small needle to be trying to thread--but the alternative would require constructing an economic policy.
Afghan report (4:00)
A bit of chaos erupted in Afghanistan's fourth day of its "Loya Jirga," or "Grand Assembly" which has been called to form a constitution for the country. The hubbub broke out after a female delegate took to the floor, protesting the presence of Afghan faction leaders she blamed for much of the suffering of the country. The World's Lauri Neff reports.
Many airlines are still struggling to climb out of the doldrums brought on by the recent economic downturn and the 2001 terrorist attacks. Host Cheryl Glaser talks with aviation finance expert Richard Gritta about what is ailing the airline industry 100 years after the Wright brothers made their historic flight. Gritta says, over the years, bankruptcy has been an all-too-common destination for many airlines.
Q+A: Host Cheryl Glaser talks with Richard Gritta
Kerkorian, Daimler-Benz Battle Over Chrysler
NPR's Robert Siegel talks to James Politi of The Financial Times about an ongoing legal battle between financier Kirk Kerkorian and top financial officers at Daimler-Benz. Kerkorian alleges the German auto giant sought to "take over" Chrysler when the two companies merged in 1998, and that it was not a merger of equals.
There seems to be a pattern here. Daimler Chrysler foxed the UAW with some fine print in the contract negotiated this summer.
Pentagon Touts TV Feed as 'Unfiltered Resource' on Iraq
The Pentagon is making a television feed of briefings from the Iraq Coalition Provisional Authority directly available to media and government agencies -- programming it calls "an unfiltered resource" for providing "the full news story" to news outlets. So far, however, only C-Span has agreed to pay for the coverage. NPR's Lynn Neary reports.
Brussels, 16 December (ICFTU Online): An international trade union delegation will hold talks with representatives of Iraqi trade union groupings in Amman, Jordan on 17 and 18 December. 23 representatives of national and international trade union organisations will discuss reconstruction efforts, the rights of Iraqi workers, and the effects of the ongoing violence in the country.
ICFTU General Secretary Guy Ryder, who will lead the international delegation, said “This meeting is an opportunity for us to become better acquainted with the different groups seeking to build a genuine and democratic trade union movement in Iraq, to provide a basis for future international support to the emerging trade unions and to analyse together the problems facing Iraqi workers and the Iraqi people in general. The capture of Saddam Hussein is a welcome development, and a major blow to those who are trying to stop Iraq becoming a democracy. But very serious problems remain. Helping to build a free and democratic trade union movement in Iraq is a key priority for the ICFTU.”
Wednesday, December 17, 2003
Howard Dean's campaign demanded yesterday that his Democratic presidential rivals repudiate an independently financed commercial that uses a picture of Osama bin Laden in attacking the former Vermont governor.
The 30-second ad, being aired by Americans for Jobs, Health Care & Progressive Values, also was denounced by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which has given the organization $50,000. A spokesman called the commercial "despicable" and said the union may ask for its money back.
I reported on this on Monday and called for Terry McAuliffe to step in. Click here to do the same.
CAMBRIDGE -- Presidential candidate Joseph I. Lieberman said yesterday that the capture of Saddam Hussein will potentially save hundreds of thousands of American lives.
"The truth is, with Saddam Hussein gone, I believe we have saved the lives of thousands, maybe tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of Americans, who eventually he would have brought to death," he said.
Saddam would have brought to death hundreds of thousands of American lives? What Ian Fleming planet are you living on man?
William Saletan writing in Slate in a piece criticizing Dean's Monday foreign policy speach:
the crux of Dean's case: The real threats to the United States are global terrorism and WMD, and the Iraq war addressed neither. Saddam's terror connections and weapons programs were more than zero but less than what other regimes had. To that extent, the war was a net loss, since it consumed resources that could have been used more efficiently to fight terrorism or WMD elsewhere, and it antagonized countries whose help we needed in those pursuits. Ousting Saddam was good for the Kurds, the Shiites, and probably for the nations bordering Iraq. But it wasn't essential to the security of the United States.
The line that in the speech that draws the most flak afterward is, "The capture of Saddam has not made America safer." But analytically, Dean is right. The people who are safer with Saddam in prison are in Iraq, Iran, and Kuwait. We weren't on the list. I supported the war to punish a scofflaw and put teeth in U.N. resolutions. Bush now defends the war as a rescue mission for oppressed Iraqis. Neither reason has to do with U.S. security.
And Lieberman is wrong again when he calls for a trial for Saddam in the US:
Senator Lieberman said Saddam should only stand trial in a tribunal with the power to impose the death penalty. "This evil man has to face the death penalty. The international tribunal in the Hague cannot order the death penalty," he said on NBC television. "If it can be done by the Iraqi military tribunal, fine. But if it cannot, he should be brought before an American military tribunal and face the death that he has brought to hundreds of thousands of his own people and 460-plus Americans."
It is more important that he is tried in Iraq by Iraqi's than whether or not he is executed.
David Tell writes in the Weekly Standard:
How come it's Howard Dean, of all people, and not someone like . . . well, Gephardt, who appears, weeks and weeks before the first official ballot has been cast, to be running away with the race?
A new polling analysis by the Pew Research Center confirms the anomaly. And rather deepens the mystery, in fact. The ordinary rule of thumb is that people are disposed to "vote their hearts" in early-state presidential primaries. Which is thought to mean that hard-boiled general-election imperatives remain a relatively distant concern in these contests: Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats will be less likely preoccupied with identifying the candidate best equipped to unseat President Bush in November, and more likely, instead, simply to choose the guy whose views most closely match their own. Or so it's expected.
But over the past three weeks, no fewer than seven different reputable and well-known polling outfits have released data indicating that Howard Dean is thoroughly dominating the once-heavily-favored John Kerry in New Hampshire--by a 24-percentage-point average margin. And Pew's research suggests that neither man's views have much to do with it: "Supporters of Dean and Kerry exhibit few issue differences." If anything, on the domestic policy front, which both candidates ritually contend ought to be paramount, a significant number of New Hampshire Democrats, whether they realize it or not, are making up their minds despite the issues; a plurality of Dean supporters, for example, actually disagree with Dean--and agree with Kerry--about the need to preserve some portion of the Bush tax cuts. New Hampshire, then, is not tilting hard toward Howard Dean because people are "voting their hearts," as that phrase is traditionally understood.
Instead, according to Pew, Dean is far ahead of Kerry in New Hampshire, and threatening to snuff out Dick Gephardt here in Iowa, because he enjoys a sizable lead in both states among Democrats "who place a greater priority on defeating Bush." In other words: Dean voters become Dean voters--defying all the standard predictive formulas; on paper, either Kerry or Gephardt would be their party's stronger general-election standard-bearer--because they've convinced themselves that Dean's the winner's bet. Who on earth are these people?
Clay Risen writes in the New Republic:
perhaps the important thing about the speech wasn't what it says about Dean vis-à-vis President Bush, but what it says about Dean's relationship with his own supporters, many of whom embraced Dean as the only antiwar candidate in the early days of the campaign. True, Dean vociferously opposed the war, but the details of his foreign policy views--his support for previous military action, his support for increased military spending--were lost in the roar of antiwar, progressive groups like MoveOn.org and International ANSWER. All of which raises the question: If Dean is now trying to shed his dovish image, will he end up shedding those supporters as well?
The short answer, if immediate post-speech message-board posts are any indication, is no. "YES! He's outflanking Bush to the right on Saudi Arabia!" wrote one pro-Dean poster on Blog for America, the Dean campaign's official weblog. "Each of the policies outlined by the Governor can put to rest the meme that Gov. Dean is a blanket anti-war 70s liberal. The speech reflected a nuanced and proactive approach to the current situation in the world," wrote another. Indeed, what comes out most in the posts, and more generally in comments by Dean's core supporters on all manner of topics as of late, is that they're even more ideologically flexible than he is. Having judged the former governor and found him pure, they're willing to accept things like a more hawkish foreign policy. "Sorry for those that didn't know but Dean is a centrist," wrote one poster. "I'm not crazy about people that believe that war is an option, but our doctor here will not and would not send troops to awar without looking at all the FACTS and EVIDENCE and deliberately taking TIME to decide."
Also interesting, but only tangentially related -
From the New Republic:
DOES DEAN HAVE A BETTER CHANCE AS AN INDEPENDENT?: Mickey Kaus raises the interesting possibility that Howard Dean could take his impressive political organization and go home (er, run as an independent) should he lose the fight for the Democratic nomination. This leads Kaus to ask, "In a Dean vs. Gephardt vs. Bush race, is it clear Dean would finish third? Not to me."
But why couldn't Dean aspire to more than just not finishing third? We're even tempted to argue that Dean has a better shot of winning the presidency in a Dean vs. Gephardt vs. Bush race than in a Dean vs. Bush race. For one thing, he'd be the only guy in the race who opposed the Iraq war. And, if all the polls taken over the last year are any indication, that opposition puts him on the same wavelength as at least 35-40 percent of the country. That issue alone could win him the presidency.