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Brown vs Coakley Post-Mortem: The Internet's Role in Politics 2010

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, January 20 2010

A very quick comment on the meaning of yesterday's special election in Massachusetts, in terms of the role of technology in changing politics:

First, I couldn't agree more with what Nancy wrote here yesterday:

The Internet seems to have equipped Brown to catch, collect, and amplify the enthusiasm that grew around his campaign -- both pro-Brown energy, and anti-Coakley, anti-Obama, anti-health care reform (and anti-Republican establishment) sentiment. And then there's the simple logistic factor that, because this was a special election triggered by the death of Ted Kennedy, this was a condensed campaign schedule. That's probably a major deal here because if there is the anything the Internet seems to be good at, it seems to be catalyzing excitement at an amazingly quick pace. The Internet has suggested again and again that it loves an insurgent candidate (Howard Dean, Ron Paul, Barack Obama...) , and Brown's surge seemed in many ways to be a perfect match for the Internet's particular metabolism.

I'd add these thoughts:

First, Scott Brown's victory was not due to his more astute use of the internet, compared to Coakley. You still need the right message and the right messenger. Then the internet can help what used to be a long-shot become a contender--regardless of political ideology. That's the main lesson of Brown's Massachusetts miracle, as it was the lesson of Barack Obama 2008, in terms of how the internet is altering the calculus of politics.

Second, I think Nate Silver is right about how the net is enabling a vibrant cacophony of new forces to have effective voice in the arena. A few weeks ago, he took a step back from the day-to-day sifting of public opinion that is his bread and butter to post "The Internet is Underrated." After noting that survey data show little evidence for increasing political polarization in America, he wrote:

...rather than a change in underlying sentiments -- that is, more prevalence of quote-unquote extreme, alienated, nonmainstream, populist, pox-on-both-their-houses viewpoints -- what has instead changed is that these viewpoints have become much more visible. And the reason has to do with technology -- to some extent cable news but to a much greater extent the Internet.

Take the Tea Parties, for example. Liberals don't give nearly enough credit to the technological sophistication of the Tea Partiers. Back in the old days -- you know, like 2005 or so -- getting several hundred people together at several hundred different locations would have required months of planning. But thanks to the Tea Partiers' ability to find one another on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and so forth -- and to some extent the megaphone of Fox News -- these protests can come together fairly spontaneously. The left's use of the Internet has been much more heralded, but obviously has been exceptionally impressive too, particularly the extent to which the most listened-to people on the left (think Markos Moulitsas or Jane Hamsher) tend to come from nonpolitical backgrounds. Then there are things like the Ron Paul movement, which would have gotten absolutely no traction without the Internet....

To be clear, I am not suggesting that the changes we're observing in the political discourse are illusory. Left, right, and "radical" center, activists really are getting together in ways that they couldn't have before, and really are shaping everything from the lead story on Hardball to the outcomes of entire elections. So too, their expectations are changing (i.e. increasing). This stuff is real, and both the Republicans and (somewhat astonishingly) the White House have often been caught flat-footed in trying to grapple with it.

Increased visibility leads to increased viability--of ideas and movements. And the genie is out of the bottle; more and more people understand how to do this stuff now, not just political consultants. If you are a politician or political organizer, you have to listen a lot more to what the public is talking about; you can't manipulate what you can't control. As Peter Daou writes in his post-mortem on the Massachusetts race, "The cauldron of opinion that churns incessantly on blogs, Twitter, social networks, and in the elite media generates the storylines that filter across the national and local press, providing the fodder for public opinion." What this means is that whatever "party discipline" that used to exist on either side of the aisle is breaking down; or, at best, it has to be earned and re-earned in new ways, every day.

Peter's additional point, which I agree with, is that the White House made a cardinal error in not listening more carefully or more openly to the rumblings in his own base over issues ranging from civil liberties to banking bailouts to health care reform. (They disdain the blogs and the netroots over at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.) And, as I wrote in the Obama Disconnect, instead of fostering an organic two-way conversation with his supporters, he shunted them into a far less transparent and far less supple "machine" role of supporting whatever his agenda was, as set by his interaction with other forces--but not his own public. Hence while Obama may have come into office with a huge store of political capital on his side of the aisle, instead of doing things to re-earn it, he appears to have wasted it.

One final sobering thought about the internet's role today. Consider this hard reality: our Congress is already designed to be a shock absorber. You can hit it with all kinds of forces, and nothing seems to come out the other end. Neither George W. Bush, upon winning a resounding re-election in 2004; nor Barack Obama, upon winning a resounding victory in 2008, managed to convert electoral success into major legislative change. Bush failed on his version of social security reform, and now Obama appears to be failing on his version of health care reform. So far, the Internet's ability to alter the dynamics of US politics--given the existing hard-wiring of the rest of the political process--seems to be far better tuned for "stop this" than "do this." I doubt anyone thinks this is good news. Gridlock is hardly going to get us moving forward.