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What "Sweeping Change"?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Sunday, April 2 2006

The headline writer at the New York Times knows more than Adam Nagourney, for in an article titled "Internet Injects Sweeping Change Into U.S. Politics," a statement that is indeed true, we learn almost nothing about how politics is actually changing. Instead, we get a look at how the parties and various campaigns are trying out all kinds of new-fangled tools and tricks, mostly aimed at moving their own messages.

The "sweeping change," after all, that we're experiencing, has very little to do with "Democrats and Republicans ... sharply increasing their use of e-mail, interactive Web sites, candidate and party blogs, and text-messaging to raise money, organize get-out-the-vote efforts and assemble crowds for rallies." Nor is it really about campaigns experimenting "with technology that allows direct messaging to more specific audiences, and through unconventional means." Same with "podcasts featuring a daily downloaded message from a candidate and so-called viral attack videos, designed to trigger peer-to-peer distribution by e-mail chains, without being associated with any candidate or campaign."

Nagourney knows the lingo, but he doesn't understand the language. While he pays passing notice to the rising power of independent citizen voices (a.k.a. "bloggers"), his whole report is framed around the old top-down assumption that a candidate's job is to deliver a message to potential voters. The word "message" or its variants comes up six times in the piece; by contrast the word "listen" is never mentioned. Yet listening is what the internet is all about--other people can speak now just as effectively as a politician, and their ability to raise their voices is growing day by day.

Though Nagourney talked to a few academics who are tuned into this change, he appears to have spent most of his time interviewing political consultants. Thus he seems most dazzled with new forms of advertising, like the ability of campaigns "to beam video campaign advertisements to cell phones."

Even his treatment of blogs is tone-deaf. Sure, he quotes Markos Moulitsas on how blogs will be "institutionalized" by 2008, but nowhere in his piece does he explain what makes a blog like DailyKos so popular, or whether the many blogs started by politicians are connecting in any meaningful way. (Perhaps we should call boring politician blogs written by their press staffers, "plogs.")

One of these days a smart politician or advocacy group is going to figure out how to genuinely use the internet to listen to voters, and talk with them, not at them. (See what John Edwards is doing with video responses to videoblog questions, as a first step.) Or voters will figure out how to organize themselves to demand the kind of politician or policies that they want (rather than what the interest groups or consultants conjure up for them), and use the internet to get that. Then we'll be able to say that the same kind of changes we're seeing in everything from publishing (Amazon), sales (eBay), travel (Orbitz), etc. are coming to politics.

This is not to say that there aren't great efficiencies to be had by campaigns as they adopt new technology to do things like organize volunteers, work a field operation, raise money and so on. But efficiencies don't add up to a "sweeping change." For that, I'm putting my money on the real shift, which is the movement of power away from the center and top and to the edges and the bottom. A harder story to report, for sure, and one that the consultants in DC are by definition ill-disposed to understand. But that's the big story, and it's coming.