net.wars: The Deaning of America

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 30 January 2004

I managed to miss the fashionable moment to write about Howard Dean. The early adopter moment was probably back about March of 2003, before most people had noticed him. A truly Net-savvy person would have spotted him then and touted his prospects.

Wendy M Grossman

The fashionable moment was probably last fall, a little after Molly Ivins said that the Internet was going to be to the 2004 election what television was to Nixon in 1968. By now, it's fashionable to say oh, well, it will be one election soon, but not yet.

It's January, and we've had exactly two primaries, after which Dean, whom no one had heard of a year ago, is in second place, and actually may be leading in number of delegates. It might, in other words, be a bit soon to judge.

Even if Dean now falls by the wayside he's come a lot further than anyone would have believed a candidate could with solely support from small donors. Anyone planning an operation for the next election will not ignore Dean's success at fundraising this time round, nor his showing in the caucuses, even if he never rises above second place. They might also, however, learn from his decision to turn down public funding worth $19 million; that seems to have been a mistake born of arrogance, given the current rumours that Dean's campaign is running out of money. Pat Robertson failed utterly as a presidential candidate in 1988, but the support he built during his attempted run has had an impact on American politics ever since, pushing the Republican party much further to the conservative edge (and dragging the Democrats along with it) and giving much more weight in public policy to the religious right.

So anything could still happen to Dean. He could defy superstition and win the nomination without having won Iowa or New Hampshire (a superstition-breaking feat last performed by Jimmy Carter). He could become a vice-presidential candidate to the number-one contender. He could become an important force in pushing Democrats into being more like traditional Democrats and less like softer Republicans. Or he could vanish from the political stage, as John Anderson did after making a substantial showing as an independent candidate in 1980 when he upended everyone's expectations and captured as much as 7 percent of the vote. Anderson did, however, leave behind hope for later independent candidates such as Ross Perot and Ralph Nader, who arguably would never have attempted their runs without him.

If Dean does not go on to achieve candidacy, whether presidential or VP, he will still leave an interesting legacy. Dean is the first candidate in history to understand - apparently largely due to his just-departed campaign manager, Joe Trippi - that the Internet is a two-way medium. Gore (who did not, as some people persist in thinking, claim to have invented the Internet) was probably the first elected politician to champion the Internet, but his Web site during the 2000 election was a hopeless one-way, broadcasting affair that didn't even make it possible for visitors to the site to send comments or questions directly to the candidate. There were certainly no facilities to allow his supporters to talk to each other.

And his was the best of an incompetent lot. It's amazing that it's taken until now for any candidate to take advantage of the community building the Net is so good at supporting. A politician does not get elected by millions of disparate individuals, no matter how much it seems like it when the politician is shaking the hands of so many people he's never met. He gets elected by people who group together to help him get the vote out, raise funds, and make up audiences for all those speeches. The Internet is the perfect medium for supporting activities like those, just as blogging could have been tailor-made for documenting the ongoing campaign trail. A single, simple example: knowing very little about Dean's policies, I wandered over to his site in December. Front page: Dean on C-SPAN right now! And to make sure you knew it really was now, the site did something many corporate sites fail to do: stated the date and times of the broadcast. It really was now. TV on, there he was, talking to a bunch of doctors about how to reform health insurance.

But the Internet story of the 2004 election is not just Dean. It has taken much longer than anyone thought it would, but the Net is finally coming into its own as a political tool. The two-million-strong anti-war marches in February 2003 were organised via the Net. The MoveOn Web site has put together enough funding and supporters to plan advertising during the SuperBowl (even if CBS is now refusing to run the ad that won their contest). The Internet may not be the kingmaker of 2004 as TV was in 1968, but if it's not this time, it will be next time.

Which all may go to explain why Big Media, when they finally got their hands on Howard "Internet" Dean, managed to make him look unelectable, an Internet ephemera. Surely millions of geeks can't count for anything in real politics.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).