Originally published on spiked.
The Democratic Party contest to find a challenger to George W Bush for the November US presidential elections is well under way.
Massachusetts Senator John Kerry stormed ahead of his rivals this week, winning Delaware, Missouri, Arizona, North Dakota and New Mexico in the ‘Super Seven Tuesday’ caucuses and primaries, held across seven states on 3 February 2004. He previously came first in caucuses in New Hampshire and Iowa at the end of January.
Before Iowa on 19 January, Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, had been an early favourite. Dean had created a buzz with his anti-war, anti-Bush rhetoric and by reaching out to supporters across the internet. Yet in the Iowa caucus Dean came third, polling 18 percent, behind Kerry’s 37 per cent and John Edwards’ 31.8 percent.
The way in which Dean lost his initial lead is a revealing story of political opportunism – and of how relying on the internet to reinvigorate the political process is misguided. Early on, Dean stood out, not because he had any astute political insights, but by building his credibility and popularity through the worldwide web. And when he had to fight for support in the real world, it all came tumbling down around him.
Dean managed to appeal to those Democratic supporters looking for a leader who stood outside the usual politicking. His campaigners used the internet to build support in the periphery. Under campaign manager Joe Trippi, a seasoned online entrepreneur, Dean’s message took on a life of its own. His growing coterie of online supporters created their own image of his politics, selling it on to others who wanted to listen. As John Naughton wrote in the UK Observer: ‘Dean works on the basis that there is more intelligence at the edges of his network than at the centre, and that the thing to do is to harness this creativity and energy by letting it do its thing.’ (1)
But for all the decentralised bottom-up political idealism, Dean got beaten hands-down in Iowa. Following the defeat in New Hampshire Dean fired Trippi, signalling the end of the road for Dean’s campaign. And when the chips were down, the very same online supporters who helped get him to the Iowa primary lampooned him in his hour of need.
Hoarse from campaigning, Dean ended his ‘victory’ speech with what is now known as the ‘Dean Scream’. Bronwen Maddox of The Times (London) said Dean’s finale sounded like the noise made by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The ‘Dean scream’ has become an online hit, with many sampling it and adding it to music. One site had to remove its version – the ‘Dean goes nuts remix’ – because of the massive levels of traffic demanding to listen to it (2).
Some viewed Dean as unique, for harnessing the power of the internet to find a new constituency looking for an alternative to traditional party-building tactics. Critics claim that his failure to win the Iowa primary was because of his aggressive, bulging-neck-veins, anti-war rhetoric. This was unlikely to go down well in Iowa, the heart of Middle America – which, according to one commentator, went back to its ‘role as bubbling spring of healthy middle-class, Middle America values’ once Dean, Kerry and the rest had left.
But Dean, as a political force, was doomed from the start – because he built his campaign on political opportunism. His method has been to encourage grassroots, bottom-up support – not for his ideology, but for free-for-all access to his political materials instead of to any political message. Dean’s failure reveals the shortcomings of campaigning around ‘connection’, where the medium and the method become the message itself. No doubt the internet is a great tool for disseminating ideas and information – but making the internet the idea itself, and focusing everything on the medium of communication rather than on what is being communicated and why, is a poor substitute for politics.
Dean’s initial lead in the Democratic polls was down to his belief in ‘downing tools’, and letting his supporters conjure up their own vision of what he stood for. The lack of a central message, of a credible alternative to Bush, was a result of Dean’s inability to facilitate a political debate with his opponents in the real world.
Until the Iowa primary Dean’s message was continually expressed elsewhere – most notably in weblogs where bloggers discussed and debated his politics. His political ideas were never tested in the harsh realities of the real world, where his reactions, temperament and judgement would be open for all to see.
Dean’s online campaigning was successful in many ways, By the end of summer 2003, he had managed to raise over $35million through online donations (3). Although the average Dean donation is significantly less than what Bush would be able to raise, the ability of the internet to spread his message ensured that the money built up steadily over time.
Dean also skilfully won legions of supporters through a site called MeetUp, where people organise to meet across US cities and even across the globe. Dean’s central command managed to set up a virtual network of supporters who wrote campaigning letters to try to convince undecided voters to turn out and vote.
MeetUp is a unique idea. By suggesting a theme, location and time, subscribers can talk to others in the same geographic location and even suggest an agenda or focus for a meeting. MeetUp provided Dean with an invaluable tool to solicit local groups to spread his message.
MeetUp allowed Dean’s campaigners to localise activities such as letter writing, without the need for direct central command, allowing the central campaign team to save on money, time and resources.
On one ‘Dean MeetUp Day’ held in August 2003, 33,000 supporters met in various cafes, restaurants and other places. In July 2003, according to campaign head Trippi, Dean supporters wrote ‘roughly 30,000 personal letters to Iowa residents, urging them to support Dean’ (4). This was from a membership estimated to be around 87,985 across 562 cities around the world (5). The number of subscribers to Dean MeetUp has since grown to a massive 183,893.
Dean is also unique in that he uses a weblog, a kind of online journal, to propagate his message far and wide. His ‘Blog for America’ carries central messages of campaign activity and encourages debate and discussion – often without any central sanction on the content (6).
But for all the networking that Dean facilitated, it is misguided to claim that he offers a unique potential to engage the electorate in politics. His huge virtual network did not manage to win Iowa or New Hampshire.
Weblogs and organising tools like MeetUp can only influence a political outcome if the audience is already in agreement. Otherwise, how can formulating ideas without direct central input convince someone to turn off their computer and vote? Political arguments have to be made and won in the real world, not in free-for-all, ethereal online campaigns.
Perhaps the popularity of tools like MeetUp indicates that taking part is more important than agreeing on the political message today. It’s like a political version of online dating: meeting up and talking to people becomes the end in itself, and the politics comes a poor second.
The Dean phenomena was really about shortcutting the struggle to find an alternative political direction, by placing access to the instruments of political power ahead of the struggle to formulate new ideas.
Despite Dean’s recent losses, many IT commentators are sticking to their guns over bottom-up, grassroots politics-via-the-internet. Steve Johnson, author of Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software, claims we are witnessing new forms of participation created and driven by the network, or the periphery, not by the centre (7). As Johnson argued before the Iowa primary: ‘If the people receiving the message create it, chances are it’s much more likely to stir up passions.’ (8)
Other prominent commentators, most notably the US-based IT consultant Clay Shirky, are keen to distance themselves from Dean’s failures in the primaries and caucuses. But they continue to argue that participation can substitute for real democracy. Shirky moans that Dean’s failure to win support is because the very online tools that he used so effectively have ‘accidentally created a movement (where what counts is believing) instead of a campaign (where what counts is voting)’ (9).
What Shirky and others can’t bring themselves to admit is that they don’t trust us to vote the way they want us to. Or that we are simply unable to extract ourselves from believing in something too much to making the effort to vote for it. They mistrust the campaigners that they so vocally supported in their enthusiasm to embrace IT-fuelled participation.
Shirky and co get it so wrong. It is because Dean and his campaigners have so little to believe in that the votes didn’t come pouring in. And as Shirky says, ‘(If that’s true) I wonder if [Dean’s] use of social software helped create that problem….’ (10)