December 21, 2003


Napster Runs for President in '04: The political establishment was blindsided by the Dean campaign because it was blindsided by the Internet's power as a political tool. (Frank Rich, 12/21/03, NY Times)

I am not a partisan of Dr. Dean or any other Democratic candidate. I don't know what will happen on Election Day 2004. But I do know this: the rise of Howard Dean is not your typical political Cinderella story. The constant comparisons made between him and George McGovern and Barry Goldwater — each of whom rode a wave of anger within his party to his doomed nomination — are facile. Yes, Dr. Dean's followers are angry about his signature issue, the war. Dr. Dean is marginalized in other ways as well: a heretofore obscure governor from a tiny state best known for its left-wing ice cream and gay civil unions, a flip-flopper on some pivotal issues and something of a hothead. This litany of flaws has been repeated at every juncture of the campaign this far, just as it is now. And yet the guy keeps coming back, surprising those in Washington and his own party who misunderstand the phenomenon and dismiss him.

The elusive piece of this phenomenon is cultural: the Internet. Rather than compare Dr. Dean to McGovern or Goldwater, it may make more sense to recall Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy. It was not until F.D.R.'s fireside chats on radio in 1933 that a medium in mass use for years became a political force. J.F.K. did the same for television, not only by vanquishing the camera-challenged Richard Nixon during the 1960 debates but by replacing the Eisenhower White House's prerecorded TV news conferences (which could be cleaned up with editing) with live broadcasts. Until Kennedy proved otherwise, most of Washington's wise men thought, as The New York Times columnist James Reston wrote in 1961, that a spontaneous televised press conference was "the goofiest idea since the Hula Hoop."

Such has been much of the reaction to the Dean campaign's breakthrough use of its chosen medium. In Washington, the Internet is still seen mainly as a high-velocity disseminator of gossip (Drudge) and rabidly partisan sharpshooting by self-publishing excoriators of the left and right. When used by campaigns, the Internet becomes a synonym for "the young," "geeks," "small contributors" and "upper middle class," as if it were an eccentric electronic cousin to direct-mail fund-raising run by the acne-prone members of a suburban high school's computer club. In other words, the political establishment has been blindsided by the Internet's growing sophistication as a political tool — and therefore blindsided by the Dean campaign — much as the music industry establishment was by file sharing and the major movie studios were by "The Blair Witch Project," the amateurish under-$100,000 movie that turned viral marketing on the Web into a financial mother lode.

Unsurprisingly, the campaign that learned the most from John McCain's use of the web has effected the most remarkable use of Internet power, signing up some ten million folks and sending out updates several times a day. It's also no surprise that the Frank Rich's of the world haven't figured that out yet.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 21, 2003 10:19 AM

How about Patrick Ruffini's contribution? They've built this web operation that dwarfs the opposition, yet they're flying in stealth mode so far as blinkered liberals go.

Posted by: kevin whited at December 21, 2003 11:46 AM

Amen to that - Dr. Instapundit keeps writing about the web-savvy of the Dean campaign, but (to my knowledge) has yet to comment on Bush's project.

Posted by: jim hamlen at December 22, 2003 8:57 PM