Who is going to decode the Internet transformation of American politics?
Not, alas, the New York Times, the best inadequate old newspaper we have. The Times “Week in Review” piece on Sunday, “Howard Dean’s Internet Push,” signed by Glen Justice, was a head-in-the-sand classic. The big news, the story said, is that an Internet consultant’s phone rings once a day now, not once a week or once a month. No mention that a huge base of small-sum Internet donors has demonstrated how to wipe the corrupting stain of money off democracy–a much more cleansing, practical, citizen-driven reform than the late, lumbering and maybe unenforceable McCain-Feingold legislation. The Times story was that Howard Dean has brought a new trick to the game, another fax machine, another new device “like direct mail, phone solicitation and events in restaurants” and so captured the Internetizens. Nary a hint of the more plausible counter-story: that free citizens online drafted Howard Dean and are carrying him like a hood ornament on their campaign. The closing line, ignoring the disruption of the Senatorial beauty pageant, began: “It’s still the age of TV.” Not once did the word “blog” appear in the Times piece. The whole thing reminded me of John Perry Barlow’s generic Times headline: “Internet: Threat? … or Menace?” It feels ironic, and all the more irksome, now that the Times online has a bigger circulation than the broadsheet.
The assignment is to find out, then tell the folks, what’s going on out there. So this is a first invitation to report a new story, in a new way, as urgently as Theodore H. White did with The Making of the President 1960. “When that book came out,” as White himself remarked later, “it was like Columbus telling about America at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella.” Teddy White told it so well that his story line, with 44 years of dust on its eloquence, persists like an old fairy tale. But Teddy White’s big-city bosses, his titans of industry and company towns, his “coruscatingly brilliant” Kennedy aides, his epic Rockefellers and his whole rather gigantic institutional cast, are gone from the stage–both body and spirit. Only together, it seems to me, can we reobserve and rewrite the real narrative of American politics in this campaign year.
In my own humble observation, what’s happening out there is the start of a fundamental reordering of democratic energy and political influences, a drastic subversion of a discredited game, an inversion of the old pyramids of control, or perhaps a shape shift, as Stirling Newberry argues, from pyramid to sphere. The Internet represents a rewiring of the body politic, but it’s not the technology that’s interesting, it’s the individual engagement and social model implied in it. One of many salient effects of the Internet in politics (along with the geekification of campaigns, the new language of memes, the networks in place of campaign organizations) is the seeming recapitulation of computer-industry history in the mid-1990s. The leading practitioner of the new “open source” politics, Joe Trippi of the Dean campaign, got the idea working in California with Linux-based software entrepreneurs against the monster Microsoft. “I always wondered how you could take that same collaboration that occurs in Linux and open source and apply it [in politics],” Trippi told Larry Lessig. “What would happen if there were a way to do that and engage everybody in a presidential campaign?”
What the Internet has created, and only Howard Dean so far has exploited, is a wide open public space in which the closed cronyism of both parties must surely be undone, maybe soon. Matt Stoller writes in the Clark Sphere: “we are witnessing a nonpartisan war between those reactionaries who reject the widening spacial boundaries of politics and those visionaries who embrace them.” The Internet appeals not least because it’s a subliminal reminder of a beloved myth, the open American frontier. “The Internet, like the frontier, is about creation, growth and open spaces,” Stoller observes. The Internet is the First Amendment’s essential meaning and killer-app for our time. “In a sense, America was founded on the principle of wide media spectrum… Media consolidation touches a nerve for precisely this reason. The controlled, closed nature of corporate systems rubs that individualistic streak in the American polity precisely the wrong way.”
What peaked in the campaign of 2000, in my view, was a media-enabled process that mercilessly pruned away the more expansive and provocative minds in the field–Bill Bradley, John McCain and Ralph Nader; then bored us silly with two diminished standard bearers haggling mechanically at the dead center of the TV screen over what they decided was the demographic sliver and tiny cluster of states still at play in their pathetic excuse for a popular national debate and decision.
No one is going to tell us this story of the 2004 campaign. We’re going to have to tell it ourselves, to each other.
So here, finally, is the ask. Will you please pull up a chair, get yourself online, and join an open exploratory conversation till the first Tuesday of November next year about this choice of an American chief. Before this week is out I will open a new blog that I want to call simply “notes on the transformation.”
If you’re looking for a place to start your notes and comments, answer these questions first:
- What is your test of authenticity in the candidates you care about? And what scores have you been jotting down?
- When you feel a sermon coming on about this country in this time, on what soapbox, talk show, op-ed page or website are you inclined to deliver it?
- In the public observation and commentary on the 2004 campaign, which big or little media stars are as close to the mark as your own kitchen conversations and rush-hour monologues? In short, who’s getting it?
My initial premise is that if there are people who know what’s going they aren’t talking; and the ones that are talking don’t know. My purpose is to create a busy space for accessible commentary and argument–no bullshit, no pandering–about what the new and old politics and media are doing to us. I’ve asked Jay Rosen of NYU and PressThink to hold up the other end of an open tent as a co-editor with a light touch. We bring different CVs and institutional tags: he in New York as teacher and visionary reformer; I in Boston-Cambridge with New York Times campaign work in my checkered multi-media history. We share a critical and reformist curiosity and a yen for a public voice in professional journalism.
I start with long lists in my head of old and young pro’s in politics and journalism I want to hear from. But the real authorities are the ones we haven’t met yet. Introduce your favorites. Introduce yourselves. I want to profile and question the megaphones that people take seriously, from Sean Hannity to Tim Russert to CommonDreams to Instapundit. I want to hear from the famous techies, like Dave Winer, who wrote the software of the new media. Many of them, like Dave, are humanists and political visionaries behind their geek masks. I want to make an aggressive pursuit of foreign perspectives on this campaign, from Ha’aretz and the Toronto Globe and Mail, from the Guardian, Al Ahram, the African press, the bloggers in Iran and all their readers everywhere–not least because a lot of distant observers seem to know and care about our campaign more than we do.
The trick in the new “Blogging of the President” blog will be to explain America not to Ferdinand and Isabella but to the ghost of Teddy White. It is not too much to dream that if we unshackle our imaginations and shed our inhibitions, we’d have a conversation that might yet restore the notion that Teddy White embodied, that “there is no excitement anywhere in the world, short of war, to match the excitement of an American presidential campaign.”