Tom Knapp beat up on me about this posting where I beat up on Ron Fournier for and Joe Trippi (or a really good fake) stopped by to comment on a topic in which we all are involved. Confused? It isn’t as complicated as it seems.
While I thought Fournier wrote a pretty good piece on Internet activism and covered a broad variety of examples, I found that he provided examples of what had alreadly happened as opposed to what’s on the horizon. Apparently Joe Trippi agreed when he stated:
Stephen is right about the yesterday stuff and things are evolving quickly.
What were the cutting edge Internet campaigns of yesteryear will likely be replicated in the 2006 elections — by people who don’t live in the edge of the Internet and by folks who simply don’t get it. As a result, they will no longer be cutting edge. The most common example may be from many Republicans and other authoritarians who prefer a top-down methodology of communications to community building networks. Disclaimer: I was just asked to develop another GOP website, so I may be part of defeating my own prediction if I accept the contract.
Unless there is major change in the direction of this trend, the groups who will be dominant on the Internet once again will be Dean-ocrats (the Internet active and generally more libertarian fringe of the Democratic Party) and Libertarians. These two groups are likely to be the thought leaders on how to employ new Internet strategies and tactics in the electronic battlefield. Fournier commented:
I’m looking forward to learning more about you and your website so perhaps I can be better education next time.
This will be one of several places to watch, as Stephen VanDyke and I are developing some cutting edge concepts which are scheduled to be employed early in 2006. I’m sure Trippi and many others already have a few tricks up their sleeves, too.
This doesn’t mean Democrats and Libertarians will automatically dominate the Internet. I’m especially concerned about the 2006 elections, as some ofon Libertarian websites is truly scary. The Dems seem stuck in 2004 mode right now, and the LP seems to have regressed a bit. Fortunately, Internet “neighborhood bars” such as this one will pick up a bit of the slack for some poorly designed campaign sites, but not nearly enough.
This is where Knapp comes in:
Here’s where Steve makes a tiny, but critical error. He notes that libertarians beat others to the punch in inventing and making use of Internet tools for political purposes … but forgets that the punch never landed. Yes, the Libertarian Party was the first party on the web. And there it sat. Waiting.
That I’m often critical of LP strategies or resource deployment can’t be reasonable disputed. It wasn’t the purpose of my article, though. This said, Knapp was so correct in his assessment of general Libertarian (and Dean campaign) activities a few of his points are deserving of additional thought.
Libertarians are very much engaged in an asymmetrical political warfare with the entrenched “mainstream.” The mistake is in thinking that the asymmetry which can be successfully exploited lies in the nature of the Internet. It doesn’t. Advocates of the other political persuasions have just as much access to those tools — that weaponry, if you will — as we do.
What are the asymmetries which libertarians can advantageously exploit? One of them — exactly as both Fournier and Gordon describe but don’t note — is “stealing a march.” The activists described in Fournier’s article, and the libertarians mentioned in Gordon’s, didn’t have access to any tools their opponents lacked. But they used those tools first … before their opponents did … and reaped certain advantages of position. Libertarians, being “early adopters,” have stolen a number of marches — first political party on the web, some of the first effective “online petition” drives, etc. — but as mentioned above, they haven’t been able to exploit their position once they’ve reached it (or, as below, their exploitation ability has been limited).
Why do Libertarians and Dean-ocrats alike engage in online guerilla campaigns? To continue Knapp’s warfare analogy, a Clausewitz statement comes to mind: “…keep the forces concentrated in an overpowering mass.”
Political consultant Thomas “Doc” Sweitzer connected this Clausewitz statement to politics with:
Put another way, concentrate your strength against an opponent’s weakness.
We’ve been pretty effective at recognizing Republican communications vulnerabilities and employing Internet tactics which win a lot of battles — but this is not enough. As neither Trippi nor I are currently employed as the White House Chief of Staff, we need to take a closer look at the words of Clausewitz. Context is important, and the entire aforementioned quotation:
Much more frequently the relative superiority “that is, the skilful assemblage of superior forces at the decisive point” has its foundation in the right appreciation of those points, in the judicious direction which by that means has been given to the forces from the very first, and in the resolution required to sacrifice the unimportant to the advantage of the important — that is, to keep the forces concentrated in an overpowering mass.
While Clausewitz provides several examples of numerically inferior forces defeating larger opponents, his primary criterion is indeed significant:
The first rule is therefore to enter the field with an army as strong as possible. This sounds very like a common place, but still is really not so.
In the last presidential race, Libertarians did not go into the field with an army strong enough to win a state election, much less a national one. Had Dean been able to motivate enough establishment support from within his party, he likely would have had the numerical strength to win not just the Democratic primary, but perhaps the election against Bush.
Clausewitz also said:
Here we find armies much more like one another in equipment, organisation, and practical skill of every kind. There only remains still alternately a difference in the military virtue of armies, and in the talent of generals.
Knapp already stated that we all had access to the same tools. That both the Dean-ocrat and Libertarian armies were more morally virtuous is indisputable. That Rove and Mehlman were superior generals is evident, as we are still engaged in the War in Iraq.
That Libertarians simply didn’t bring enough assets to the battlefield is obvious; the reasons for Dean’s loss are less apparent. My belief is that the Dean campaign peaked at the wrong time:
There remains nothing, therefore, where an absolute superiority is not attainable, but to produce a relative one at the decisive point, by making skilful use of what we have.
The calculation of space and time appears as the most essential thing to this end, and this has caused that subject to be regarded as one which embraces nearly the whole art of using military forces.
As the post mortem of the 2004 elections continue, there will be plenty of debate over the precise reasons for the Bush victory. One thing which seems clear is that Bush (and Kerry) more effectively employed television commericials and other media to mobilize their vast armies. One might say that television (and even many Republican websites) are passive engagements with their targeted audiences, while vibrant Internet communities are active.
To break an army down to the basic land battle components of infantry, artillery and calvary, let’s take look at what happened.
Badnarik, like Libertarian campaigns before him, was unable to attract a sizeable infantry of active supporters. His Internet calvary (and Russo before him) managed to win a few tactical victories against heavy odds. Libertarians took to the field with but a few paid media artillery pieces. General Fred Collins picked his own battlefield and even inflicted some significant damage in New Mexico for a few days. However, he didn’t have enough resources available to win even this battle — much less the war. We never enjoyed a significant portion of the mainstream media. To some degree, it wasn’t earned, although what was truly earned frequently wasn’t covered, either. Despite a significantly greater level of mainstream media assets, Nader was a relative non-factor in the race. With no Internet calvary to speak, his artillery and infantry was kept at bay fighting ballot access issues throughout the race.
Dean had a moderately large infantry of active supporters. His Internet calvary was clearly a force with which to be reckoned. He brought some artillery pieces along, but not quite enough. Dean also earned the air superiority of the mainstream media for very short while. When he lost that edge, his momentum changed significantly. It is possible that Dean might have won if General Trippi had been able to employ enough of his force at one crucial point in the battle, thereby crippling the opposition. Whether fate or poor planning was the cause, the inability to apply significant force at the right time led to the downfall of the Dean campaign. After Dean’s loss, Kerry was able to increase the size of his Internet calvary, but he also slowed them down a bit in the process. He committed massive artillery and infantry to the battleline — but not a force of great enough size to win the battle between the two almost indistinguishable brutes.
Bush had a large infantry of active supporters. While not strongly loyal to Bush, they fought hard for him in what they truly believed to be a War on Terror. His Internet calvary was mediocre, winning only a couple of battles mostly because of sheer numerical superiority. Were it not for the incredibly inconvenient timing of the Libertarian Party electoral process, even Badnarik would have beaten Bush on the web. In fact, he almost did in the mere few months of the nationally focused portion of his campaign. Bush maintained the air supremecy of the mainstream media throughout almost all of the war, something not all that difficult for an incumbent president to do. What Bush used successfully was a whole lot of heavy field artillery in the form of paid media. The communication between his squadrons of bombers and artillery units was impeccable. They could afford one tactical loss after another, as they were able to control the direction of the battlefield by employing relentless and deadly barrages all throughout the war. Quite simply, they won a war of attrition due to their superior heavy resources.
It is my belief that the Internet is crucial to the future of politics campaigns. Timothy Leary’s vision to “Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out” clearly applies. When enough people “Drop Out” of passive media communications and “Turn On” their minds by tuning into active political communities, the revolution will finally be realized.