The Internet and Politics: Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out

Tom Knapp beat up on me in this article about this posting where I beat up on Ron Fournier for his recent article 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 of what I’m seeing on 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 reads:

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.

Stephen Gordon

I like tasteful cigars, private property, American whiskey, fast cars, hot women, pre-bailout Jeeps, fine dining, worthwhile literature, low taxes, original music, personal privacy and self-defense rights -- but not necessarily in this order.

  1. Steve,

    I’m not sure how crediting you with being a major innovator in the 2004 election cycle is “beating you up.” ;-)

    I want to go into this a little more, as a matter of fact, but it’s a little hard to do without tooting my own horn a bit, because I think your most important innovation was specific to the LP and that I played a role in getting the importance of that innovation — which you had already been propounding — across to Aaron in the pre-nomination campaign.

    It may not seem innovative, but it is: What Steve proposed was that even in the pre-nomination period, an LP presidential candidate should relentlessly focus his campaign on 100-million-plus voters rather than on 20,000 (give or take) Libertarian Party members. Or, to put a finer point on it, that a candidate should show the LP that he’s already courting voters rather than try to persuade the LP that he can court voters if nominated.

    Damn. Out of room. More in the next comment.

    Tom Knapp

  2. You could write a snappy book on the similarities and strategies of war and politics.

    Sun Tzu and the Art of Political War.

  3. Tom,

    Had I prefaced with “Tom credited me” there would be no conflict. :)

    There are now two readers. QED, dude.

  4. Stephen,

    Geoffrey Neale quotes Tze significantly in politics. Quite a few political writers do, too. It is a key component of the course I’m still developing.

    The book has been written many times, but it would be neat to do a compilation of the better quotes and analogies.

  5. Continuing …

    If you look at the LP presidential nomination candidates’ activities and press in the 2004 pre-convention period, what you’ll find are three strategies:

    – Badnarik worked to sell himself to LP members on the premise that he was the most principle libertarian among the candidates.

    – Nolan worked to sell himself to LP members on the premise that he was the candidate who could best sell himself to the public.

    – Russo worked to to sell himself to the public on the basis of the issues, on the premise that by doing so, he would a) show, rather than convince, the LP that he was the most saleable candidate, and b) come out of the nomination process ahead of, rather than behind, the curve that LP politicians face on name recognition, media penetration, etc.

    That last approach was innovative — for the LP (all successful major party candidates use it). It, or at least the candidate using it, was also rejected — by the LP.

    Damn. Out of room again. I’ll shut my yap now.


  6. Tom,

    The bottom line is that neither Russo nor Dean got to play in the big game, though.

    I’ll add that Russo didn’t always play along, and concentrated far too much energy on LP functions and events for which he didn’t recieve adequate return. Compare the crowds he had in Nevada to smaller LP functions.

    I still maintain that LP presidential candidates should change strategies, but it may not be enough to win a party nomination. If not, running as an independent candidate might be the best alternative.

  7. Geoffrey Neale quotes Tze significantly in politics. Quite a few political writers do, too. It is a key component of the course I’m still developing.

    That doesn’t surprise me.

    OT: Tze sounds like the illegitimate love child of Sun Tzu and Che Guevara. Dunno if that was a typo or a diff spelling :)

  8. Steve,

    Man, I’m the choir. But even given his sometimes straying focus, what Aaron’s campaign accomplished in the pre-nomination phase should be a baseline standard for what the LP seeks in a presidential candidate. Not necessarily the particular issues or the same persona/image, but the notion that LP candidates should be reaching voters and that LP members/delegates should get behind candidates who do reach voters instead of candidates who promise to reach voters.

    We both kept track of media penetration. Russo far outstripped his opponents in non-LP press attention, and the difference was on quantity and quality. If there was a news story about each three, it looked like:

    Florida — Badnarik addresses local LP group.

    Ohio — Nolan gets lost and misses addressing student LP group.

    National (Washington Times) — Russo hits Kerry upside the head on the draft issue.

    It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which of those bodes better for November.

  9. Tom,

    For a political party which is credited for being brighter than average, we don’t seem to act like it at times.

    Time will tell what 2008 brings.

  10. Where’s the hook? When I visit these different sites
    I see nothing to draw me in. The national LP sites wants me to pledge money, but doesn’t give me a reason.
    It should have a big, bold headline, or banner.

  11. Tom, Steve,

    I know you both supported Aaron. I personally liked his potential. I just couldn’t see such an ascerbic personality representing me. I don’t think I’m the only one. Aaron didn’t get beaten out of the nomination, he lost it.

    Badnarik did the better job at the convention. While the other two killed each other off, MB showed an articulate side that enough delegates believed would carry well. Of course, they also by and large believe that a Libertarian is not even a token candidate, and like everybody else with a TV or computer, most of them were busy playing other games right up until the convention. So it didn’t matter that Aaron was reaching the voters outside the LP, because he forgot to show us that. Or that Nolan had a love affair with the press, because he choked. Literally.

    Yes, we must do it better. We will do it better. We’re already doing it better.

    Of course, that’s not happening without your help. For one, I am glad you’re here!


  12. Allen,

    I’m well aware that Russo’s “reach voters instead of just members” was not the only reason for his failure to gain the nomination, and I’m sorry if I conveyed the impression that the convention outcome centered around the voter outreach versus member outreach approach. There were a number of reasons why the convention came out the way it did — some of which could have been different, some of which were probably just built in.

    I do hope that in the next cycle, the LP finds a candidate with “combined strengths” that include an outward approach during the pre-nomination period.

    As a side note, I’m not “here” any more — I’m with the Democratic Party now. There are circumstances under which that could change, of course (such as, for example, Hillary receiving the 2008 Democratic nomination and/or the LP having a credible pre- or post-nomination candidate to whose campaign I think I can help achieve real impact).

    Tom Knapp

  13. I’m sure there are enough of us out there that could help out on those campaign sites. I mean if they have shared hosting or a dedicated box or whatever… Even if you just throw up a cms like wordpress or mambo real quick… it’s better than some of the sites I have seen for office in the past.

  14. I am just throwing up a site for our local party on my own server. Nothing exquisite just a cms with a purdy template. ;-)

    Will post where it is when it is up.

  15. Steve,

    Tom Knapp had it right and if that was beating on you we all should be so lucky. The use of the ‘new technology’ in major campaigns, like the Dean campaign and the earlier splash by the McCain people in 2000, involved traditional media, traditional communications, which then were augmented. Clinton’s ’92 campaign was considered and was cutting edge. Still, Clinton shook hands nearly 24/7 in the primaries.

    You’d be selling Trippi short to suggest that his ability to see and use the value of these tools outweighed his knowledge of how they are used to complement how campaigns are run. His notion that the Iraq War issue was there and largely unaddressed and these new tools allowed Dean to steal a march on the other guys. That, and lots of work; it’ll always be lots of work. And thanks for your site! I first saw reference to Cory Maye here—Some friends and I are working now to put that on the front pages in Mississippi. Way to go!

  16. John,

    LTNS. Tom and I regularly beat up on each other like this. :)

    I think Trippi did well with the tools he had available. Unfortunately, he had to fight the machine within his own party.

    Let me know if there is anything we can do to help you get the Maye case media exposure in Mississippi.

    And have a happy New Year, John.

  17. Steve,

    On what Allen Hacker says about Aaron, I sympathize with his reasons for supporting Badnarik, but I found Aaron one of the most engaging and people friendly Brooklynites I’ve ever known. That’s just me and I hate New York.

    Knapp got it right. Most of us for Russo wanted Aaron because he could appeal to voters in general. That was the winning focus for the nomination as well.

    Badnarik was a good guy, and he worked hard. But I strongly doubt that all those attending the convention and voting for Badnarik from the first ballot were longtime Libertarians. I figured many of them were shipped in, by Republicans, without Badnarik or anyone on his campaign even knowing. Same thing happened to Nader around the country. I figure you did a good job and the convention vote was stacked and LP rules allowed it.

  18. Quoth John Slevin:

    Badnarik was a good guy, and he worked hard. But I strongly doubt that all those attending the convention and voting for Badnarik from the first ballot were longtime Libertarians. I figured many of them were shipped in, by Republicans, without Badnarik or anyone on his campaign even knowing.

    I attended the convention, worked before it going through delegate lists, contacting delegates, etc. I knew and/or recognized most of the delegates as faces that I’d seen in Indianapolis in 2002, Anaheim in 2000, or on C-SPAN in Washington in 1998 and 1996, or had worked with or around in the LP for several years.

    There was not, as far as I could tell, any large influx of “new” people, if by “new” we mean “became involved in the LP after, rather than before or during, the Browne period.”

    Also, Russo would have probably represented a proportional plus for the GOP by drawing more “otherwise for Kerry” votes than “otherwise for Bush” votes.

    Tom Knapp

  19. John,

    I’d have to agree with Tom on this. While we found a few minor irregularities with the delegate lists, they didn’t greatly concern the presidential outcome, would have likely favored Nolan, and weren’t enough to change any outcome.

    Tom was one of several people (from several perspectives) analyzing the lists. We were watching carefully, and had plans to cover most possible infiltration attempts. I’m sure the Nolan campaign did the same.

    Not sure that I agree with Knapp’s latter point, though. While Russo winning might have helped Bush more, it would have also meant that he would have been a significant factor in the race. As a maverick and a wild card, the GOP probably would have prefered that Russo not be a factor to consider at all.

  20. Allen,

    Aaron didn’t get beaten out of the nomination, he lost it.

    I’ll agree with this aspect of it. However, with respect to basic strategy, if people who showed at the convention heard about Russo daily from the mainstream media as opposed to being relegated to traditional libertarian media outlets, the outcome would have been very likely to be different.

    For one thing, as happened in Nevada in his GOP race, there would have been a larger batch of new delegates enthused by Russo showing at the convention.

    Also, the more traditional delegates would have been more likely to circle R on that crucial third ballot.