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February 16, 2004

Jay Rosen on Dean

Jay Rosen is one of my very favorite media critics and theorists of democracy. Still, I'm slightly surprised by his retrospective enthusiasm for the Dean campaign. Those who were closely involved with the campaign feel they lived through something important and noble, and their feelings can be contagious. Nevertheless, I don't buy that the "distributed" methods pioneered by Joe Trippi will do anything to improve our democracy.

Jay writes: "The miracle is that an alternative to campaigns-as-usual had finally become visible with the Internet's semi-maturation as political tool. ... This alternative had proven itself in the one way that counts on everyone's scorecard: raising money. That Dean had raised it in small amounts, in distributed fashion, aided by a social movement which began to gather online and kept gathering, along with the blogs and the spirit of active participation-- all of that motion meant something."

Dean's cash may have been raised in a "distributed" way, but like most campaign money, it came from rich people. Thomas B. Edsall and Sarah Cohen analyzed Dean donors statistically and described them in the Washington Post: "They are young. They propel urban gentrification. They shop at Banana Republic, read Vanity Fair, like Audi A4s and watch reruns of 'Friends.' The $54,117 median family income of these well-educated, Internet-savvy professionals is relatively low in part because so many are single and live alone." The smallest contributions in American politics come through non-"distributed" channels: unions and other political action committees that collect dues from many members and make large contributions that are bundled in one way or another. I have always opposed both "soft money" and PACs, but Internet-based fundraising strikes me as a recipe for rule by yuppies.

Besides, George W. Bush has raised more than twice as much money through the Internet as Howard Dean. This suggests to me that online fundraising will soon be part of the standard arsenal of an "establishment" candidate.

Jay's essay refers seven times to the "establishment" that brought down Dean. I am always suspicious of this abstraction, especially in those cases when it describes me. (I'm one of those who thought that the Good Doctor would be a disastous nominee.) In any case, I don't believe that the Establishment was against Dean. Just for example, in New Hampshire, Kerry did best among high school students and Dean did best among those with postgraduate study. I read Dr. Dean as a representative of upper-income, socially libertarian, well-educated, North-Easterners. If we are going to call anyone the Establishment, why not them?

I'm going to come out and admit that I sent $50 to Dick Gephardt. I think we need candidates who are accountable to mass, democratic organizations like labor unions--groups that also engage in civic education and help raise ordinary people to have political identities. I recognize that Gephardt was yesterday's candidate; but if Dean is tomorrow's, I don't like where we're headed.

February 16, 2004 8:00 AM | category: none


Hello, Peter, and thanks for your discussion of PressThink here and in prior posts. Here is my response to this one.

If you were surprised by my "restrospective enthusiasm" for the Dean campaign, I was surprised that you took my reporting and summarizing of Joe Trippi's speech as a clear statement of my own views. Most of my post, entitled "The Tripping Point," is telling a reader what Trippi said and what he meant by it. I am operating here as a journalist because I was there, took notes, and wanted to make sense of a sometimes rambling address by a political player.

I thought it was pretty clear, for example, that in describing the "miracle" of an alternative to campaigns-as-usual, I was explaining a remark of Trippi's. He said the Dean campaign had not been a dot come bust, but a "dot com miracle." If I go to say what he meant, is it fair to say I am endorsing that view, or that it's actually my own? The entire quote you reproduce here is a paraphrase of Trippi's speech.

How many times can you insert phrases like, "Trippi said," or "in Trippi's telling," or "Trippi recalled" without overdoing it? Perhaps I should have included a few more to avoid any confusion.

You say that I refer seven times to the "establishment" (and then critique what I meant by it.) But that's because Trippi referred 27 times to the establishment. And what he meant by it is not "rich people," or "educated, upper income elites" generally, but the Democratic party establishment, the establishment press, and the political professionals who manage campaigns. I was trying to explain the world according to Trippi.

Thanks again, Peter; and cheers to you for being one of the few political philosophers to have a true weblog.

February 16, 2004 7:47 AM | Comments (4) | posted by Jay Rosen

Good piece today. Whether Jay Rosen's response is right or not is immaterial; you raise important questions and points about what (if
anything) is behind the curtain of the "first true Internet-based campaign" mystique.

Remember after Jesse Ventura won, and there was a spate of "first Internet-based campaign" opinings? That was in response to the fact that the campaign used e-mail to get people to rallies. And then, the McCain campaign raised a lot of money over the Internet and IT became the "first Internet-based campaign."

In this case, the hype is based on the fact that the campaign had a "weblog"(which in reality was a way for the campaign to continually update what it said about itself); and employed a field-based approach to organizing in which local cells of support had a fair degree of what seemed like autonomy.

But, the real reason the Dean campaign is the first "real" Internet campaign has nothing to do with the uses made of the Internet for political purposes. No, the Dean campaign was able to create the simulation of widespread support by clever use of Internet-based (i.e., narrowcast) marketing tools. People thought they had a "relationship" with the Dean campaign the same way my bank wants me to think I have a "relationship" to it.

This found perhaps its most perfect expression when the campaign found itself to be very successful sent out an email suggesting that it was wrestling with a tough decision about whether to forego public financing or not. The "interactive" nature of this missive was touted as yet another example of the Internettiness of the campaign. But it was hollow. The decision was a foregone conclusion. Dean was going to go where the money was. The campaign used the sense of intimacy brought about by the Internet (why, it's there on MY screen!) to make people feel as if they had been asked an important question. "Hey!" thought people at home. "The campaign cares what I think!"

Ultimately, what the Dean campaign showed us (reminded us) is what real grassroots political organizers have long known: political transactions are fundamentally different from commercial transactions. It is easier to get my money than my civic time. What the Dean campaign forgot, or what the hype about the Dean campaign forgot, was that the appearance of a network and a real message of hope is far different from the real thing.

February 16, 2004 2:14 PM | Comments (4) | posted by Brad Rourke

Jay -- I would hate it if I described a public speech that I had attended, and then someone took my neutral paraphrase as an endorsement of the views expressed in that speech. So I apologize if I did that to you. I read the passages that I quoted as your opinions, but I'm happy to accept that they are mainly just summaries of Joe Trippi's argument. That still leaves me wondering whether Trippi is right. You're entitled to be unsure about the impact of Dean's candidacy, but I am curious about your views as they evolve.

By the way, after the 1998 election, I wrote a book chapter predicting that candidates would never create truly interactive websites, because they would lose control of their campaign messages. I implied (and believed) that it would be good for democracy if they did open themselves up to true dialogue. Dean did that, so I ought to give him at least some credit.

-- Peter

February 16, 2004 8:42 PM | Comments (4) | posted by Peter Levine

Thanks, Peter. I appreciate it. I was never comfortable being a Howard Dean supporter, and was never moved to contribute to his campaign, except... it's not that simple, since I was a supporter of the movement for Dean and the way it tapped the Internet. Also the way it tapped participatory traditions that predate the Internet. Also the way it listened to young people. Also the experiments in openness, one of which you noted: a truly interactive web site.

Well, you can see the problems I have; I wrote a lot about things I saw happening with Dean. I write about my fascinations (don't you? it's one of the biggest freedoms a weblog grants)and I got drawn into Dean that way. He's interesting to write about if you write on participatory themes-- as you do, and I do.

Plus, his buzzmachine includes a lot of smart people who have not traditionally been able to contribute to the running of a national campaign. One of them was my 20 year-old nephew, Zack, who got hired by Dean (and who dedicated himself to Trippi.) With a lot of other hackers and geeks, he made stuff that a national candidate used to try and win the presidency. Down the road that work may have unforseen benefits. It is after all "social" software.

So my reactions to Dean are all over the place. Which is probably why I write about things Dean, to sort at least some of it out. There is no doubt I find it easier to write about the views of others, rather than my own, so I use occasions like Trippi's speech or Clay Shirkey's article to express my own sense of the matter. Critics like to work indirectly, but they are sometimes not so indirect as they think.

Everybody has a tipping point, Peter, when it comes to despairing of politics. I was offended, as a citizen, by how dumb my country's presidential campaign had become by 2000-- dumb and rote and packaged and predictable and timid, one huge overdone regression to the mean. I thought the elites in the system showed fantastic confidence in their ability to contain elections within a tight formula.

By isolating the few people they needed to bother with in a few "battleground" states, and treating the manuevers for the 5 percent as the entirety of the campaign for the other 95 percent, the professionals who run the process and narrate it as normal seemed to express unlimited confidence that things could go on this way. They had no insights into how closed the process had become. Interactive? That was not a universe known to them.

Dean matters because of what the system had become, and because of a few powerful ways he and his people tried to open things up. I will continue to write about that because I think it matters, and because we don't understand how.

February 16, 2004 11:06 PM | Comments (4) | posted by Jay Rosen

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