The reinvention of politics, 2007 edition

A flurry of stories this morning about how the big changes in media and technology are once again transforming politics.  EJ Dionne writes his Friday column on Obama, Clinton and the internet; the Post reports this morning on the exlosion of Obama on Facebook, and the arrival of social networking sites as a major new organizing tool; and a new national syndicated Media General story on the "MySpace Primary."  In here you will insights from NDN, and one our NPI fellows, Joe Trippi. 

To stay on top of the latest about the emergence of a new politics, follow this blog and visit our NPI site at www.newpolitics.net.

I've been thinking a lot these last few days about the speed in which these tools are being deployed this cycle.  It has begun to remind me a little of 2003, when the hyper competition and money of a Presidential primary campaign caused incredible experimentation with the new set of tools available in 2003.   Led by Joe Trippi, the Dean campaign became the leader in imagining and implementing a new model.  It is clear that this same competition, the same passionate interest by average people, the same money is now going to produce an explosion of experimentation and a very fast reinvention of our politics around a new set of tools available in 2007.  There is no way to know what all this bring, and what our politics will look like next year.  But we do know that the able deployment of all these tools is now an essential ingredient for success in the early politics of the 21st century.  There is no going back. 

For fun, I republish an essay I wrote in late 2003, when all of us were marvelling about the reinvention of our politics, 2003 style:

Some Thoughts on the Internet, Politics & Participation

Posted by Simon on NDNBlog.org in December 2003

First, thanks to all who’ve been posting on the blog. We are enjoying the passion and intensity of the back and forth and want to encourage all to keep it up. The issues being discussed are essential and worthy of a spirited debate. Over time we will attempt to respond to questions being raised in a thoughtful, honest way.

You can also look back through the blog to find postings on issues that will give you a better sense our positive vision for the country. Few organizations on the Democratic side have worked harder this year – or spent more money – advocating for a better agenda for America.

Third, recently on the blog there has been an interesting discussion of the role of the Internet in politics. Several posts referred to the Internet as simply a new tool to distribute a message.

I don't agree.

Howard Dean's campaign is using the Internet – as well as non-net-tools – to organize his campaign in a fundamentally new way. Having worked on two successful presidential primary campaigns from the earliest days – Dukakis and Clinton – I can tell you that the Dean campaign is a fundamentally different animal than anything has come before. I believe the reason he has surged from nothing to frontrunner is his campaign’s innovative creation of a new and better model for how one builds a modern political campaign. It is interactive, participatory, respectful of its audience and thoroughly modern.

In the broadcast era of politics, which lasted from 1960 to 2002, a candidate had a "message" which was then broadcast out through TV, radio, print, mail, etc. to passive political couch potatoes. Crafting a message in this system was paramount for without it, there was nothing to sell to folks.

In the new model candidates can have direct one-to-one iterative relationships with their supporters. The idea of a "message" in this model becomes something much different. For what citizens now expect is not to be fed something fully developed - a message - but they expect to be able to participate in the development of the value system and community of the campaign itself.

Think of the difference between your experience watching TV and being online. With TV you sit. With the Internet you engage. One is passive, the other active. If you believe all this, it helps explain why Dean is succeeding this time. It wasn't just the boost he got from being anti-war. It is that he is clearly a work in progress, not fully formed as a candidate, and there is a sense that by engaging with him over your computer from wherever you sit that you are engaged in building a value system, a candidate and a community. Simply, with Dean, there is something for everyone to do. You can be part of building something, not just consuming it.

What has changed now is the expectation of the voter/activist/consumer. They will come to expect greater intimacy, greater engagement, greater choice, and greater community in their politics. The medium is the message now, and the message is participation. Those who do not understand this new moment and will be left behind the gazelles using the new model to leapfrog old models.

That's why NDN is promoting the lessons of 2003 and its change-leaders: Dean, Meetup, MoveOn, the DNC's datamart, and the bloggers. For the sake of those who want to build a new and better progressive politics – the core mission of the New Democrats for close to 20 years – we have to help lead our side to make the leap from the top-down industrial/broadcast era into the more distributed, citizen-led politics of the Internet Age.

So yes, the Internet is a tool, but Dean is using it in a new way that is transforming politics. This is not the first time new tools have created a fundamentally different reality Consider the atomic bomb. The automobile. The airplane. Television. Guns. Radio. The telephone. Air conditioning. Electricity. All tools. Yet their arrival did not bring a marginal change, as in a better way to hammer a nail. Their arrival fundamentally altered the world so that we have a world that is pre-atomic bomb and post-atomic bomb, pre- and post-tv, etc. I agree with those who have written that tactics without vision and values is not enough. But today the flip side is true as well. Increasingly the voters are hungry for more than a spoon-fed "message." They want what we should want them to want – to play an active role in the life of their nation, and to not accept the gospel of the thirty-second spot and the sound bite. The Internet once again makes this possible, and this is good for our politics, our party and our country.