The Magazine

Fold, Spindle, Mutilate

How the American political campaign got computerized.

Dec 27, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 15 • By G. TRACY MEHAN III
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America's Right Turn

How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power

by Richard Viguerie and David Franke

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything

by Joe Trippi

Regan, 272 pp., $26.95

THE DEMOCRATS THIS YEAR--particularly Howard Dean in the primaries and John Kerry in the general election--made great use of the Internet. Of course, both Dean and Kerry lost. But that's not the fault of their Internet efforts, and Republicans would be well served by attending to the lessons of this election.

In America's Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, Richard Viguerie, the master of conservative direct-mail campaigning for over forty years, and his coauthor, David Franke, flag the Internet as the most recent and powerful of the alternative media. "Your modem is your equalizer, your cyber-Colt .45," they added in an October op-ed in the Washington Post. "You have a direct line--with no intermediaries or filters--to any publication or Web site around the world, to other citizens who share your interests and viewpoints, to government bureaucrats, to your political representatives, to the stores you want to do business with--you name it."

But Republicans have not really seized this tool--at least not as well as Howard Dean did. Managed by Joe Trippi, the Dean campaign raised over $40 million, with 60 percent of the donations coming in at $200 or less, while President Bush's campaign garnered only 17 percent of its donation in this range. John Kerry picked up the pace, achieving a 7-1 advantage over the Republicans in this medium. The author of The Almanac of American Politics, Michael Barone, argues that the Democrats' success at garnering "huge numbers of unexpected money" from the Internet confounds the conventional wisdom that Republicans have a large advantage in fundraising.

Joe Trippi's book, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything, offers a fascinating view of the Dean campaign and its uses of the Internet. When Trippi signed on as Howard Dean's campaign manager, the campaign had seven staffers and $100,000 in the bank. By the end of 2003, Trippi could only marvel that "we're actually on top, ahead in the polls, in the process of raking in more than $50 million, $15.8 million in this fund-raising quarter alone--a record--most of it from small donations of $100 or less. And whose fundraising record are we beating? Our own! From the quarter before. We have an army of almost 600,000 fired-up supporters, not just a bunch of chicken-dinner donors, but activists, believers, people who have never been politically involved before and who are now living and breathing this campaign."

Trippi is, at heart, an idealist who decries the loss of community and democratic values in American society, citing statistics on the loss of social capital and the decline of political participation from Robert Putnam's book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Trippi also serves up a pretty good rant on the corrosive effect of television on politics and culture that will warm the heart of any Burkean conservative. Of course, he's also a revolutionary. Viewing the Internet as at last a "dominant technology"--with 75 percent of Americans on the Internet--Trippi believes that it is "the last hope for democracy." It is the means by which citizens can purge politics of money, special interests, and corruption through technological empowerment.

Trippi places the Dean campaign's use of the Internet in a line with such campaign innovations as Jerry Brown's toll-free telephone number, Ross Perot's fiscal and trade populism, and John McCain's insurgency of 2000, "the first national campaign to attempt to make use of the Internet." McCain pulled 40,000 people into his campaign, but the technology was not yet where it needed to be.

Trippi's account of the transformational role of the Internet in national politics, despite the defeats of Dean and Kerry, is persuasive. He recounts the attempt to mobilize previously unorganized, unconnected supporters through a website called Meetup.com, which Trippi linked to the Dean website on his very first day on the job. Howard Dean told Trippi that they had to decentralize the campaign because they would never have the money to organize it in the traditional way.

Meetup.com is a site where people interested in certain topics--typically something like stamps, Irish setters, or Star Trek--are matched up for get togethers (usually at a Starbucks, for smaller gatherings). Trippi had stumbled across this site while reading a blogger who mentioned that Dean supporters were using the site to arrange meetings in several cities. For Trippi, "it was exactly the democratic vision of the Internet that I had always believed in, using technology as a way for people of similar interests, passions, and causes to find each other and instantly form into communities--tiny little Iowa caucuses made up of science fiction fans and curling enthusiasts and knitters."

A small number of Dean supporters, only 432 across the nation, had already signed up. But after the Dean campaign posted the link on its own website, 2,700 people immediately enlisted for Dean. Trippi negotiated an agreement with Meetup.com to do ongoing organizing of Dean supporters for a rock-bottom price of $2,500--which yielded 190,000 new Dean members. Almost eight hundred Deaniacs showed up for one meeting in Manhattan at which the candidate made an appearance. This became a regular feature of Dean's schedule throughout the campaign. One jealous adviser to a Dean rival sniffed, "Some of these Meetup events look like the bar scene from Star Wars."

Despite the campaign's success with the Internet, Trippi's candidate appears to have cooled on his campaign manager. Dean seems to have viewed Trippi as a bit mercurial, too much of an enthusiast for the Internet, carrying the decentralizing theme a bit too far. The downward slope of the relationship is epitomized by Dean's failure to inform Trippi of the endorsement of Dean by Al Gore. Trippi heard about it only when everyone else did.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is a traditional campaign narrative, a brief for the potential of the Internet in politics, and a broader argument for the transforming impact of new technologies on society in general and business in particular. Despite its flip, often irreverent style and its overuse of four-letter words, it is, on balance, a substantive volume worth the time of serious readers.

Of course, Trippi envisions a liberal utopia driven by this new technology. But despite his view that the Republican party is a command-and-control party, overly wedded to top-down management, the history of the GOP since 1964 suggests otherwise. At least, one hopes so, for the influence of the Internet on elections is here to stay.

G. Tracy Mehan III was assistant administrator for water at the EPA. He is presently a consultant in Arlington, Virginia.