The day Abraham Lincoln delivered his electrifying speech at New York City’s Cooper Union in 1860, he sat for a now famous photograph by Mathew Brady. Lincoln’s stem-winding perorations that night won him high praise from political elites, but the picture – widely used and reproduced in the campaign that year -- contributed as much, or more, to his presidential victory.
Reprinted in newspapers in the days and weeks that followed, the photograph created many Americans’ first impression of the next president. Instead of an awkward, gangly, thin-faced man with dark eyes, Brady’s photograph made the future president look learned, proportional, and statesman-like.
Historian Harold Holzer, who wrote Lincoln at Cooper Union, notes that when the president-elect encountered the photographer in Washington a year later, he said, “Brady and Cooper Union made me President.”
Fashioning the “new Lincoln” constituted the first major use of photography in American politics. It was a triumph of that epoch’s new media.
The pace and content of media use in governing and politics is always in flux. But the velocity of progress is escalating.
Today’s new media evolution progresses like Darwinism on steroids – change happens in weeks and months, not millennia.
We are in the midst of another transformation right now. Last week, House Republicans announced a new initiative called America Speaking Out. It represents the next iteration of applied technology in the governing sphere.
Like previous media adaptations, America Speaking Out won’t remain at the vanguard forever. But it demonstrates how political parties embrace technological change and use these tools based on the mood of the country.
When it comes to adapting new media tools to governing communications, score the current round for the GOP. America Speaking Out is only the latest example of a Republican surge in this space over the past 18 months.
It wasn’t always this way. The 2006 and 2008 campaign narratives routinely reported the Democrats’ new media edge. A July 24, 2008 piece by Politico’s well-respected reporter Jonathan Martin began with the headline, “GOP losing New-Media War.” A month earlier, The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington published a piece titled, “Republicans Admit Obama is Winning Online Battle.”
But the new media worm has turned again. Last week Stephanie Mencimer, writing for Mother Jones, asked, “Who’s winning the social media war on Capitol Hill? The Republicans – and they are slaughtering the Democrats.” The Hill’s Jordan Fabian wrote a similarly themed piece, outlining that Democrats now trail on the new media front.
After Democrats’ success using the web in 2006 and 2008, many believed new media was a tool best suited for the political left. Not so. It’s more accurate to say the technology helps harness and give voice to those out of power.
And Republicans are capitalizing on their situation. They dominate when it comes to using social media tools like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Nine of the top 10 “most followed” members of Congress on Twitter are Republicans. The GOP has also used web video aggressively, including Republican Whip Eric Cantor’s recent initiative called “YouCut,” soliciting citizen-generated videos with ideas to trim the federal budget.
The term “new media” is bit of a misnomer. In some ways, it’s really quite old and enduring. When it comes to politics and governing, the phrase simply means integrating the latest communication medium to elections and public policy. For Lincoln, it was pictures. Early 20th century political parties’ “new media” was radio. John F. Kennedy’s arsenal added television. More recently, the Internet provides the applications.
Today, Americans believe Washington is out of touch and not listening. That’s why America Speaking Out may hit a responsive chord with voters.
The initiative engages citizens and listens, rather than dictating a Washington-knows-best solution. After a year and a half of hearing we need to spend trillions of dollars to potentially stimulate the economy, raise energy costs to save the environment, and change health care for everyone with insurance to cover those who don’t, Americans are ready to speak out.
It’s ironically appropriate that the symbol of the party leading today’s new media race is an elephant – a creature with big ears and a tail. Application of a modern communications medium demands listening and engagement to even narrow segments of the electorate, building on the concept first described in Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail, which demonstrates how marketers do well by selling small quantities of products to intensely interested niche customers.
It’s too early to tell if the big ears, long tail approach will work. But if you run into House Republican Leader John Boehner after the election, maybe he’ll channel Lincoln and tell you, “New Media and America Speaking Out made me Speaker.”