August 23rd, 2007
Cross-posted on techPresident
I hate to agree with Jonah Goldberg on anything, but…
Okay, it’d be an exaggeration to say that I side with his recent LA Times op-ed about online politics, but I agree that the rise of the political Internet ought to inspire anything but complacency among progressives and liberals.
Ever since the explosion of progressive political blogs and the rise of the Dean (and later Kerry) fundraising machines, some on the Left have been patting themselves on the back. It’s the people versus the powerful! We’re crashing the gates! The populist Left has a natural advantage online! Josh Levy may call this argument a straw man, but I’ve been hearing variants of it from quite a few people over the last four or five years, and it’s always made me nervous. When you’re ahead, the other guy’s probably right at your back — and sharpening a knife.
Writing yesterday, Goldberg steps up and calls bullshit on the concept that liberals naturally own the web, citing Jose Antonio Vargas’s recent Post article as an example of this kind of thinking:
In May, the Washington Post suggested that conservatives are losing the battle for the Web because of the very “nature of the Republican Party and its traditional discipline,” which is “the antithesis of the often chaotic, bottom-up, user-generated atmosphere of the Internet.”
Jonah makes the excellent point that conservatives (and libertarians) dominated the ‘net in its earliest days, and I’ll back him up on that — when I was helping to assemble the list of websites for a targeted political search engine back in 1999, progressive/lib sites were grossly outnumbered, and there was no real lefty counterpart to the Free Republic (a then-vibrant online community) or to Drudge. Jonah contends that the Left’s current online dominance is a result of opposition to Bush and the Iraq war:
But enough with the metaphysical mumbo jumbo about how the Web and liberalism were made for each other. The real story is much simpler: Liberalism is having a nice moment. It’s because the Republican president and the Iraq war are very unpopular.
Well, that’s a little oversimplified, but he does have a point: over the last few years, a lot of people have become genuinely concerned and often angry about the direction of the country, and the web has given them a great platform for expression. A more complex analysis would take into account the desire for an alternative medium to conservative-dominated talk radio and people’s desire to bypass information filters that they perceive as buttressing the Establishment (righties aren’t the only ones pointing to media bias), plus the rise of the young and wired and anti-war among the ranks of the politically active.
Where I agree with Jonah is the notion that populist politics is NOT necessarily progressive/liberal — just think of the 1980s tax revolt, or a lot of the anti-civil rights activity in the South in the ’50s and ’60s. For a more recent example, look at the recent anti-immigration movement. Sure, right-wing talk radio (and Lou Dobbs) helped to stir things up, but millions of Americans were already genuinely concerned about what they saw as threats to their way of life. This particular populist revolt doesn’t seem to have much of an online component, but it’s also more of an issue for the older and less-wired (I’d argue that kids these days grow up in a much more multi-cultural social and media environment and are much less likely to oppose immigration as a result). Wait until Democrats gain enough of a majority to sidle up to real political power and smell its sweet perfume — and realize too late that it always masks corruption at its heart.
At the moment, liberals and Democrats are ahead online by most measures — they far outpace conservatives and Republicans in blog activity, political donations and social networking participation, for example. But down the road, the web is going to be intertwined into just about all forms of information exchange, and it’s only a matter of time before the Republican electorate is as wired as their Democratic rivals. Keep an eye on what the TechRepublican guys are doing to educate Republican political professionals, for sure, but also watch for action in the conservative grassroots. The next online revolt might just come from the Right.