September 11th, 2009
The most fascinating aspect the fallout from South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You Lie” moment during Barack Obama’s healthcare speech? What it reveals about the changed world of politics in an internet age.
Since Wednesday evening, Democratic and liberal organizations, websites and email-list-owners ranging from Daily Kos to Wesley Clark to MoveOn to the the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have pounced on Wilson’s outburst, pushing their readers or supporters to donate to Wilson’s Democratic challenger. In a pre-internet era, this could not have happened so quickly, effectively or visibly:
How many of those offended by the heretofore little-known Wilson’s outburst — a sense of offense riled up by not only progressive blogs but the DCCC and other Dem organizations — would have, in the pre-Internet age, have searched for a stamp and sent a check to Miller for Congress? Not many, that’s how many. Now, that outrage can be channeled with a few clicks.
Rob Miller, Wilson’s 2010 Democratic opponent, is rapidly closing in on a $1,000,000 haul, a ridiculous amount of money for a congressional challenger to have on hand a year out (hint: if you’re an out-of-work Democratic field organizer with a Southern accent, give ol’ Rob a call). How did it happen?
First, as Nancy points out in her tPrez piece, the Dems have a robust online fundraising apparatus in place, something that the Republicans are still scrambling to replicate. Wilson’s currently attempting to capitalize on his new-found heroic status among some conservatives, but he’s lagging far behind the Democratic blitzkrieg (of course, considering that most of the liberal money is coming from outside his district, he’s set up for an anti-carpetbagger message during the general election, but I doubt that’ll offset the value of Miller’s actual cash).
Second, the anti-Wilson reaction happened in public, where people could see what others were doing and get excited about it themselves. Judging from personal conversations and the discussion on my own Facebook post, it created almost a carnival atmosphere among progressives, and as Miller’s totals went from $100,000 to $200,000 and finally all the way above $600,000 over the course of Thursday, bloggers and activists could urge people to push the number just a little bit higher. Traditional political fundraising happens behind the scenes, but internet fundraising can be very public — and its public nature can create a self-reinforcing spiral.
Finally, liberals were PRIMED to act — they’ve spent all August and part of September under siege from conservatives, at least judging from media coverage. With cable news dominated by discussions of the Birthers, Townhallers and random gun-toters, the public impression has been been that the Right is on the rise, and progressive frustration has been building toward a slow boil. When Wilson finally gave them a concrete enemy, they let fly, using his opponent as a concrete outlet. Obama’s online army may have been AWOL throughout most of the healthcare battle so far, but it looks as though they’ve just been waiting for the call to arms.
We’re in a fundamentally different political world than we were just a decade ago. Blogs, email lists and other online communities gather us by the millions, and easy e-commerce and online organizing technologies give us something to do with our enthusiasm. Just as MyBarackObama.com let the future President’s supporters go to work on his behalf well before paid campaign staff arrived in their communities, the availability of distributed and effective online political tools gives ANYONE with an audience the means and opportunity to spark collective action. Political actors at all levels ignore this new reality at their own peril.