Connecting Some Dots: What Wesley Clark, Rush Limbaugh and Have in Common

Cross-posted on techPresident

A chat I had with a couple of folks from Radio Singapore International this weekend called up something that’s been playing around in my head for a while now: the idea that we’re seeing the birth of a host of alternative political organizations (and cults of personality) that are outside the power of traditional political gatekeepers to control.

The radio journalists were asking questions about, an organization that’s propeled itself into the stateside eye lately because of the “General Betray-us” NY Times ad. What jumped into my mind, though, was something said at a recent panel discussion on presidential campaigning: that Wesley Clark has retained a political presence in large part because his email list/online fan club will still turn out in some numbers for causes and candidates that he supports.

The Clark reference also connects in my mind to the discussion that centered around last summer’s Mother Jones critique of the lefty blogosphere, as well as the long liberal lament about The Power Of Conservative Talk Radio. Over the last decade or two, alternative media channels like talk radio, cable TV and the ‘net have created an explosion of new niche audiences, not exactly a new idea I know.

But an interesting political effect surfaces when some of these audiences persist and become power blocs all their own. What ties MoveOn members together? They tend to share a certain world-view, of course, but basically what connects them is that they’re on the same email list. Ditto Rush: liberal preconceptions aside, his listeners are far from monolithic, and what ultimately binds them together is the shared experience of listening to Limbaugh. Daily Kos? Another niche audience. The email lists of a thousand different advocacy organizations? Members of Facebook groups? Fans of a political podcaster or video mashup master? Granularity piled upon granularity.

For the traditional political world, this explosion of alternate political structures creates as many problems as opportunities. A Wesley Clark, MoveOn or Kos may often work in parallel with the Democratic Party, but sometimes not, and a party and its leaders may compete with many voices for attention. Likewise for the Townhall crowd, the Limbaugh listeners and the Fox News viewers on the right — to the extent that a party or politician can reach them via ads, pundits, talking points and testimonials, they can mobilize an audience’s members. But these semi-organized, independent entities generally aren’t directly controlled by any conspiracy, cabal, or party structure. Modern media disintermediate — they remove the traditional middlemen (in this case, major news outlets and political parties) and let information consumers find their own filters and aggregators.

As a result, the modern political landscape resembles a boiling pot of water, with each bubble a different group jostling furiously for position. Some will last for a while, others will pop right away — but all should be handled carefully by politicians, lest they leave a nasty burn.


Written by
Colin Delany
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  • Great post!

    However, I don’t what you have described as alternative politicial structures, but simply new types of interest groups that now have a surprisingly loud voice within existing political structures. MoveOn is powerful within the Democratic Party because politicians know it can move butts and raise bucks. That’s true of all the groups that you mentioned above. The fact that these organizations are exercising leadership outside of the party machine power structure shouldn’t be surprising, it should be expected once they are able to achieve critical mass. Personally, I think it is remarkable that critical mass can be achieved relatively quickly.

    If you really want to know my opinion, I would say that there is practically an inverse relationship between the celerity of achieving critical mass and the degree to which your rhetoric jibes with existing party structures. In other words, the more MoveOn pushes counter-party leadership tactics, the stronger their base. The more Rush goes after party leadership and criticizes candidates for being too ‘squish’, the more likely his base is to continue to look to him for leadership.

  • Hi Phil, great comment as always. Excellent point about the inverse relationship between the independence of a group and its ability to retain credibility — that’s a fascinating balance to watch.

    As for your first statement, that these groups aren’t new structures “but simply new types of interest groups that now have a surprisingly loud voice within existing political structures,” at what point does a change in degree become a change in kind? We’ve always had a large number of political groups/audiences/interests clamoring for attention, but new media create the opportunity for an increase that’s at least one order of magnitude.

    At some point, to extend an earlier metaphor, we may see a phase change — just as water goes from liquid to gas at the boiling point, this explosion of new niche audiences may create a political environment that is so changed that it’s clearly a new structure. I’m not willing to say that we’re there yet, but it sure is getting hot in here.