Back to Politics

Success in American politics until recently appeared to be based primarily on the control of two major factors: lots of money and favourable access to the country’s mainstream media. Any campaign that defied this logic was stillborn. As the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity has pointed out, between 1976 and 2000 the Democratic and Republican presidential candidate who raised the most money was the party’s nominee every time.
And in the elections of 1998, 2000 and 2002, 98 percent of moneyed congressional incumbents beat their challengers. As for media, expensive television ads (US$200 million was the average ad budget for the two main candidates in the last election) became a central tenet of any electoral strategy.

The result has been what long-time campaign consultant Joe Trippi calls “transactional politics”. That is, “—the side with the most money simply bought the most television ads to manipulate the most people…”

As television transformed political campaigns, people saw candidates as no different than any other product someone was trying to sell them. So they channel surfed or tuned out.

Not surprisingly, the last three years have witnessed a number of attempts to use media to change these things. Documentary film has been the vehicle of one such effort. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 galvanised opposition to the Bush administration and the Iraq occupation. It also became a tool for political action groups close to the Democratic Party to raise donations from ordinary Americans. (For more, see the earlier “global effect” column in The Media, “Doccie’s New Authority”).

Even more significant has been the way the internet has become part of politics here. At least 75 percent of Americans now regularly access the web - using it to, among other things, bypass traditional information sources, and access the political process. Long gone are the dead “shop-front” websites of political parties and news organisations, to be replaced by live websites such as MoveOn.org’s and, on the other end of the spectrum, a plethora of right wing blogs and think tank sites. But perhaps the most effective use of the web was by the failed Democratic presidential campaign of Howard Dean.

The Dean campaign was not the first to use the internet that intensively - former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura raised two-thirds of the campaign money for his successful 1998 election as Minnesota governor through the internet, and John McCain’s 2000 Republican primary campaign gained US$6.4-million through internet donations and convinced 40,000 people to sign up to his candidacy online. But as Trippi, who managed the Dean campaign, points out: “The technology simply wasn’t quite mature enough yet.”

By 2003, when the Dean campaign started in earnest, the internet had gained a reputation for reliability and security among US consumers. And because, unlike television, the internet is an interactive medium - bulletin boards, websites, chat rooms and web logs (blogs) helped people feel invested in what goes on there.

The Dean campaign tapped into this. To build its base, it utilised Meetup.com, Friendster and Getlocal Tools software (used primarily to gather people interested in some topic together), created a campaign blog (“Blog for America”) and online fundraising (raising more than US$50 million dollars - more than any Democrat in history). Significantly, they also used the Net in conjunction with traditional media, to debunk shallow or incorrect reporting, but also to create its own news.

The result was a decentralised campaign - “Open Source Campaigning” - that was widely hailed as bringing people back into politics.

In the end, the Dean campaign was brought down by “traditional” campaign tools - attack television ads and media sensationalism - and politics returned to normal. But its significant successes guarantee that media reformers will take notice of the potential of internet organising as a way to reform the effects of media concentration on American politics, particularly in light of the apparently insurmountable (at least in the short term) opposition to any more systematic political solution.

Sean Jacobs is The Media‘s correspondent in New York.

Sean Jacobs

Sean Jacobs

Sean Jacobs is an Associate Professor of international affairs at the New School for Social Research and the founder and editor of Africa Is a Country.  Read more from Sean Jacobs

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