Another First Internet Campaign

Whether he has withdrawn or not (and it’s unclear what the answer is), Howard Dean is out of the race. Now his supporters are rallying around the idea of continuing the “movement” his campaign started. The unprecedented success of this pioneering campaign has got to be harnessed, they say.

But what, if anything, is behind the curtain of the “first true Internet-based campaign” mystique? Less than might be hoped. We have been here before. We have heard about the brave new political world being ushered in by technology, especially where the Internet is involved.

After Jesse Ventura won the Minnesota state house, there was a spate of “first Internet-based campaign” pronouncements. They were all in response to the fact that the campaign used e-mail to get people to rallies. Ordinary Hockey dads who had never been politically active were coordinated through e-mail lists to great effect. Later, the McCain campaign raised a lot of money over the Internet and so it became in its turn the “first Internet-based campaign,” ironically heralding a new era in political money.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Project Vote Smart appeared to be on the vanguard of forging a new Internet-enabled relationship between citizens and politicians. It posted a searchable database of answers to candidate questionnaires. But then, the next election cycle, those same answers were used in politics-as-usual attack ads and the project suddenly found it hard to convince candidates to fill out their forms. It is now a rare candidate who takes them up on their offer of posting their positions (not even the Dean campaign did).

Now, even in its demise, the Dean campaign is seen as validating the democratically transformative effects of the Internet. In this case, the hype is based on the fact that the campaign had a “weblog” (which in reality was a way for the campaign to continually update what it said about itself); and employed a field-based approach to organizing in which local cells of support had a fair degree of what seemed like autonomy. People across the country are avid and self-referential about how “first” they are, or were. A recent technology conference featuring ousted Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi became the functional equivalent of Comdex, and weblogs are abuzz with parsings of what Trippi said and didn’t — and what needs to happen for the Internet to continue to take over politics.

But, the real reason the Dean campaign is the first “real” Internet campaign has nothing to do with the uses made of the Internet for political purposes. No, the Dean campaign was able to create the simulation of widespread support by clever use of Internet-based (i.e., “narrowcast”) marketing tools. People thought they had a “relationship” with the Dean campaign the same way my bank wants me to think I have a “relationship” to it.

The Dean campaign was the first to simulate a real campaign, just as simulated a real business and the AOL-TimeWarner merger simulated real strategy. The Dean campaign looked exactly like a successful campaign — only it wasn’t.

This found perhaps its most perfect expression when the campaign found itself to be very successful and sent out an email suggesting that it was wrestling with a tough decision about whether to forego public financing. The “interactive” nature of this missive was touted by many at the time as yet another example of the Internettiness of the campaign. The campaign used the sense of intimacy brought about by the Internet to make people feel as if they had been asked an important question. “Hey!” thought people at home. “The campaign cares what I think!”

But it was hollow. The decision was a foregone conclusion. Dean was going to go where the money was.

Ultimately, what the Dean campaign showed us (reminded us) is what real grassroots political organizers have long known: political “transactions” are fundamentally different from commercial transactions. It is easier to get my money than my civic time. What the Dean campaign forgot, or more precisely what the hype about the Dean campaign forgot, was that the appearance of a network and message of hope is far different from the real thing.

And it’s the real thing in which people place their trust.

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