Around Which Messages Fly

The world is changing. Politics is entering a new age. About time, too.

What drove it home is a video that someone — a Web contractor who says he acted on his own — has posted on YouTube. It is a “mash-up” of the classic Ridley Scott-directed Apple “1984” commercial, in which a world of automatons is being addressed by Big Brother, until a rebel smashes the telescreen. In this mash-up, the rebel is a woman with a sledgehammer and a bright candidate’s t-shirt. Big Brother is Sen. Hillary Clinton spouting cliches about a national conversation and new leadership. The last screen shows a modified Apple logo — a rainbow “O” with the words BarackObama underneath. Obama’s campaign says it did not make or authorize this video.

Since the dawn of our new century, each wave of presidential campaigns has been heralded as the “first Internet campaign.” But none has met the mark. Campaigns have seen the Internet as not much more than a resource: Senator John Kerry sought to control it and failed; Howard Dean sought to harness it and succeeded in wringing money but little else from it. Jesse Ventura, an early adopter in the 1990’s, used it as a phone-tree on steroids in order to get crowds at rallies.

But even now, it is not clear that any of the major campaigns truly see the Internet as anything more than a sophisticated communication tool. The candidates have dutifully created MySpace and Facebook profiles, and there are perfunctory attempts at using MeetUp as a means of organizing that old fundraising standby, the house party. But none of these candidates is relating to the Internet — and, by extension, America — in a qualitatively different way. None are really living with the Internet the way that millions of Americans are — as a fundamental part of life. Instead, for most campaigns, it’s just another avenue to “get the message out.”

But, what if the basic notion of “message” were to shift? What if, instead of being an argument made by the campaign and then repeated by supporters, the “message” became simply the bundle of attributes that describes one candidate or another? In other words, what if candidates completed the ongoing transformation from policy makers into brands?

The YouTube video gives an inkling of what it might look like:

Political campaigns in this Internet Age would be highly distributed. There would be little or no control of the message. People would create and distribute messages for and against candidates at their own whim. The public argument would get both more nasty (the YouTube clip is a negative ad, after all) and more relevant. There would be more junk to wade through, but also more of value. Because actual people would be interacting with other actual people (even in a virtual space), the arguments made would be more relevant.

The campaign, meanwhile, would become the resource to which supporters turn to get message points, basic fodder, and the product itself. Many supporters may visit their favorite candidate’s Web site only rarely. They won’t need to: They know who they like and why. This transformation is happening in other areas of public and semi-public life. For instance, many college admissions professionals say they have had an increase in the number of applicants with whom they have had no contact until the application. These stealth applicants gather their own information, do their own research, and make their own decisions, all without the benefit of the official party line from the college.

This age is here. We’re just waiting for the change to be felt throughout the system.

Is this bad for public life? On balance, I think not. It does raise the bar, though, for political candidates. No longer can they just get by on eloquence, resume, and some attractive ideas. The real successful candidates will neither harness nor control the energy shooting around the Internet. They will have to crystallize it. This means that they will become a focus around which messages fly — not the chief drivers of those messages.

Some people who are perfectly fine policy makers will be shut out of this world, just as many politicians who were poor speakers were shunted aside when radio caused voters to care about how people spoke as much as what was said. Just as Nixon’s five o’clock shadow did him in at the advent of the Television Age of politics.

The tide is turning. Candidates ought to notice or get lost at sea. It may be that the subject of the YouTube clip — Senator Barack Obama — is such a new type of candidate, one who can crystallize. But there is little evidence either way as yet.

Just as political parties have lost relevance in recent decades, so too will candidates’ campaign structures lose relevance. Political consultants and professors may worry about how unruly things can get, but I hope for a new era in which citizens see a reason to engage with public life again — because it has become theirs again.