hether you're a
Democrat in mourning or a Republican in glee, the results from
election day should not obscure an important shift in America's
civic life. New tools and practices born on the Internet have
reached critical mass, enabling ordinary people to participate in
processes that used to be closed to them. It may seem like cold
comfort for Kerry supporters now, but the truth is that voters don't
have to rely on elected or self-appointed leaders to chart the way
forward anymore. The era of top-down politics--where campaigns,
institutions and journalism were cloistered communities powered by
hard-to-amass capital--is over. Something wilder, more engaging and
infinitely more satisfying to individual participants is arising
alongside the old order.
One moment when this new power began to be collectively
understood by grassroots activists was on April 23, 2003. It was
4:31 pm (EST) in cyberspace when Mathew Gross, then toiling in
obscurity on Howard Dean's presidential campaign, posted the
following missive on the message board of SmirkingChimp.com, a
little-known but heavily trafficked forum for anti-Bush sentiment:
So I wander back to my desk and there really IS a note
on my chair from Joe Trippi, the Campaign Manager for Howard Dean.
The note says:
Start an "Ask the Dean
Campaign" thread over at the Smirking Chimp.
Surely a seminal moment in Presidential politics,
So, here's the deal. Use this space to
throw questions and comments our way. I'll be checking this
thread, Joe will be checking this thread. We're understandably
very busy so don't give up if we disappear for a day or two. Talk
amongst yourselves while we're out of the room, as it were. But we
will check in and try to answer questions. We want to hear from
you. We want to know what you think.
to it. And thanks for supporting Howard Dean.
About an hour later, after thirty responses appeared, Zephyr
Teachout, Gross's colleague, chimed in with some answers. A little
later, a participant on the site wrote: "This is too cool, an actual
direct line to the Dean campaign committee! Pinch me--I must be
dreaming!" Ultimately, more than 400 people posted comments on
Gross's thread. Richard Hoefer, a frequent visitor, later wrote me:
"That was an amazing day to see that rise out of nowhere. People
were floored that the thread title was 'Ask the Dean Campaign'--and
Trippi and Matt were actually asking questions and interacting.
Never before had anyone seen that."
Never before had the top-down world of presidential campaigning
been opened to a bottom-up, laterally networked community of
ordinary voters. The Smirking Chimp is a website with 25,000-plus
registered members, founded after the 2000 election as a gathering
place for liberals, progressives and leftists who felt the newly
selected President reminded them most of, well, a smirking chimp.
Each day they devour and critique the handful of critical articles
selected by its webmaster, Jeff Tiedrich, a New York-based
programmer who started the site on a lark and is amazed by its
growth. "The community of the Chimp is the angry, angry, engaged
left," Tiedrich says. When it was offered a direct connection to
Dean, who was then the only candidate attacking Bush and the war in
stark terms, lightning struck.
"The reason these community sites have formed," says Gross,
rattling off the names DailyKos, MyDD, Eschaton, Democratic
Underground and Buzzflash, along with the Smirking Chimp, "is the
Democratic Party is too based on insiders." (Some Republicans
apparently feel the same way, and have started similar sites, like
RedState.org.) Indeed, at most political organizations, "membership"
and "participation" mean little more than writing a check in
response to a direct-mail appeal, as Harvard professor Theda Skocpol
argues in her 2003 book Diminished Democracy. This wasn't
always the case, Skocpol notes--through the first half of the 1900s
tens of millions of Americans were engaged in cross-class fellowship
and civic activism through federated mass membership organizations
like the Free Masons, the Knights of Pythias and the American
Legion. But, undermined by the Vietnam War, the "rights revolutions"
and especially the new mass-media system, mass membership groups
atrophied. They were replaced by a proliferating array of
professionally run, top-down advocacy organizations, like the AARP
and Natural Resources Defense Council. "America is now full of civic
entrepreneurs who are constantly looking upward for potential
angels, shmoozing with the wealthy," Skocpol writes, rather than
talking to people of modest means.