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Forum: The political is personal -- not Web-based

Howard Dean's ascent was fueled by Internet connections, but the computer model crashed when voters weighed in. Yet his campaign's cyber-pioneering has a vital role in the future of political organizing, say Michael Cudahy and Jock Gill

Early last year Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, stormed into the Democratic presidential primary race, his crusade to reform American politics propelled by thousands of small donor, Internet insurgents. Using the Internet as its fundamental tool, the Dean for America campaign raised in excess of $40 million from approximately 300,000 donors, and persuaded over 600,000 Americans to pledge their support to the upstart political outsider. At the same time, respected members of the national media, fascinated by Deans innovative operation, prepared to anoint the little known former governor as the Democratic presidential nominee. The press became enchanted with the Internet, said Tobe Berkovitz, Associate Dean of Boston Universitys College of Communication, but the medias reaction was all out of proportion with the reality of what was going on.

It wasnt until the campaign faced actual voting in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, that Deans Internet phenomenon was subjected to the crucible of presidential primary politics. A devastating 20 point third place rout in Iowa, followed by a slightly less damaging, 13 point second place finish in New Hampshire, both to Senator John Kerry, revealed significant weaknesses in what was believed to be Deans unstoppable cyber-stampede to the Democratic nomination. These very defects, and revelations that the organization had apparently burned through a significant portion of its campaign war chest, ended up costing Dean's campaign manager Joe Trippi his job. Trippi, whose wizardry has been credited with the creation of the Internet fundraising phenomenon, and the campaigns powerful online volunteer recruitment program, resigned on January 28 after Dean appointed Roy Neel, a Washington insider who was once chief of staff for Al Gore, as the campaign's "chief executive officer."

Does this apparent inability of Internet organizing to sustain the campaign of its innovative developer Howard Dean mean that online political organizing and fundraising is a shooting star with no place in American politics?

Absolutely not.

Studying the Dean operation, one is struck by the depth and breadth of its sophisticated network of Internet functions. The campaign's main blog (an abbreviation for web based log -- or personal campaign diary) allows dozens of Dean supporters to communicate online, with themselves, and campaign headquarters. It is these "conversations" created by the many spontaneous comments posted by fellow Dean partisans that the campaign values so highly. A recent post on the Dean blog by senior staffer Mathew Gross reflected the the campaign's confidence in its Internet operation when he said, "No one had any idea the extent to which the conversation you started would transform our democracy."

What the Internet has brought to political campaigning is just as remarkable a metamorphosis as was broadcast television in the early 60s. But, the dynamic conversations it enables represent a significant advance over traditional forms of advertising. Deans self-evident success compelled the competing presidential campaigns of Senator John Kerry, General Wesley Clark, Senator John Edwards, and others, to develop similar Internet tools to attract thousands of volunteers, raise millions of dollars, and initiate comparable Internet-based efforts. In Iowa, there was a critical difference: Kerry meticulously constructed a powerful network of elected state officials, while using online organizing as a tool to buttress his state organizations. In New Hampshire, Kerry national campaign chairwoman, and former governor, Jeanne Shaheen, built a similar structure, grounded in the organizations of experienced local officials. As astounding a tool as the Internet is, it lacks the personal and persuasive commitment building capability a candidate gains by listening to concerned American voters in face to face conversations.

Mesmerized by their own Internet magic, the Dean organization, on the other hand, appeared to forget that politics is about listening -- in diners and church basements -- to the concerns and ambitions of real people. Excited by the virtual conversations on their Internet blog, the Dean campaign failed to appreciate the critical role of effective, local organizing. The result was a self-congratulatory echo chamber populated by thousands of untrained, highly dedicated Dean partisans -- a society committed to reinforcing the beliefs of its creators. This organizations inexperience did not prepare it for the predictable, media pounding that Dean encountered as the Democratic frontrunner. Unlike John Kerry's local network of experienced elected officials, the Dean campaign chose to create an Iowa volunteer organization drawn from its Internet community. Christened the "Perfect Storm," a group of 3,500 youthful Dean volunteers descended on Iowa, from eleven states, with a mission to blanket the state, and to persuade caucus-goers to support their candidate.

The "Perfect Storm" in Iowa was a disaster, and was viewed by observers, and Dean volunteers alike, as a significant reason for the campaign's disappointing showing. They reached the limit of the capabilities of their Internet universe, observed Berkovitz, they hit their cyber ceiling. While the Internet was able to provide volunteers, it lacked the ability to provide professional campaign experience. One "Storm" volunteer confirmed this analysis when he told us that he learned that, "political campaigning was an art and most of us who went to Iowa had no idea how to go about it. We needed local direction and we did not have it." With less than a week's time to the New Hampshire primary, the Dean campaign turned to the state network that it had spent two years building, to close the gap on the well organized campaign of John Kerry. Dean campaign spokeswoman, Dorie Clark said, "We're really focusing on New Hampshire natives. Obviously, it works better if they're in-state people," she said. Their second place finish in the Granite State seemed to confirm her conviction.

The Internet, like previous innovations in politics such as television advertising, and direct mail fundraising, represents a new generation of political communications. Its conversational nature makes it seem to have the same impact as personal campaigning, but it can not -- at the end of the day -- replace local organizing.

The lessons learned from Iowa and New Hampshire are twofold. Left to function independently, these Internet tools have a tendency to create societies of insiders and outsiders, instead of collaborative communities focused on dynamic political debate and action. Further, no matter how great a campaigns desire to win, emotion can not overwhelm experience. We are observing the emergence of a modern political synergy --a rapid integration of the old and the new, with a consolidation of the best from both. A new form of political campaigning that combines the technology based virtual networks with the local, and highly interpersonal networks of traditional politics is rapidly emerging. It is this critical evolution that promises to distinguish new generations of online campaigning. It is a marriage that looks to surpass the parts that have created it; an innovation that is revolutionizing the very nature of American politics. A collaboration that will redefine the political art of winning.

Michael Cudahy and Jock Gill contribute to a Web log called www.greaterdemocracy.org. Mr. Cudahy is president of Strategic Focus Communications Group, a political communications company and a contributor to ModerateRepublican.net. Mr. Gill, served in the Office of Media Affairs in the first two years of the Clinton administration, and consulted last year to Mr. Trippi and the Dean campaign. He is an Internet communications consultant. This article first appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on February 1, 2004.


Lowered Expectations

By Mark Kittel

Another sad day recently occured for American labor. Levi Strauss & Co. closed their last two American sewing plants in Texas, finally shipping the last of their labor jobs to China. Another 800 people will be added to the pool of workers searching for employment, at a time when many other companies are turning to cheap labor in foreign countries as well and closing their plants in this country.

As many other companies have done, Levi Strauss made this decision based on the need to remain competitive in the face of increased competition and a global economy. American labor, apparently, has become too expensive for American companies to afford. It seems that the average American worker expects far more than corporations are willing to pay.

These factory workers at the plants in San Antonio were making somewhere between ten and twelve dollars per hour, according to the Associated Press report that publicized the closings. A rate of twelve an hour translates to about $25,000 in gross income per year, enough to pay the bills and buy groceries and perhaps enough to occasionally spend money on new clothes, entertainment, and some other little luxuries. These workers undoubtedly also received medical and dental plan benefits alongside their wages; there may have been performance bonuses available for exceptional laborers; perhaps there were also opportunities for these workers to save money for retirement, with the company contributing to their retirement plans as well.

These are all things we have come to expect as American workers. We expect that our jobs will pay us a decent and livable wage that does more than barely meet our basic living expenses; we expect that we will be able to put aside some money for retirement, set aside money for our childrens education, and even have some money left over at the end of the month that we can spend on the things that make us happy. We expect that our employers will help us pay for the costs of staying healthy and for the costs of recovering from illness and injury, because it is in the best interests of employers to keep their employees healthy and productive. We expect that employers will recognize the most productive, most efficient, or most exceptional employees and reward them accordingly for their hard work. We expect that as American workers, we will earn more than our foreign counterparts and be able to afford a higher standard of living than people in other countries. Weve come to expect this primarily because America is supposed to be the worlds only superpower and is supposed to be the worlds economic and industrial leader. We are supposed to be number one in this world, and our quality of life should reflect that.

Levi Strauss obviously found that these expectations were unreasonable. Just twenty years ago, the company had over sixty manufacturing plants across the country. Today, there are none. All such jobs have either been eliminated or shipped to countries where labor costs less than American minimum wage and no fringe benefits are expected or required.

They are not the first, of course. Levi Strauss is simply following the same path that many other companies have taken in the past, moving jobs to other countries to take advantage of lower labor costs and lower expectations from workers. It is not the only path that companies have chosen; many others have chosen to simply eliminate jobs, convert costly full-time jobs into cheaper part-time or contract jobs, or force employees to accept pay cuts in order to keep their jobs. But the reasoning is always the same: the company must stay competitive and profitable, and the company simply cannot afford American salaries.

So we set our sights lower and keep our expectations to a minimum. It is enough to simply have a job, so when the company tells us our pay is being cut we dont balk too loudly. It is enough to be able to scrape by for another month, so we dont worry too much now about what will happen when we retire or what the future holds for our children. A part-time paycheck is better than none at all, so we dont get too upset that were paying for our own medical insurance (if at all). We certainly dont expect that loyalty and hard work will translate into job security or opportunities for promotions. We no longer expect to thrive we expect merely to survive, and for us that is enough.

If we happen to be one of those 800 last Levi employees in San Antonio, our expectations are probably even lower. Unemployment benefits tend to last for six months, perhaps a year if anyone in the government has the conscience to extend those benefits. Job prospects are dim in the manufacturing sector, and people will need to find other work, likely at a lower pay rate and likely without union backing. They will have to trim their budgets and hope that the meager unemployment checks will see them through until a new job comes up.

We could play the blame game and pin Bush with the loss of jobs, or blame Clinton for starting the recession, but the simple truth is that the fault lies in a government that has consistently put the interests of business ahead of the interests of individual Americans. Laws and policies such as NAFTA are crafted to benefit corporate interests in the misguided belief that supporting corporate interests will by extension benefit individuals across the country. The truth is that the losses and cuts will not end unless serious measures are taken at the national and state levels to put the living standards of ordinary Americans at the top of the priority list. That will only happen under the leadership of the person able to tap into the latent anger and frustration that Americans sense but do not express out of fear. We must listen carefully to what the contenders tell us about our future and decide which one tells us that we should be grateful for what we have, and which one tells us that we deserve better than that and tells us we should be mad as hell that we are being denied the greatness and wealth of our own nation.

Stop short-changing yourself. You are an American, and you deserve a better standard of living than mere sustenance. You are responsible for the quality of your life and you exercise that responsibility by choosing leaders that put you at the top and listen to your voice. Do not believe that you cannot change anything. Choose leaders that listen to you.

Mark Kittel is a frequent contributor to the Moderate Rpeublican. He lives in New York State.

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