Democracy sees digital day's dawn

Campaigns: With the fund-raising and organizing possibilities proved, many are pondering the Net's political future.

November 20, 2003|By Dick Polman | Dick Polman,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

It's hard to believe it was only seven years ago when Republican Bob Dole made history by mentioning his Internet site during a presidential debate.

Millions of Americans didn't know what he was talking about.

Actually, he didn't know, either: He botched the address by omitting one of the dots.

Yet, today, thanks largely to the Howard Dean phenomenon and other Web-driven developments, the Internet has become such a potent force in national politics that its most vocal boosters are heralding a brave new world of civic engagement, a new era of grass-roots Jeffersonian democracy.

Well, maybe. Or maybe today's sunniest predictors will look quaint in retrospect, like those 1964 World's Fair visionaries who insisted that by 2000 we would be traveling in atomic submarines to cities 10,000 feet beneath the ocean's surface.

It's still early. As Michael Cornfield, an expert on politics and the Internet, remarks: "Right now, it's like we're living in 1955, when TV for the masses was maybe 5 years old, yet still five years away from the Kennedy-Nixon debates. Dean's extensive use of the Internet is equivalent to the first TV ads by Dwight Eisenhower."

But it's clear that the Web is changing the way national politics is conducted. Campaign aides talk incessantly about conquering the "blogosphere" - the corner of cyberspace where "bloggers" write daily Web logs about politics. Some campaigns are even courting the best-known bloggers (and, by extension, their online audiences), much the way candidates in the FDR era went hat in hand to the cigar-chomping party bosses.

For any serious presidential candidate these days, it's de rigeur to have a top-notch techno-geek on staff. Ten years ago, bragging rights went to the candidate who hired the best TV ad-maker. But in 2008, the big hire could be the tech who creates the best candidate blog.

Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi has pioneered Web politicking, and his rivals are scrambling to keep pace. Former Gen. Wesley K. Clark had his own blog within minutes of declaring his candidacy.

The Internet is hot right now due to a host of factors: a polarized nation, a costly foreign foray, a second successive president who is despised by his detractors, and a Web-savvy candidate who also stokes emotions.

As a mobilizing tool, the Internet was also crucial this year in the citizen revolt against the Federal Communications Commission's attempt to help big media companies grow bigger. And it helped topple Trent Lott from his Senate leadership post, after his remarks about Strom Thurmond that hinted nostalgia for the segregationist South were heavily publicized by political bloggers.

And, in California, the Internet has been a key mobilizing factor in the recall effort against Democratic Gov. Gray Davis - ironic, given his remarks about the Net at a 2000 forum: "This is not something to be feared, this is a new vehicle that will allow more people to participate."

But what the soothsayers mention most is the money. As evidenced by Dean's rise, the Net can help level the playing field for insurgent candidates.

With minimal overhead costs, underdogs can potentially use the Web to seed the grass roots and speedily rack up thousands of small donations - and thereby compete with big-money establishment rivals.

"The combination of small donors and a fast turnaround time - that's a deep artesian well that a candidate can draw from," Cornfield said.

It's true that the grass roots have been stirred. In the Internet era, campaigns don't always need advance men to gin up a crowd; Dean fans have found each other with the help of www. meetup.com. And it's likely that some future campaigns will seek to replicate Dean's decentralization formula - by encouraging citizens to create Web sites and put their own stamp on the candidate's message.

But Dean hasn't won anything yet; the Iowa caucuses are months away. In the words of campaign-finance expert Larry Noble: "It's great that people can participate at home by clicking a mouse. But, in the end, does it translate into actual votes?"

And Richard Davis, an expert on the Internet and politics, says there is no evidence that the Web is energizing America's couch potatoes. Rather, he says, "it's reshaping the existing relationship between active citizens and candidates. The Internet has just made it a lot easier for them to find each other faster."

And unless Internet access gets cheaper in the future, it's likely that Web-based political campaigns will be reaching an audience that is whiter and more affluent than the general electorate. That helps explain why Dean might well spend a good deal of the next six months introducing himself to African-Americans and Latinos.

This Internet "bias" could be a long-range problem for Democratic candidates. The latest statistics reveal that only half the Americans who reliably vote in presidential elections are wired to the Internet, and the nonwired are heavily minority and downscale - members of the traditional Democratic base.

And, on the financial front, what's to stop the corporations from using the same tactics, networking on the Internet to cajole candidate donations from employees and clients?

But we can more easily predict its effect on governance. In Cornfield's words, the Web is a potent grass-roots tool that can generate "laser-beam emissions of public opinion," reshape events and wreck careers.

The co-optation phenomenon is probably the safest prediction. The likely result of a swing of the political pendulum: mercenary cyber fund-raisers, instant-attack blogs that traffic in rumor, the Web merely deepening the partisan divide.

Yes, the new medium unexpectedly has demonstrated that the bar for entering big-time politics is now lower. But the potential for skulduggery is higher.

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