Since the ignominious departure of George W. Bush in 2008, the Republican Party has taken on the look of recently divorced man thrust back into the dating scene after a decade long hiatus. The Grand Old Party has lost whatever was left of its grandeur over the past few years and, like much of its diminishing base, is just plain old now. In the 2012 Presidential Election, Mitt Romney received 37 percent of the 18-29 year old vote, a number which sadly constitutes an improvement over John McCain’s dismal performance in 2008, which netted him just 32 percent of the under 30 set. Any way you slice it, the Republican Party is graying before our very eyes and the Democrats are snatching up the lion’s share of the young talent in American politics. Put another way, Karl Rove is still the holding on to the mantle of the GOP’s “boy wonder” and he’s 3 years away from being eligible for Social Security. The dominant post-election narrative in most non-Murdoch-owned media today is one that reinforces the old idea that young folks who are conservatives have no heart and geezers who are liberals have no brain.
Of course, this fortune cookie analysis falls apart if you just go back to the 1980s and check out the voting patterns of the Greed Is Good Generation. Every Republican Presidential candidate in the 1980s either tied or exceeded the Democrats in the Under-30 vote, with Reagan taking an impressive 59% of the demographic in 1984, and, if you had created a conservative Franken-candidate in ’92, George H.W. Perot would have wiped the floor with Bill Clinton. Even as recently as the 2000 election, age was basically a non-issue in determining party affiliation when it came to voting for Commander-in-Chief, with George W. Bush trailing Al Gore by only a couple percentage points among young voters. So, what happened? What series of events could have transpired to prompt an otherwise neutral youth electorate into such hyper-partisan behavior over the course of a decade, and what do our reactions to these events say about the likely trajectory of American political behavior in the near future?
Like many success stories, the Democratic Party’s recent resurgence was precipitated by an immense failure. Given the fact that our sitting president had made a mockery of the Geneva Convention and his own citizenry by invading a country under false pretenses while torturing and indefinitely detaining thousands of enemy combatants, the 2004 presidential election should have been the Democrat’s to lose; which, of course, they did. But, while there was little salvageable information lying in the rubble of the Kerry campaign, something had happened in the primary that warranted further scrutiny. For a flicker of an instant in the fall of 2003, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean defied the laws of campaign physics by slingshotting himself from the back of the pack to the front of the race for the Democratic nomination before a single primary had taken place. Now, most Americans who live outside the beltway remember Dean for his campaign crippling cry of “hee-yahhh” after the Iowa primary, but the way in which he accrued momentum and money through digital channels during his short-lived candidacy is his real legacy. The technological innovation that was kickstarted by the Dean For America operation—now known as Democracy For America—has proven to be one of the driving forces in the success of Democratic politics and is also one of the primary ways through which the liberal political infrastructure has managed to churn out such a steady stream of new, young talent while their conservative counterparts go begging.
In his book, The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of Political Advocacy, David Karpf labels the Dean for America campaign as the prototypical “neo-federated organization.” DFA was arguably the first major political organization to truly utilize the capacity of the internet to facilitate advocacy and fundraising by streamlining already existing mobilization tools. It was essentially an “online tool for offline action” that enabled a broad collection of decentralized, locally controlled Pro-Dean bases to coalesce and help an otherwise unassuming campaign create the appearance of momentum until it actually began to materialize. In other words, Howard Dean’s success wasn’t because he had more supporters than most of his rivals for the Democratic nomination. It was because he tapped into a technology that enabled him to mobilize those supporters at a much higher clip than his opponents.
This type of online political advocacy and mobilization is the antithesis of what is pejoratively dubbed “clicktivism” by detractors of new media’s influence on modern political discourse. Generally, the folks who dismiss the internet & social media as genuine tools for impacting political change are the same folks who are insistent that all online activism does is spray out e-petitions by the hundreds like so many spam e-mails for penile enlargement or Nigerian princedom. More often than not, this reticence to engage in web-based activism is the result of stubbornness more so than empirical evidence and occurs at a higher rate in long-standing, highly bureaucratic organizations.
I experienced a perfect example of this innovation acceptance divide the other day when I was walking to lunch and was confronted by a young woman on the corner of 17th & Penn trying to get people to donate money to one of the eight billion non-profits based in Washington DC, armed only with her trusty clipboard and a handful of glossy pamphlets. I stopped to listen to her focus-tested and very much memorized and recited spiel about donating X amount of money a month to support a struggling child in some impoverished pocket of the world. It seemed like a genuinely decent cause and the organization looked legit, so I asked her if I could have her card or contact info so I could donate online when I got home that evening. The woman informed me that her company didn’t do that and, if I wanted to donate, I had to essentially spend the rest of my lunch break filling out paperwork and giving her my credit card information in the middle of the sidewalk. Needless to say, I gave the woman my card in case her organization had any information to send me, wished her a good day and went off to lunch without giving her a dime. Had her employer simply provided an easy opportunity to donate online, they would have gotten at least $20 from me and, depending on how well they kept me engaged, possibly more in the future. Instead, they lost my donation while creating unnecessary physical paperwork for themselves and employing someone at $9 an hour to stand on a street corner bothering people who just want to eat lunch.
Now, compare this specific-issue-based non-profit with a group like MoveOn.org. Unlike the group in the previous example, who was explicitly targeting financial aid for needy children, MoveOn is what Karpf terms an “issue-generalist”organization. MoveOn has an extremely long list of members to whom they send out e-mail blasts on a variety of similarly progressive topics based on what is trending and current in a given news cycle. For instance, in the aftermath of the shootings in Aurora and Newtown, MoveOn immediately began alerting its members to fundraising opportunities for anti-gun violence groups and pro-gun control political figures while encouraging folks to sign e-petitions and contact their local representatives to encourage them to promote stricter gun laws. More recently, the vast majority of MoveOn members supported vocally Anti-NRA candidate Robin Kelly for the house seat left vacant by Jesse Jackson Jr. in Illinois, helping catapult her to a victory in the primary election last month. Without the power of Netroots organizations like MoveOn to popularize her campaign or progressive fundraising sites likes ActBlue that enable folks from all across the country to contribute to a congressional race they would otherwise not be engaged in, it is unlikely that Kelly would have earned the Democratic nomination.
What makes organizations like MoveOn and Daily Kos and ActBlue all the more interesting is the fact that conservative analogues to these sites have yet to emerge with any widespread success and it certainly isn’t from a lack of trying. With the exception of Erik Erikson’s moderate success with the right-wing blog Red State, conservative efforts to recreate the online infrastructure that has been amassed by the left has been an unmitigated disaster. Millions upon millions of dollars have been spent by Republican sugar daddy extraordinaire Sheldon Adelson and a host of think tanks to try and reverse engineer a fundraising site or e-mobilization tool to match their liberal counterparts and they have largely been for naught. Conventional wisdom has had it that this disparity in online success is somehow ideologically rooted, with pundits citing the more egalitarian and grassroots political tradition of the Democratic Party as being fundamentally more attuned to this type of activism than their top-down, hierarchically minded Republican rivals. However, this view loses its luster when it is expanded beyond America’s borders. Countries like Great Britain have actually had the inverse of the American techno-political experience, with their conservative movement being in the vanguard of online outreach. Karpf accounts for this by abandoning the ideologically driven analysis of political e-innovation and taking the position that the surge in Democratic use of technology is rooted in their position as the “outparty” during the ascension of widespread digitization and online growth. The argument goes that, had John Kerry won the 2004 presidential election, then the Democratic party would never have been forced to go through the period of soul searching that led to the rediscovery of the success of Dean For America and the prospects of replicating that type of viral campaigning in the future. Someone adhering to the theory of outparty innovation incentives would contend that Dean For America was the necessary failed experiment that primed the political pump for the Obama For America campaign and the reinvention of grassroots organizing in the 21st century.
For the most part I agree with the concept of outparty innovation incentives, but they don’t account for much of what has transpired since Barack Obama’s election in 2008. According to this model, the Republicans should have at least begun to reevaluate their campaign strategies while investing in new technologies and strategies to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of their outreach. Over the past 4-5 years, we should have seen the tech gap close between the right and the left in America, but what we got was more of the same. Instead, the GOP took billions upon billions of dollars in campaign contributions and wasted them on “tried-and-true” ad buys in TV and radio without so much as a passing nod to the capabilities inherent in our WiFi infused nation for mobilizing supporters. If anything, it was the Obama campaign that continued to innovate, spending money on advanced analytics to determine the most effective e-mail subject headers and providing flexibility for volunteers to work remotely from their own studies rather than in a cubicle down at local headquarters. If outparty innovation incentives were the primary reason for the Democrats’ success, then how were they able to continue their dominance of e-advocacy while the Republicans were allowed to storm the castle from the outside?
Ultimately, it is not ideological influence or outparty innovation that explains the liberal dominance of modern American political technology. What has determined the course of technological innovation in US politics is money and, more specifically, the Republican over-reliance on a small elite of exorbitantly wealthy individuals and corporations. Essentially, the GOP has become embroiled in a co-dependent relationship with wealth that obfuscates the need to alter campaign strategy. A look at the 2012 campaign spending records for Obama and Romney show that the vast majority of Romney’s money came from large individual donations, outside spending and RNC funding. 11 of the top 12 independent spending groups were run by conservatives and 39% of Romney’s individual contributors gave at the maximum $2,500 level1. When guys like Sheldon Adelson are throwing money your way, there’s not much motivation to find novel ways to engage in fundraising opportunities with the unwashed masses who can only contribute $50 or $100 at a time. Why cook your own meals when you can have your own personal chef make them for you?
The problem with this approach is that, if you take billions of dollars from corporate and monied interests, then you are beholden to those interests as well. This is how you get a bland, uninspiring company man like Mitt Romney as your party’s candidate and it’s also how your campaign staff and party leadership gets festooned with an old boys network that eschews innovation in favor of the status quo. I mean, it’s not as if the Democratic party has a monopoly on enterprising minds. One look at the Ron Paul machine that has sprung up over the last decade or so shows that there is a very emboldened, creative young base for the Republican party to pick from.
It’s not that there is a lack of talent for the GOP to choose from, it’s just that the GOP leadership has made a conscious decision to shun them. In many ways, Ron Paul’s candidacy was a great analogue for Barack Obama’s, at least in terms of the ferocity and passion of their grassroots supporters and their ability to creatively message their platforms. The only difference is that whereas the Democratic party brass realized an opportunity to change course and embrace a transformational campaign, the Republicans have done everything in their power to derail it, including shutting the “Paulites” out of the Republican National Convention this summer and refusing to acknowledge his delegates as they were being read on the floor during the nominating roll call. Even this past week, Ron’s son Rand Paul all but caused Twitter to explode when he camped out on the senate floor and held court during an old school, 13-hour filibuster, stopping only when midnight was approaching and his bladder was on the verge of faltering. The filibuster was referenced in over 1.1 million tweets over those 13 hours, with the hashtag #StandWithRand being tweeted out more than 450,000 times. Rand Paul has already begun the exploratory rigamarole of starting what will be a bid for The White House in 2016 and I have no doubt that he will achieve at least as much success as his father did and that his campaign will embrace technological innovation in a way fundamentally different than the majority of his GOP peers. The main questions are whether or not Paul has the backing to win the nomination and, if he doesn’t, if the Republican party has the sense to adopt his campaign strategies as their own.