From Barry's Boys to the Deaniacs

How alternative media have transformed politics on the left and the right.

America's Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, by Richard Viguerie and David Franke, Chicago: Bonus Books, 375 pages, $26.95

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything, by Joe Trippi, New York: Regan Books, 252 pages, $26.95

Like most populist presidential candidates, Howard Dean wasn't nearly as interesting as the movement that assembled itself behind him. The Vermont doctor was capable of staking out independent positions: He attacked the Iraq war when his party's leaders were either endorsing it outright or timidly keeping their doubts under wraps, and he was one of the few Democratic governors who managed to show an interest in both gay rights and gun rights. But what at first might look like a quirky combination of Eugene McCarthy and William S. Burroughs turned out to be a conventional center-left politician, a Democrat committed to higher taxes, an active foreign policy, and the "re-regulation" of energy, airlines, and other industries. If he managed to grab the Zeitgeist for a few months of 2003 and 2004, he did it without stepping very far outside the boundaries of ordinary behavior.

The Dean movement was another beast entirely. According to the conventional wisdom, it managed to raise both far more money and far more enthusiasm than its rivals because it used the Internet. In The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, his bombastic but instructive memoir, Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi, stands that formula on its head. "We were not using the Internet," he writes. "It was using us."

He has a point. An election professional who entered presidential politics working for Ted Kennedy in 1980, Trippi had also toiled for several tech companies during the Clinton years. With one foot in the political world and the other in cyberspace, he didn't invent his candidate's Internet offensive so much as he discovered and magnified it. Every political junkie knows that Trippi and Dean built their movement by embracing Meetup.com, a company that arranges get-togethers for people who share a common interest--anyone from disgruntled Scientologists to fans of Angelina Jolie. What isn't as widely appreciated is that Dean's supporters were already using Meetup.com to find each other before the campaign even knew the service existed.

Indeed, when Trippi first saw the site, "the first thing I noticed was that Howard Dean--dead last among the Democratic candidates in almost every other meaningful measurement--was actually leading in this one category, the number of his supporters who wanted to meet up." He added a link to Meetup.com from the campaign Web site, and with that small piece of HTML code the number of Dean backers in the system suddenly leaped from 432 to 2,700. "For months," Trippi recalls, "Meetup.com would run its own parallel campaign, the number of people meeting up growing from that initial 432 to more than 190,000. Eventually, we'd even have to create our own, specialized version of Meetup--the GetLocal tools, which would grow to 170,000 people on its own." When Trippi persuaded Dean to attend a meetup himself during a stop in Manhattan, the number of fans planning to attend started to multiply; he ended up speaking to 500 people in a fully packed hall, with another 300 or 400 waiting outside.

That might not sound like a big deal, except that this happened in March 2003, 20 months before the election, at a time when Dean was barely beating Al Sharpton in the polls. And it was organized not by the speaker's staff but by the audience itself, with the assistance of a Web service that wasn't supporting any particular candidate.

Below the mass media's radar, Dean's volunteers created their own local organizations, did their own fund raising, produced their own literature, and in general set the pace for their candidate rather than the other way around. They carried an obscure outsider to front-runner status, and though he collapsed short of the finish line, that had much more to do with bad decisions at headquarters than with the uncontrolled activity at the grassroots. (The movement raised more than $40 million for Dean in 2003, 60 percent of it in contributions of $200 or less. Headquarters managed to spend nearly all of it before the Iowa caucuses began.)

Forty years earlier, another grassroots crusade exploded behind another outsider. That time the candidate was Barry Goldwater, a maverick Republican whose politics were libertarian in the domestic sphere and anti-communist abroad. Ideology aside, Goldwater's troops and Dean's had more than a little in common. "In the Goldwater campaign, grassroots volunteers would write and pass out their own literature, hold events, and talk to the press without thinking of getting some higher-up's approval," Richard Viguerie and David Franke write in their useful study America's Right Turn. "On occasion this proved embarrassing to the campaign leadership, but the overall benefits of all that spontaneous energy far outweighed the costs."

Viguerie is the king of political direct mail, the man who imported the marketing techniques of Sears, Roebuck into the conservative movement in the aftermath of Goldwater's defeat. Franke has been a right-wing activist and journalist since the 1950s. Their book is an interesting counterpart to Trippi's: Written from what is at least superficially the opposite political perspective, it has the same appreciation for the ways that alternative media, from Paul Revere's riders to Meetup.com, have allowed insurgents to organize right under the nose of the governing establishment. The theme of America's Right Turn is, to quote the subtitle, "how conservatives used new and alternative media to take power," but it freely points out places where movements of the left have deployed similar techniques. It even discusses the Dean campaign, which it faults for poor management but praises for its creative use of cyberspace.

That's not to say the authors don't have a distinctly conservative point of view. The book casually describes the Panama Canal Treaty as the Panama Canal "giveaway," calls Hillary Clinton a "co-president," and puts the word suicide in quotation marks when it mentions the death of Vince Foster. Nor does it always comprehend what's going on in other segments of the political spectrum. The authors assert, for example, that the liberal radio network Air America will fail--and, more broadly, that Democrats will never find a profitable niche in talk radio--because the left lacks spokespeople who can express themselves without wishy-washy qualifications. That argument might flatter conservatives who believe their tribe is more self-confident and decisive, and it might even flatter liberals who believe their tribe is more thoughtful and nuanced, but it ignores the considerable number of Democratic pundits, on Air America and elsewhere, who exhibit all the self-certainty of Rush Limbaugh.

The book is most convincing at its most contrarian, with its heartfelt defense of the most despised mass medium in America: direct mail. Maybe it's just nostalgia for the days when junk mail came only once a day and didn't multiply unseen in my inbox overnight, but I found myself nodding in agreement as Viguerie and Franke listed the ways that auto-signed, overwrought, fear-mongering pleas for my money have enriched American politics. Direct mail has given insurgent candidates a way to evade gatekeepers in both the mainstream media and the regular party organizations. It has greatly expanded the number of politically active citizens, and it has brought their energy (or at least their money) into issues the establishment would rather reject. The authors' examples range from George McGovern's pro-peace presidential campaign in 1972, which might have died before the primaries without Morris Dees' fundraising letters, to the New Right's crusade against the Panama Canal Treaty, which forced the controversy onto the Republican agenda.

Direct mail also has shifted the balance of power--somewhat--from big corporate benefactors to small donors by making it easier to attract and collate the little guy's cash. "Thanks to direct mail," Viguerie and Franke write, you "don't have to be a multimillionaire or an ideological agnostic to run for office." The medium's watershed year was 1980, when Ronald Reagan rode into power with a solidly conservative campaign that raised three-quarters of its money from postal appeals.

The authors do acknowledge the underside of junk-mail politics: that it "makes it so easy to just make a donation and say you've done your part, no need to get involved in actually trying to convince people as a precinct worker or by organizing a rally." Viguerie and other mail merchants have opened up a new avenue for grassroots activism, but they've also centralized and professionalized it; as the joke goes, the conservative movement is now based not in the heartland but in a handful of Northern Virginia post office boxes.

Furthermore, while direct mail can make a politician more accountable to his ideological base, it sometimes raises accountability issues of its own. America's Right Turn tells how Morris Dees' letters kept McGovern's candidacy afloat. It doesn't mention the peculiar profitability of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the civil rights group Dees co-founded in 1971, which raises boatloads of cash with manipulative mailings that wildly exaggerate the prevalence of "hate groups" and of racially motivated violence.

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