From Barry's Boys to the Deaniacs

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

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Writing in Harper's in 2000, Ken Silverstein pointed out that the center had earned $27 million from fund raising and $17 million from investments the previous year but had spent only $13 million on its programs. "Dees's compensation alone amounts to one quarter the annual budget of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, which handles several dozen death-penalty cases a year," Silverstein noted. There's a thin line separating spam from scam.

But if direct mail encourages manipulation and detachment, it also paved the way for progressively more participatory media. America's Right Turn examines the alternative press in many guises, from small publishing houses to C-SPAN, but three forms lie at its core: direct mail, talk radio, and the Internet. Talk radio is more open and less controllable than direct mail, and the Internet is the least predictable of all.

Direct mail is an essentially passive medium. The fund-raisers broadcast their message; the recipients either ignore it or send some money. There is a certain level of interactivity here: A letter-writing outfit will "test" different versions of a product to see which one brings in the biggest response, and the results might prompt a candidate not just to hone his rhetoric but to alter his actual message. But there's no question who's in charge.

Talk radio is more interactive, because it allows the listeners to call in and join the program themselves. It's a bit like a direct-mail campaign that lets you read the comments some other readers scrawled on the letter. As the Republicans proved in the early 1990s, radio is a potent political tool, perhaps even more potent than the Post Office. But it's also much harder to control. A host or producer can vet his show's callers before they get on the air and can cut them off after they get there, but his power isn't absolute. Nor is it simply the listeners who have more autonomy. Direct mail exists to advance particular crusades. Talkers, by contrast, are not employed directly by single-issue groups or political parties (though there are always some Sean Hannitys who act as though they are), and they can be surprisingly independent. In 1996, for example, nearly 70 hosts endorsed the Libertarian nominee, Harry Browne, over Bob Dole and Bill Clinton. Among them were such prominent personalities as Lowell Ponte and the late David Brudnoy.

The Internet is even more interactive. There are virtually no barriers to setting up your own site. If you don't give your readers or listeners a chance to talk back on your blog, they can launch some sites of their own and talk back there--and they might draw more readers than you have. The Web is fertile soil not just for activists of the right and the left but for those who don't fit easily into the conventional political spectrum; it is a haven, as Viguerie and Franke argue, "for dissent from both the Left's and the Right's establishments." If you want to find an anti-war conservative, a pro-life Democrat, or a socialist who hates the IRS, you'll have a lot more luck online than on TV. "The implication, as the Internet grows in political influence," Viguerie and Franke write, "is that both Democrats and Republicans, both liberals and conservatives, are going to have a continually more difficult job keeping the troops in line."

The troops are online as well, of course, coughing out mountains of phlegm against Michael Moore, Bill O'Reilly, or whichever political folk demon needs to be ritually exorcised that day. But that's just free speech in action. The administration and the major parties can use the Net to transmit their message and to attack their enemies, but they haven't been able to stop other people from doing the same thing. With the Dean campaign, those other people didn't merely post messages expressing their discontent. They carried that discontent into the political process.

Granted, that's not the same thing as actually winning an election. Trippi's technological optimism is contagious, but the fact remains that the Dean revolt was contained, the Democratic machine reasserted itself, and the party nominated the establishment candidate. Viguerie and Franke quote a Wall Street Journal piece describing Dean as "the most consequential loser since Barry Goldwater"; that may be so, they write, "but the bottom line still is: He lost." Although Dean's Internet platoons eventually got their man a job as the party's figurehead, they lost the much more important battles of Iowa and New Hampshire.

But who knows what will happen in the next election? In a Reason interview last year, Trippi speculated that "there's a strong chance by 2008 we'll have a third party. The Dean campaign never had any help from the party infrastructure, and we proved you could run a campaign without that by going to people directly. The next guy who goes outside the party who's solid will set off a sea change, and the parties, especially the party that loses this election, are running on borrowed time." I'm not so sure about that myself--ballot access requirements can cripple even a campaign with widespread support--but the next time someone does try to run as an independent, the Net will make his task a lot easier.

The deeper question is whether such a candidate will be worthy of the crusade that coalesces behind him. The Internet makes it easier for scattered people to collaborate, not just to take state power but to solve their problems directly, without the state's intercession at all. Just as direct mail empowered insurgents but also encouraged ordinary Americans to cut a check instead of organizing a rally, Web politics could encourage people to give their faith and energy to pols who don't have nearly as much potential as the bottom-up, networked movements mobilizing on their behalf.

A subchapter of America's Right Turn is titled "Will the Internet help us transcend government?" In some ways, it already has. But government, and the pursuit of government power, seem to have found a comfortable home in cyberspace as well.

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