Voters and Votesters

Net politics after the bursting of Dean's bubble


As Howard Dean's impassioned tango with the Democratic electorate becomes an awkward pratfall, torrents of bits are flowing with speculation about how his vaunted legions of online disciples failed to deliver. Dean, it turned out, had more Friendsters than friends.

It's too early to count Dean out, of course, but in light of the high expectations the former Vermont governor set, he appears to be imploding spectacularly. While the campaign has attempted to spin his second place New Hampshire finish as a resurgence following his catastrophic showing in Iowa, it's sobering to compare his distant second, 13 points behind John Kerry, with polls from just over a month ago, when Dean held a commanding 20 point lead in the Granite State, with a projected 45 percent of the Democratic vote in an American Research Group poll and 42 percent by Zogby's count.

Much of Dean's early surge was attributed to his aggressive use of the Internet as an organizing tool—campaign manager Joe Trippi's Net savvy was hyped in countless glowing profiles. Now, The Atlantic Monthly calls Dean's "internet army" a "fizzle," observing: "Forty percent of Iowa caucus participants described themselves as making regular use of the Internet to get news and information about the campaign. Yet this group voted for Kerry (33 percent) over Dean (24 percent)."

Naturally, pundits are now scrambling to figure out why this grassroots network proved to be more virtual than reality. Opinion seems to be settling into two camps—a "blame Dean" contingent, exemplified by blogger Pejman Yousefzadeh in a TechCentralStation column, and a "blame the social software" phalanx, most prominently represented by New York University's net culture oracle Clay Shirky writing at Corante.

The problem with a "blame Dean" approach is that it's scarcely as though the good doctor had been a mild mannered Bruce Banner all through the campaign, with chartreuse calves bursting purple stretch pants only in the final days before Iowa. Clearly, large numbers of people have just recently decided that Dean is insufficiently "presidential." But that leaves the deeper question unanswered: Why was such apparently strong initial support for Dean so ephemeral that a bit of "hooting and hollering," as Al Sharpton called it, derailed his Nomination Express?

For those more inclined to seek structural explanations in Dean's online campaign, insularity seems to be the watchword. Slate's Will Saletan, who leavens his analysis with a generous helping of "blame Dean", wrote a piece typical of this class of responses in which he characterized the Dean movement as an "echo chamber" where supporters' cozy comity lulled them into a false sense of security.

It's tempting, and probably not entirely inaccurate, to recall New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael's astonishment when Richard Nixon trounced George McGovern—she didn't know anyone who had voted for Nixon. But were Deaniacs really more shielded from reality than other political partisans? What, after all, could be more insular than the top-down model of traditional campaigning? If self-criticism and reflection are in short supply on Dean listservs and Web sites, are they really any more likely to be found in candidate pep rallies, phone solicitations, and blast mailings?

Those media would doubtless have tried to put a wholly positive spin on even the Iowa crash and burn. Yet in the comments on a Blog for America post just after the Iowa concession speech, there was more than a little dissension in the ranks. One Deaniac wrote:

I'm sorry, but that speech was TERRIBLE. Save that stuff for the troops. I'm already on board (or at least I think I still am). Don't do it on National TV. The MSNBC guys were LAUGHING.

Another added: "Trippi you have to stop this kind of thing… I understand he was just trying to fire people up, but he needs to tone it the hell down." Merciless remixes of Dean's State of the Asylum speech were circulating online within hours, hardly to be missed by Dean's most wired acolytes.

Perhaps ironically, a more insular base might have reacted better to the Iowa defeat. In the social science classic When Prophecy Fails, Leon Festinger developed his famous cognitive dissonance model of responses to disappointed expectations among religious believers. Festinger studied the followers of a Mrs. Keech, who prophesied that though the end of the world was neigh, her cadre of believers would be spirited away by the aliens beaming messages directly to her brain. In its early phase, the group had surprisingly little interest in spreading the word about the impending eschaton. As astute readers may have noticed, however, the world failed to end on schedule, at which point the Seekers (as they called themselves) were transformed: They began proselytizing furiously, as though the "social proof" provided by bringing large numbers of others into the fold could bolster their wavering faith.

The problem for Dean is that, as critics of Festinger have noted, proselytizing is only one way for a community to cope with cognitive dissonance. Members may instead salvage their faith, for instance, by concluding that their doctrine was sound, and only the identity of the messiah mistaken.

And this, perhaps, is the problem—from the perspective of politicians, anyway—with campaigning by smart mob. Politics is a top down business. The old metaphor of the "political machine" is in this sense quite apt: It evokes a vast clockwork mechanism, perhaps composed of many cogs and gears, but governed in the end by a few hands at the levers of control.

The organism—reigning metaphor for online social networks—lacks such convenient levers. Dean's network comprises not just his own site, rife with comments, but sites like DeanSpace, which were autonomous, not run by the campaign. In politics, that's a bug, not a feature.

As in the examples cited above, autonomous communities are, if anything, too open to dissent—they may tip, shifting their allegiance to a new savior. Or, as Shirky hints, they may become ends in themselves. Many pundits get antsy when local volunteerism increases: People are supposed to be petitioning the national government to do their good deeds for them, dammit—they're apt to get distracted from that noble goal if they're solving their local problems themselves. Dean Meetups famously became social events, giving rise to those charges of insularity. But the real problem for the candidate may have been, not that his orange-hatted devotees seemed too cultish to appeal to the mainstream, but that the bottom-up, networked structure showed many that local, interpersonal engagement is more satisfying than national politics. If that's so, Dean's strategic failure may one day be seen as a blessing.