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.

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.