Whether you’re a Democrat in mourning or a Republican in glee, the results from election day should not obscure an important shift in America’s civic life. New tools and practices born on the Internet have reached critical mass, enabling ordinary people to participate in processes that used to be closed to them. It may seem like cold comfort for Kerry supporters now, but the truth is that voters don’t have to rely on elected or self-appointed leaders to chart the way forward anymore. The era of top-down politics–where campaigns, institutions and journalism were cloistered communities powered by hard-to-amass capital–is over. Something wilder, more engaging and infinitely more satisfying to individual participants is arising alongside the old order.
One moment when this new power began to be collectively understood by grassroots activists was on April 23, 2003. It was 4:31 pm (EST) in cyberspace when Mathew Gross, then toiling in obscurity on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, posted the following missive on the message board of SmirkingChimp.com, a little-known but heavily trafficked forum for anti-Bush sentiment:
So I wander back to my desk and there really IS a note on my chair from Joe Trippi, the Campaign Manager for Howard Dean. The note says:
Start an “Ask the Dean Campaign” thread over at the Smirking Chimp.
Surely a seminal moment in Presidential politics, no?
So, here’s the deal. Use this space to throw questions and comments our way. I’ll be checking this thread, Joe will be checking this thread. We’re understandably very busy so don’t give up if we disappear for a day or two. Talk amongst yourselves while we’re out of the room, as it were. But we will check in and try to answer questions. We want to hear from you. We want to know what you think.
So, go to it. And thanks for supporting Howard Dean.
About an hour later, after thirty responses appeared, Zephyr Teachout, Gross’s colleague, chimed in with some answers. A little later, a participant on the site wrote: “This is too cool, an actual direct line to the Dean campaign committee! Pinch me–I must be dreaming!” Ultimately, more than 400 people posted comments on Gross’s thread. Richard Hoefer, a frequent visitor, later wrote me: “That was an amazing day to see that rise out of nowhere. People were floored that the thread title was ‘Ask the Dean Campaign’–and Trippi and Matt were actually asking questions and interacting. Never before had anyone seen that.”
Never before had the top-down world of presidential campaigning been opened to a bottom-up, laterally networked community of ordinary voters. The Smirking Chimp is a website with 25,000-plus registered members, founded after the 2000 election as a gathering place for liberals, progressives and leftists who felt the newly selected President reminded them most of, well, a smirking chimp. Each day they devour and critique the handful of critical articles selected by its webmaster, Jeff Tiedrich, a New York-based programmer who started the site on a lark and is amazed by its growth. “The community of the Chimp is the angry, angry, engaged left,” Tiedrich says. When it was offered a direct connection to Dean, who was then the only candidate attacking Bush and the war in stark terms, lightning struck.
“The reason these community sites have formed,” says Gross, rattling off the names DailyKos, MyDD, Eschaton, Democratic Underground and Buzzflash, along with the Smirking Chimp, “is the Democratic Party is too based on insiders.” (Some Republicans apparently feel the same way, and have started similar sites, like RedState.org.) Indeed, at most political organizations, “membership” and “participation” mean little more than writing a check in response to a direct-mail appeal, as Harvard professor Theda Skocpol argues in her 2003 book Diminished Democracy. This wasn’t always the case, Skocpol notes–through the first half of the 1900s tens of millions of Americans were engaged in cross-class fellowship and civic activism through federated mass membership organizations like the Free Masons, the Knights of Pythias and the American Legion. But, undermined by the Vietnam War, the “rights revolutions” and especially the new mass-media system, mass membership groups atrophied. They were replaced by a proliferating array of professionally run, top-down advocacy organizations, like the AARP and Natural Resources Defense Council. “America is now full of civic entrepreneurs who are constantly looking upward for potential angels, shmoozing with the wealthy,” Skocpol writes, rather than talking to people of modest means.