Some Lessons from the Fight Over Internet Freedom
by Matt Stoller, Sun May 28, 2006 at 10:03:28 AM EDT
Ok, I've had some time to relax and think through the internet freedom battle. There are some lessons here that we should take going forward. First let me caveat the issue; this fight isn't over. The Sensenbrenner bill has to go the Rules Committee, which is corrupt and may not let the bill onto the floor. The COPE Act may be snuck through regardless. The bill could pass and get screwed up in conference. In other words, there are many many ways we could still lose this. But the Judiciary vote was a huge deal anyway, since we don't win very often and since this firmly put the issue on the legislative map.
We did not think this was winnable the day before the vote, but when the smoke cleared there was a crushing 20-13 bipartisan victory. There are three reasons this happened.
1) Nancy Pelosi and John Conyers whipped the Democrats aggressively on the issue. They made it clear that this vote was meaningful and that a 'no' vote would be problematic from the member's point of view. Nancy Pelosi is not a great communicator, but when the chips are down, she is with us. She made this happen. And John Conyers is a bulldog, one of the best we have in Congress.
2) The outside pressure was intense. I'm not trying to be a blog triumphalist or anything, but the pressure from the internet was remarkable. It wasn't just the 'netroots', it was the 'geekroots' (which Mitchipd straddles nicely). There's a common vision here of a progressive communications and energy system that unites the two communities, and we'll see more alliances as time goes on. Congress responded to this pressure, and so did the press. An issue with very little mainstream coverage was nonetheless considered white hot.
3) Without Tom Delay, the Republican machinery is breaking down and allowing more independent action from individual Congressmen. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, after being undercut on immigration, wasn't about to happily allow Barton's Commerce Committee to grab a big chunk of turf. He put up a fight, and the whipping that the internet and Pelosi/Conyers had done shored up the Democratic side and allowed the internet freedom people to win this one.
Ok, so what does this mean?
1) Victories are possible.
I know this seems obvious, but think about the ways that we are told we will lose. We are told, by none other than John Kerry, that the only way to win fights is to put more Democrats in the Senate, that fighting now is futile. We are told that aggressiveness will simply energize the other side. We are told that the media is biased and that there's no way around it. We are told that Americans are conservative and that pushing progressive ideas is impossible. We are told that pushing progressive ideas will jeopardize Democrats. We are told that the center is the key to politics, and we must be quiet to access that center.
None of this is true. We can win. It's not easy, but we can win. Republicans will vote for progressive ideas.
2) Strength is politically attractive.
Internet freedom was a bipartisan issue. Or rather, both parties were going to vote it down, and did, in the House Telecom Subcommittee vote prior to the formation of the public Save the Internet coalition. Then the public outcry began. Soon it became a partisan issue as Democrats came around to our side, and then it became a bipartisan issue again as Republicans also came around to our side.
Of course, when we started whipping Democrats, we heard people fret about how we 'shouldn't make this a partisan issue'. It wasn't a partisan issue, it was a progressive issue (and a conservative issue), but the dynamics of the fight at that point put Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other. Rather than energizing Republicans, the fear of self-loathing liberals everywhere, the public outcry and the whipping of Democrats made the Republicans scared that they were conceding a good electoral issue. Republican politicians are after all politicians, and they don't like voters being mad at them.
So the strength moved both parties, because strength is attractive to politicians of any stripe.
3) Ideas matter.
Behind the internet freedom idea is a very powerful vision of a connected society. That vision is the source of political strength, not tactical gambits and access to money. You can have all the money in the world, you can have all the savvy in the world, but without vision and ideas, you will ultimately lose because strength comes from being able to organize a group around a shared set of values. That's why the telecom companies spent something on the order of $10-50 million on this fight, and we spent maybe $10,000, and the fight was about even.
Where to Go Next
We may lose this battle yet. It's winnable, which it wasn't before. I think in the long-term, we're going to see a vision of a progressive communications and energy system implemented. I would encourage all of us, however, to stop thinking about our politics in terms of horse race analysis and targeting, and begin to think in terms of big ideas and a vision for what we want America to look like.
Internet freedom is a big issue, and we'll keep on it. So is global warming. So is creating a global open society. These are the challenges of our time.
We can and should build our politics around addressing them.