"People Powered" or just plain grassroots
by InigoMontoya, Tue Jun 27, 2006 at 06:32:59 PM EDT
As a fan of the on-line political world in general and MyDD in particular, I'm going to vent about the seemingly stylish affectation of writing about "people powered" campaigns as if they were something new under the sun.
What Chris, Markos, and others mean when they say "people-powered" is nothing more than a good old-fashioned grassroots campaign as opposed to a campaign built around institutional support.
There are a couple of fallacies at work here. One is to suggest that campaigns that don't originate or sustain themselves from the netroots are somehow legitimate and don't involve people.
Institutions, whether they be labor unions, single-interest groups like NARAL and Emily's List, or even the much maligned DLC are all, as near as I can determine, populated by and run by people. Not an automaton or alien life-force escaped from Star Trek among them.
These people are using an institutional approach to campaigning for any number of reasons, including a) history...you keep using what works until it no longer works or b) genuine belief that the institutional approach is the better way to go. These people may have different takes, different approaches to trade-offs, different views on assembling electoral majorities but they are still people and moreover they are Democrats, united with us in common cause, even if we disagree, sometimes bitterly, on how to achieve it. That being so, they don't deserve to be demonized a priori as if each one of them were a Bush-loving hickey-giving Joe Lieberman clone.
When a writer uses this exclusionary "people powered" term, he or she means "a campaign fueled by grassroot activists and those outside the establishment." Fellas (and gals), this ain't anything new.
Gene McCarthy '68 was a grassroot campaign. Failed.
George McGovern '72 was a grassroots campaign. Succeeded and failed.
Jimmy Carter '76 was a grassroots campaign. Succeeded and succeeded.
Howard Dean '04 was a grassroots campaign. Failed and now [improbably enough] succeeding. Go Howard.
Most candidacies have at least some grassroots component. But the dominance or lack thereof of a grassroots component doesn't particularly make a campaign good or bad, winning or losing.
Some of the best campaigns combine both grassroots and institutional support. I think most of today's net-oriented activists take the view that a campaign that starts out heavy on the institutional side is unlikely to embrace the grassroots (or "people powered") approach unless it finds itself failing, at which point it's probably too late.
Walter Mondale was probably the quintesential top-down institutional candidate, a nice guy that very few voters were willing to die for and whose campaign provoked the bumpersticker "Honk if Mondale promised you something."
But campaigns such as Gary Hart (self-destructed) or Bill Clinton (successful) morphed into a fusion of grassroots and institutional support and were the stronger for it.
What has made this current generation of "people-powered" grassroots campaigning different is the efficacy of communication, evolution of ideas, and exposure of candidates via the Internet. (Note: I didn't say a word about regarding the Internet as a tool for fundraising.)
Politics has changed and changed for good but the Internet is still only a tool and the activists, per one of the recent polls released on MyDD, still have the traditional profile of activists with respect to the rest of the party. Truly there is nothing new under the sun.
The Internet allows the grassroots to organize and communicate much more efficiently, akin to traditional grassroots methods in the same way that a PC & printer is akin to typewriters and carbon paper. (And a PC can let individuals produce garbage screenplays much more quickly than they had before.)
At the end of the day, the process says little a priori about the quality of the political product, the collective judgment of the netroots having no lock on infallibility and the ability to gauge broader popular support. (Indeed, I think the netroots are vulnerable to an echo chamber effect.)
"People powered"\\\\\\\\\ Grassroots candidates reliant upon the netroots are going to have their share of successes, near misses, and spectacular failures. I think it's helpful for those thinking about, writing about, and engaging in the political process to take a deep breath and not expect "people powered" to be a panacea or electronic elixir for all the ills of the Democratic party. And to just maybe stop using the term as if it were a new-found label that guaranteed virtue and/or success.