Iowa, oh Iowa, Iowa, Ooooohhh Iowa

I can’t be the only Dar Williams fan out there, especially on the day after the caucuses. Especially after Iowans appear to have gone through the screen door of discretion while some candidates wake up to a nightmare/that I could not bear to see/They were out caucusing/A freezing night in Iowa/But they were not voting for me.

I’m actually on sabbatical for the next two months trying (among other things) to actually get the stupid blog book done (talk about New Year’s resolutions), so I’ve been trying to cut back on other work and focus. But what political junkie can resist the urge to comment on last night’s Iowa result? I will, however, try to keep it to TotSF appropriate topics and bipartisan snarkiness.

My take, as aways, below . . . .

1) The “power of the internet” v. “the power of traditional media.” As I touched on briefly in my Why Teens Are Smarter Than Regulators post, this is the argument folks love to have in DC and it is totally stupid. The story from Iowa is that while the internet is reshaping how people participate in politics, traditional media still matter. While Obama inspired lots of new voters and independents, it took Oprah to focus the media spotlight on him long enough to get attention — as well as an amazing speech at a Democratic fundraiser and strong performances in the final debates. By contrast, Clinton, started to slip when she gave what can only be charitably described as an ambiguous answer to a question about NY Gov. Spitzer’s plan on illegal immigrants).

Message mattered, style mattered, “likeability,” “electability,” all were important. But as Richardson and Biden and Kucinich can tell you, people don’t scope you out unless they notice you exist.

What the internet did do in Iowa (and elsewhere) is open new channels of communication and organization that, if even moderately successful, can stimulate media coverage, which stimulates more online involvement, which stimulates overall interest. No one better illustrates this synergy than Huckabee. When Huckabee first announced his candidacy, he was dismissed by the mainstream media and attracted no attention. But Huckabee used the internet and other means to develop a core following, do well in the straw poll, and thus stimulate media coverage. As the media covered Huckabee, more people became interested, and could use the internet to gather information and link to the network of existing supporters. As his support grew, the money came in, permitting more media ad buys and thus generating more overall coverage. Contrast this with Ron Paul, who has long had a much greater internet following than in “meat space,” but has failed to attract serious media attention.

Again, I want to stress that at the end of the day the candidate matters more than the medium. A gajillion dollars worth of advertising could not push Romney over the top in Iowa in contrast to the attraction for Republicans of Huckabee’s social conservative/economic populism. And absolutely true that Huckabee and others would have found it nearly impossible to organize as effectively without the internet. But anyone who thinks that this proves that the internet displaces traditional media is either sadly mistaken or pushing an ideological agenda.

1a) The policy take away here, no surprise, is that how local media cover elections remains a big deal, political affairs programming that goes beyond mere “horse race” obsessions with numbers or penetrates deeper than stories about $400 hair cuts matter a great deal, and the refusal of the traditional media to cover a candidate or issue can still be a death sentence politically (with the result that politicans will continue to suck up to the corprorate media moguls, as observed by Norman Solomon in this piece on Alternet linking the media’s negativ view of Edwards with his assault on corporate power).

2) The internet is helping to reshape the willingness of younger voters to participate. Tim Karr recently observed on HuffPost that we have seen the continued rise of “interactive politics” and this will continue to have an impact on policy in 2008. One of the impacts is motivating people to get out and become more participatory in the real world as they become genuinely engaged and empowered. This is consistent with the results of the Pew Internet and American Life Project study of the 2006 election, which found a direct correlation between broadband in the home, the willingness of people to use the internet to gather information and engage in political discussion, which in turn motivated them to increase their participation in the process overall.

There are many reasons for the huge turn out in Iowa, particularly among Democrats. But it would be wrong to ignore the importance of the internet as a catalyst of this change.

2a) The policy takeaway here is again no surprise, but gets repeatedly ignored. There is more at stake in our broadband policy than economics! Whether we make affordable broadband widely accessible and whether we leave it to the mercy of corporations to decide what content gets through and how will determine whether we are citizens who participate in our own government or serfs enaging in ritual voting every few years to give a patina of legitimcy to the ruling class. It will determine whether we live as one country engaged in a positive national discussion with a shared culture, or whether we become two Americas separated by a digital divide that isolates those unfortunate enough to live without the means of broadband access.

I make this point every time I speak about this issue. Usurprisingly, the current political class in Washington, with its obsession with the Gods of the Marketplace give me a condescending smile and seek to move back to the free market frame. As always, I’m happy to make the case on economic grounds (and policies that are not economicly sustainable cannot survive). But at the end of the day, I will still sacrifice economic efficiency if that is what it takes to preserve the core principles of citizenship: that we are all one country, where citizens have a duty and responsibilty to hold their elected leaders genuinely accountable and to make their voices heard.

And that, I hope, is the real message out of Iowa. Democracy still exists in this country. Despite the best efforts of our mass media to create a culture of empty cynicism and despair. Despite the efforts of campaign consultants to study it, disect it, and analyze it to death. Despite every effort to weary us into submission, isolate us from one another with trumped up feuds and manufactured rage, starve us for the information we need, exhaust us with working schedules unmatched in the industrialized world, burden us with unbearable debt, and then try to convince us that somehow it is all our fault and not the responsibility of our political and corporate rulers. Despite all this the citizens of this country do not forget who they really are: WE THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES, working together to build a more perfect union. More people were inspired in Iowa to brave a frosty night on the chance to change the world for the better than ever recorded. Not a bad way to kick off the New Year.

Stay tuned . . . .


  1. What?! You are on a sabbatical during the 700 MHz auction? Hope you take time to cover it.

    So, why do you think the Internet-media-mutual-feed-loop not work for Ron Paul?

  2. What?! You are on a sabbatical during the 700 MHz auction? Hope you take time to cover it.

    So, why do you think the Internet-media-mutual-feed-loop not work for Ron Paul?

  3. Elsewhere, people have suggested that Edwards “gets” the internet & blogosphere more than Obama & Clinton do, perhaps because his wife Elizabeth is an active reader and participant on many progressive blogs. Obama & Clinton seem to use the ‘net in an old-style “push” way; Ron Paul and perhaps Edwards & Huckabee (and lots of congresscritters) seem more attuned to using the Internet in a bi-directional, or networked, way.

    Nevertheless I think all of the Democratic candidates, and perhaps 1/3 or the Republican candidates, understand that something profound may be going on here, just as television changed politics, with the Kennedy-Nixon debates being the conventional starting date of the new era.

    The Internet age of politics began, I think it’s now agreed, with George Allen’s “Maccaca” comment. But things have changed a lot even since then.

    On a different topic, sabbatical during which you’ll be working on blog book? Yowza! Good news! Excellent!

    But as the above poster says, we hope you won’t leave us to figure out the implications of the auction by ourselves!

  4. I think that the argument boils down to whether you think that the Internet is fundamentally different and can route around idiocy, or whether it’s just because the mainstream media are still figuring it out and it’s only a matter of time before it’s as numbing as television.

    The magic of the internet is not sufficient to surmount Sturgeon’s Law, but I actually do think that if the net is sufficiently open, people can create new media that can route around channels that get dumbed down. Blogs are a great example — they grew up as the mainstream media deployed massive portals and worked to put their content online. But most politicians still think of the internet as being like television.

Comments are closed