Monday, May 21, 2007

Does the Democratic Party have an advantage on-line?

The Washington Post has a story today (on the front page, interestingly) that confirms what those of us who are interested in politics and spend a lot of time on the Internet have already suspected. The Democrats currently have an advantage over Republicans on the Internet.

More interesting is the speculation in the story about why the Democrats/Progressives have this advantage. To me this leads to the question - is the advantage systemic or is it just temporary until the conservatives/Republicans catch up? I'll address that further down. Think about the reasons for such a advantage as you read this:
Republican [--] Michael Turk, who was in charge of Internet strategy for President Bush's 2004 campaign -- puts the problem his party faces more bluntly: "We're losing the Web right now."

The most recent figures from Nielsen/NetRatings provide one measure of the gap. Looking at the Web sites of presidential candidates from the two parties, it found that former senator John Edwards's site had about 690,000 unique visitors in March, when the Democrat's wife, Elizabeth, announced that she had a recurrence of cancer. That was more than the combined number of visitors to the sites of the three leading GOP contenders, Rudolph W. Giuliani (297,000), Sen. John McCain (258,000) and Mitt Romney (76,000).

There are other measures as well. No Republican comes close to matching the popularity of another Democratic candidate, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, on YouTube, MySpace and Facebook, the social-networking triumvirate. The Democrats are ahead in the online money race. The top three Democrats, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama and Edwards, amassed more than $14 million over the Internet in the first three months of 2007; in contrast, the top three Republicans, Giuliani, McCain and Romney, collected less than half of that, $6 million. Furthermore, ABC PAC, the conservative fundraising site, has raised $385 so far for Republican presidential hopefuls; Act Blue, its liberal counterpart, has collected about $3 million for Edwards alone.

One reason for the disparity between the parties, political insiders say, is that the top Republican candidates are not exciting voters the way the Democratic front-runners are. Another is that it takes a certain level of technical skill and understanding to be an online strategist, and Republicans admit that "the pool of talent in the Democrats' side is much bigger than ours."

But an underlying cause may be the nature of the Republican Party and its traditional discipline -- the antithesis of the often chaotic, bottom-up, user-generated atmosphere of the Internet.

"We've always been a party of staying on message," All said. "It's the Rush Limbaugh model. What Tony Snow says in the White House filters down to talk radio, which makes its way to the blogs."

Peter Leyden, director of the New Politics Institute, a San Francisco-based think tank that in recent months has been advising Democratic members of Congress and their staffs on how to take full advantage of the Web, argues that the culture of Democrats is a much better fit in the Internet world.

"What was once seen as a liability for Democrats and progressives in the past -- they couldn't get 20 people to agree to the same thing, they could never finish anything, they couldn't stay on message -- is now an asset," Leyden said. "All this talking and discussing and fighting energizes everyone, involves everyone, and gets people totally into it."

If conservatives have mastered talk radio -- with Limbaugh as the undisputed king of the AM dial -- those on the left hope to achieve the same dominance on the Internet.
I suspect that the Republican Party hierarchical model is what limits them. The conservatives tend to be Right-wing Authoritarians, and one of the characteristics of such people is that they are uncertain unless an authority gives them permission to hold certain beliefs. They gather in groups to hear the accepted positions, and then share those opinions among themselves. Since such people have an us-and-them view of people, any disagreement has to come from "them."

Unfortunately for the Republican conservatives, the Internet is full of people who disagree with others in various levels of civility. Democrats and Progressives thrive on such disagreements. Those lively discussions are what allows communities to develop on-line such as Daily Kos.

So, yes, I think the problem that Republicans/conservatives have with the Internet really is systemic. If they ever adapt successfully to the Internet, they will become Democrats. Cantankerous, disagreeable Democrats, surely, but what's new about that? The difference is that they will have lost their group identity as conservatives. They will have lost whatever it takes to present a unified, cohesive face to the rest of the world.

It's not so much that the Democrats have an advantage as that the conservatives are limited in ways the prevent them from using the bottom-up structure of the Internet. The angry, ethnocentric and isolationist right-wing organizations are a danger to democracy, but the Internet is an arena in which their group cohesiveness cannot be maintained if they are to take advantage of the political power of the masses of people. Cohesive groups give conservatives and Republicans political power. Using the Internet successfully will require that they abandon that very cohesiveness and certainty that has worked so well for them recently. I don't think they can do that successfully.

Their response is going to have to be to try to destroy the Internet. But that is for a later discussion.

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