Radical Reason

"Nil sine ratione."

Friday, June 16, 2006

June 16, 2006

It’s been a few weeks since I spoke on the program, and the political climate in America is much the same. Immigration continues to dominate the discussion in Washington, and it is unclear whether the House and Senate will come to agreement on legislation addressing the issue. Other legislation has been offered, including proposed constitutional amendments banning gay marriage and flag burning and a sweeping telecommunications reform bill, but immigration has most Americans’ political blood boiling in one way or another.

I’d like to step away from those issues, though, and describe a new development in the nation’s political culture – the rise of electronic media. Blogs, online newspapers, political websites, and even podcasts like this one are the next frontier in political discourse and are making waves as the way to communicate with voters and constituents of all ages and persuasions.

The use of electronic media also represents another phenomenon in American politics – the growth of politics as a consumer good. What do I mean by that? Political strategists have taken on techniques generally reserved for traditional businesses as a means of reaching specific groups of voters and of communicating specific types of political messages. Micro-targeting is one example of this new method of political operation. Political groups collect data on groups of people and are able to then articulate messages designed specifically for that audience. These are some of the basic tools of marketing and advertising, now applied to politics. Because retirees will obviously respond to stimuli and messages in a very different way than will urban 20-somethings.

Here’s how micro-targeting works in practice. Let’s say a particular Republican candidate for Senate wants to contact the voters in his state to communicate his position on Social Security. He obviously will want to highlight different aspects of his position for different audiences. So, his campaign may send an e-mail to younger voters or post advertisements on websites frequented by younger Internet users that highlights his stance on reforming Social Security to give younger workers more control over their income through something like a private account. By contrast, his outreach effort to senior citizens would most likely be through direct mail or through newspaper advertisements and would emphasize the need to “protect” Social Security through reform in order to ensure that the program will not dissolve.

You see here that the campaign is able to target voters both according to behavior – Internet usage or newspaper reading – and political message – individual control over income or guaranteeing continued Social Security income. This is the essence of targeting.

Blogs are the most popular type of new media pervading the political realm. Blogs seem to have started as forums for fringe groups to express their views before a widespread audience and, at least in the case of political blogs, to organize their political activities, but they have rapidly gained mainstream acceptance. Many blogs enjoy readerships that rival those of major newspapers, and bloggers have even been able to beat traditional news outlets to break news stories. There will always be a place for traditional media and journalism, contrary to what some observers have declared, but blogs have certainly changed the media landscape.

Politicians have even gotten into the act, with the 2004 election marking the first time that official blogs became a prominent feature of campaign outreach efforts. Howard Dean’s inspired candidacy changed the turf on which campaigns operated, employing an army of electronic activists to both raise money – usually in small denominations – and to spread the message virally over the Internet. Candidates began keeping “personal blogs” – usually written by a staffer, obviously – tracking the progress of the campaign and attempting to engage younger voters through a new medium. The campaigns in 2004 truly became interactive, as information was instantaneous and as campaign websites became a direct forum through which voters could engage candidates whenever they chose.

Now virtually every savvy politician maintains some variation of a blog, and some even contribute personally, responding to comments from readers and engaging in electronic debate. Jack Kingston, a Republican Congressman from Georgia, has been at the forefront of this trend, employing all sorts of innovative electronic techniques to interact with voters, to get out his message, and to reveal his positions. He releases podcasts of his own, discussing the issues of the day in Congress. Bill Frist, the Senate Majority Leader from Tennessee, also releases podcasts. Both podcasts are available for subscription through iTunes, and both represent the newest form of political communication.

And these official blogs don’t exercise nearly the influence of the liberal Daily Kos, the libertarian InstaPundit, or the conservative Hugh Hewitt Report, to name just a few. Is the rise in electronic media just a flavor of the week or are the denizens of the blogosphere here to stay? It appears that electronic media is a real arena for the political debate of both today and tomorrow.

With that said, it’s also important not to overestimate the influence or importance of electronic media and the blogosphere. The “netroots,” as liberal bloggers and Internet activists like to call themselves, have yet to achieve any major victories in the electoral process. In some ways, liberal activists tend to undermine the efforts of the traditional Democratic party by radicalizing the party and turning off more moderate voters. Republicans do not really have a counterpart to the vocal liberal netroots, but they have been extremely effective at exploiting the connective power of the Internet. The Republican National Committee has been extremely effective at marshaling this connective technology to maximize fundraising, to collect data on voters, and to engage in the sort of strategic micro-targeting I talked about earlier. So while Democratic activists seem to have taken advantage of the Internet for their own purposes, the Republican establishment has merged its institutional weight with the transformative power of the Internet.

And for the Republicans right now, it seems to be working.