Jewish World Review August 6, 2003 / 8 Menachem-Av, 5763
There is nothing new about the sudden
emergence of a golden boy in the Democratic primaries.
Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Gary Hart: All seemed to come
out of nowhere to contend for the presidential nomination.
But Howard Dean's candidacy is important not just because of who he is - a
genuine left-liberal alternative - but for how he has managed to vault the front tier of
the Democratic pack. Dean's use of the Internet to raise money, generate support
and enthuse the party's activists will long be remembered as a signpost along the
transition from the television to the Internet era of American politics.
Like John McCain in 2000, the Vermont governor has harnessed the Internet to
raise funds quickly, cheaply and legally. But McCain's online fund-raising was
catalyzed by a victory in the New Hampshire primary which he won the
old-fashioned way, by media and pressing the flesh. Dean, on the other hand, used
the Internet to grow from nothing into a full-fledged contender.
Capitalizing on the Democratic Party's pro-peace and pro-gay base, Dean used the
customized, one-on-one, retail politics of the Internet to spread the word of his
candidacy. Supporters forwarded the e-message to their family and friends and the
Dean message spread virally, the first fully Internet campaign.
The larger message of the Dean candidacy is that the era of TV-dominated politics is coming to a close after 30
years. With dwindling audiences and an increasingly sophisticated electorate, the 30-second ad and the
seven-second soundbite are losing their power to control the political dialogue. Taking their place is grassroots
organizing, made possible by the Internet, in which candidates grow from the outside, mobilizing on the
hustings, guerrilla style, before they take their act to the center stage of national politics.
After the collapse of the political bosses in the '60s and '70s, it seemed, briefly, that grassroots direct politics
would become the new order of the day. In 1964, enthusiastic, young Republicans overthrew their party's Eastern
establishment and nominated Barry Goldwater at a raucous convention in San Francisco. In 1972, the young
Democrats had their day overthrowing the party elders and nominating George McGovern.
But both Goldwater and McGovern were crushed by the new force of television advertising. Lyndon Johnson
defeated the Arizona Republican and Richard Nixon trounced the South Dakota Democrat with a torrent of
negative advertising, marginalizing them on the right and left fringes of U.S. politics.
Grassroots politics remained interred for 30 years as the fund-raisers, the fat-cat donors, media mavens and
political consultants (like me) ruled the process. With Americans mesmerized by television, the media blitz and
the glitzy 30-second ad carried the day.
But the habits that underlay this media domination of politics has ebbed. The top prime-time TV shows now draw
10-15 million households where once they enthralled more than 30 million at a shot. National television news no
longer reaches 60 million homes every night, but has to settle for 20 million instead.
The low costs of Internet campaigning, and the viral way in which it spreads by word of mouth and
person-to-person contact, is offering an alternative to top-driven, capital-intensive TV campaigning. A candidate
like Dean- animated by a cause larger than his own ambition - can attract vital support and find himself
catapulted into prominence by astute use of this new political tool.
Dean may falter as John McCain did, but the inevitable replacement of television with the Internet as the
fundamental tool of political communication is destined to accelerate. The true answer to campaign-finance
reform, the Internet will open a real possibility of a transfer of power to the people, much as the right-wing
Goldwater Girls (like young Hillary Rodham) and the left-wing activists in the Students for a Democratic Society
(SDS) had hoped would happen decades ago.
As TV's power wanes, so will the power of money to control politics. Just as the political bosses faded into
irrelevance, so the excessive power of fund-raisers and big donors is also likely to drop.
In sector after sector of American life, we are throwing off intermediaries. We use the Internet to buy cars, book
travel, do banking and sometimes even to kindle romance. We are now throwing off the political intermediaries
and using it to pick a president.
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JWR contributor Dick Morris is the author of, among others, Off with Their Heads: Traitors, Crooks & Obstructionists in American Politics, Media & Business"
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© 2003, Dick Morris