Wednesday, Feb 11, 2004 5:37 AM UTC

Politics by other means

The Internet may have made Howard Dean, but Dean didn't make the Net -- and his campaign's woes don't faze digital democracy's true believers.

Weeks ago, when plans were laid for the Digital Democracy Teach-in, the event — a gathering of pundits and participants in the burgeoning world of online political organizing — looked poised to turn into a coronation party for the Internet’s own candidate, Howard Dean. With the stark collapse of the Vermont governor’s electoral fortunes, the conference instead threatened to turn into a wake for his flash-flood movement.

As Joe Trippi, Dean’s former campaign manager and the architect of his Internet strategy, kicked the day off Monday with an alternatingly rueful and defiant campaign retrospective, an urgent question hung in the air, invoked by the keyboard-clicks of serried ranks of bloggers: What the hell happened to Dean that he fell from the top of the heap so fast? And did his fall turn all his ballyhooed innovations into so much digital-dream scrap? Meanwhile, all the consultants and the columnists and the lobbyists who have been boning up on “social software” tools want to know: can they go back to sleep now?

The Dean debacle is a whodunit with a gaggle of suspects: The media did him in. No, his opponents dirty-tricked him. Or his newfangled online tactics backfired. Or maybe the voters just didn’t like the guy.

Everyone here at the Digital Democracy Teach-in, part of this year’s O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, had a different explanation. Though Trippi stuck to his loyalist line that Dean still has an “excellent chance of turning things around in Wisconsin,” even he lapsed into the past tense while offering his interpretation of why the campaign he ran until two weeks ago tanked. And though he described the Dean saga as not a “dot-com crash” but a “dot-com miracle” — one that used Internet-based tools to catapult an unknown candidacy and catalyze a sense of political involvement — his talk had a morning-after melancholy cast.

Dean’s doom, he argued, was sealed with Al Gore’s endorsement. Not that the former vice president placed some sort of Curse of the Hanging Chads on the candidate. Rather, Trippi declared, the Gore nod set off alarms in the other campaigns, and in the media — alarms that Dean’s previous, more offbeat achievements in record-level fundraising and grassroots buzz had failed to trigger. The response, Trippi said, was: “Kill Howard Dean right this second. Cause if we don’t kill this son-of-a-b right now, he’s gonna be the nominee.” And so Dean was “hammered” for a month before the caucus in Iowa.

“For about 12 months, the question was, change versus the status quo, and for 12 months, Dean dominated the campaign. Al Gore endorses him, and now the press says, if you vote for Howard Dean in Iowa, he’s the nominee. Are you ready to do that? The people of Iowa did not reject Howard Dean, but they said, no, not yet.”

In Trippi’s interpretation, the front-loading of the primary calendar — a ploy by the party establishment to hobble insurgent campaigns, in his view — meant that Dean’s campaign had no choice but to go all-out for wins in Iowa and New Hampshire to create a sense of inevitability. But that same inevitability, he charged, is what triggered the attacks that hobbled Dean at the polls. By that logic, there was no way Dean could win.

What of the Dean campaign’s legendary online machinery? Couldn’t all the blogs and the Meetups counter the forces who were demanding, “Bring me the head of Howard Dean”?

Trippi said that, once the Gore endorsement started drawing heavy fire to the campaign, Dean’s “Net roots” didn’t get it: “We couldn’t figure out a way to communicate what was happening to us — that there’d been this, pardon the expression, holy shit moment. Our Internet supporters were complacent.” For months Deaniacs had been saving up their movie money to give $50 to the campaign; now, “suddenly, we were fat, we were successful, and it was, honey, we’re going to the movies this month. We were getting pummeled with this huge target on our back, but the blog comments were asking, why is Joe sounding so desperate, we’re on top of the world here!”

Ed Cone, a North Carolina journalist/blogger who’d written a definitive case study of the Dean campaign, asked, with some disbelief in his voice, “So you had the most formidable campaign communications system ever devised,” and yet couldn’t say to supporters, “We’re in trouble — we need your help”?

“The press is now reading the blog,” Trippi replied. “This wasn’t a private conversation.”

The crowd here, packed with big-name bloggers and veterans of online activism, was friendly to Trippi; it seemed inclined to give him a pass on the media’s attempt to make a fuss over his media partnership’s $7 million-plus bill to the Dean campaign. (Trippi said that he earned $165,000 in commissions from the TV advertising work, and that most of the money, representing billing for ad buys, ended up with Iowa TV stations.) At the end, he got a partial standing ovation.

But, more than anything else Trippi said here, his confession of this “transparency problem” — his admission that, at its hour of greatest need, the Dean campaign was unable to level with its own online loyalists — seemed to break faith with the campaign’s revolutionary aspirations. What good is building a vast open network to route around the existing power structure if you can’t use it?

If in the weeks before Iowa, Dean’s campaign had told its followers that things weren’t going so well, maybe the media would have pounced on his vulnerability; but maybe his troops would have rallied. After all, the outcome couldn’t have been much worse than what wound up happening. And at least it would have been honest — and true to the new-model campaign’s ideals.

Those ideals, the day-long Digital Democracy Teach-in demonstrated, are alive and well, regardless of Dean’s fall from frontrunner grace. While the blogosphere is full of soul-searching Dean post-mortems — like Clay Shirky’s “Exiting Deanspace,” Jay Rosen’s “Voices at the Crash Site,” and Dave Winer’s “Howard Dean is Not a Soap Bar” — no one is suggesting that the political world is ever going to return to the pre-Dean status quo.

Trippi offered a paean to Net power — “There is only one tool, one platform, one medium that allows the American people to take their government back, and that’s the Internet.” If anyone here disagreed with it, they didn’t speak up.

But it was another speaker, Wes Boyd of MoveOn.org, the phenomenally successful online liberal lobby, who, in a calm and deliberate talk, provided a down-to-earth sense of hope for the programmers and bloggers and activists who are reeling from Dean’s downfall.

Boyd called the American political establishment an “empty shell” and described the “hollowing out of democracy” over the past half-century, as TV ads have replaced real engagement between leaders and citizens. The two events that sparked MoveOn’s biggest surges in membership — the 1998 Clinton impeachment saga at the organization’s birth, and the lead-up to the Iraq war a year ago, which brought it hundreds of thousands of new signups — were both crises where there was a “vacuum of debate.”

“We came to this not because we had something to say,” Boyd explained, “but because we were frustrated — there were a lot of people out there not being heard.” Boyd’s advice to would-be activists and leaders: Learn to listen.

That’s a hard message for our political culture. Candidates are accustomed to “delivering messages”; the populace is supposed to listen. The blogging ethos is all about individuals “owning the printing press,” as Jeff Jarvis put it — but once citizens start piping up, they’re going to be frustrated if they feel ignored.

It’s surely no coincidence that both Trippi and Boyd are former technology-company executives, veterans of a culture that prizes both nimble innovation and attentiveness to customers. That may prove just as important to the “digital democracy” movement as any software application or Net trend.

Meanwhile, Dean’s campaign cannot be simply written off as a burst dot-com bubble. However few delegates the candidate ultimately wins, he long ago changed history. He taught his fellow Democrats, in Trippi’s words, “how to be an opposition party” — and he forced his party to face the gulf between its leaders in Congress, who’d mostly supported Bush’s Iraq war, and its voters, who largely didn’t. He filled that “vacuum of debate” with a clamor that could not be ignored.

More than helping candidates raise money or organize volunteers, that’s the Net’s true political purpose: to break unhealthy silences and speak necessary truths. Thanks to MoveOn and the Dean campaign and bloggers everywhere, we’re beginning to realize that all the talk about how the Internet turns everyone into a publisher, and connects citizens directly, and bypasses the old media gatekeepers, and opens doors to new combinations of people and their passions — all that talk isn’t just talk. It’s real, and it’s happening. And if it’s not yet electing candidates, well, there’ll be plenty of time for that.