THE INTERNET AND POLITICS….Over at The Blogging of the President, they’re asking a question: “the Internet and Politics, what does it mean?” I’m not sure, really, but I’ve been pondering institutional power lately and have some tangential thoughts.
One of the things that movement conservatives have done well over the past few decades is to find new sources of political power beyond the familiar array of interest groups ? farmers, big business, labor, etc. ? that both Democrats and Republicans have courted assiduously for decades.
The first of these was think tanks, which, beginning in the early-70s with the Heritage Foundation and followed by Cato, NCPA, a resurgent AEI, and others, became overtly ideological ? and remarkably successful at shaping public discourse. In the 80s conservatives latched onto judges, which, with the exception of FDR’s ill-fated court packing scheme, had not previously been viewed by either side as a serious source of political power. The Warren Court may have been famously liberal, but it wasn’t the result of a deliberate effort ? something that changed under Reagan, as conservatives realized that what could happen by accident could also happen on purpose.
In the early 90s, following the demise of the Fairness Doctrine, conservatives began building a talk radio empire, and most recently they’ve begun targeting lobbyists, insisting that K-Street lobbying firms that want to do business in Washington need to hire reliable Republicans. All of these institutions ? think tanks, courts, talk radio, and lobbyists ? have become sources of political power because movement conservatives were smart enough to realize they could be.
So what’s next? The internet? Two liberal organizations, the Howard Dean campaign and MoveOn, have led the way in showing how the internet can be used as a genuine political force, not merely as a source of news or a pretty face on an already existing organization. Conservatives are behind the curve on this.
The challenge for liberals, I think, is how to build this into an institutional advantage that lasts. Judges, for example, were a fleeting advantage for Republicans because it took only a few years for Democrats to figure out what was going on and fight back. Think tanks, talk radio, and lobbyists are a more enduring advantage because it takes time to build them. Peculiarly, even after 30 years, liberals still haven’t really created a large-scale, overtly ideological think tank to compete with Heritage (although CAP is a recent effort to start one), and talk radio and K Street will take years ? if ever ? to match.
The internet, unfortunately, is a hard source of institutional power to leverage because it’s so obvious. If conservatives are slightly behind the curve now, they’re well aware of the internet’s power and are hardly likely to sit back and let it become a liberal playground.
So: the Internet and Politics, what does it mean? I’m not sure I know, but I do think that the internet has the potential to become a source of institutional power that so far is largely untapped. It’s ours for the taking, too, but only if we rather quickly figure out a way to build a clever and nonobvious structural advantage that can’t be matched simply by applying a bit of money and some technology to the problem. It’s the nature of the infrastructure, and which liberal groups own it, that will determine whether the internet becomes a true source of political power or merely a more efficient form of direct mail.
POSTSCRIPT: I should add that the first time I ever encountered the idea of finding an entirely new source of political power and then bludgeoning people with it was in Robert Caro’s terrific biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker. If you have any interest in power and politics and you haven’t read this book, you should. Ask for it for Christmas! The phrase “bond covenants” will never seem the same again.