Op-ed

Op-ed
: The Star-Ledger asked me to write an op-ed about Dean and blogs post-Iowa (which seems like a month ago already, eh?). It’s appearing in Sunday’s paper. The text is below. I’ll put up a link to the Ledger when it’s up.

For those who’ve been reading this blog, much of it is a rehash meant for the nonbloggers still out there.

Click on “more” if you want to see it…

STAR-LEDGER: Sunday, Jan. 25

You’ve probably heard that Howard Dean built his amazing organization, war chest, and lead in the presidential campaign with the help of those magical, mystery things called “blogs.”

And you’ve certainly heard that Howard Dean has now slipped like a greased banana on ice.

So did blogs hurt him or help him?

The answer, as you’d expect, is yes and no.

Blogs – short for “weblogs” – really aren’t anything mysterious; they are merely web pages with updates and links. They serve many purposes. Some give us news (see Command-Post.org); some opinion (see KausFiles.com); some gossip (see Gawker.com); some even on-the-ground perspective from Iraq (see HealingIraq.com). Most blogs reach out into the Internet to share links and new perspectives; most are open and curious.

But the Dean campaign used blogs differently. Dean’s blog (at BlogForAmerica.com) was less about links and content and more about the comments shared there by supporters. Those comments and conversation – and get-togethers organized through MeetUp.com – knit the Dean community.

Dean’s blog built the organization. It mobilized the troops and motivated them to give big money. It brought together their enthusiasm and ideas (Dean bloggers suggested saving money by using volunteers’ extra mobile-phone minutes). It made them feel involved.

It has been said that the blog allowed Dean to build his own third-party organization to take over the Democratic party. It remains to be seen whether that was true.

It also has been said that the blog turned the Dean campaign into a bottoms-up affair, able to hear the voice of the people. That we now know was wrong.

This was not a two-way street. When it comes to the substance of the campaign – to policy and public stances – the Dean blog was necessarily one-way and even propagandistic. That is not criticism. That’s just the reality of politics. We don’t want a president who shifts with the winds of polls or blog posts. We want a president who stands on principle. So the campaign had to use its blog to impart its principles to its supporters.

And the supporters, in turn, used the blog to defend those principles. Because the comments on the blog were open to all, Dean opponents – known as “trolls” – could come in and argue with Dean positions or just make cracks. The Dean supporters swarmed them like white cells on bacteria, making sure that the party line was not lost. Cleverly, they would vow to contribute more money every time a troll trolled; that silenced the snarks.

The net result was that the Dean blog became insular and self-affirming, amplifying the opinions and attitudes already there. Did the din inside become so loud that it became difficult to hear the noise outside, where the voters were?

Yes.

Well then, did Dean’s enthusiastic supporters egg him on to be stronger against the war, louder against his opponents, nastier to Bush? Did they make him lose in Iowa?

No, it’s not their fault. Dean is Dean. He is the boss and this was his loss.

On my own weblog at Buzzmachine.com, days before the Iowa caucuses, I said that Dean was losing because he had become Dr. No, leader of the negative wing of the Democratic party. He made this into a campaign about anger, about venting, even revenge.

But anger doesn’t build the future. Venting doesn’t create a leader. Revenge doesn’t find a winner. All that does is make some people feel better, for awhile.

And the truth is: We are not all angry. Despite the way media and politicians treat us, we don’t all live on the edges, in our red or blue states, facing each other across some new Mason-Dixon line of left vs. right.

We hear all the time how we are a nation divided. But we’re not. We are a nation undecided.

Look at the large number of voters in Iowa who settled on whom to support just a week or even a day before the caucuses. They were looking for a leader to march in front of the positive wing of the party, to stand for something. That is why so many rejected Dean.

Weblogs – the citizens’ weblogs outside the Dean tent – could have helped Dean avoid these pitfalls. For the true strength of weblogs is that their links bring you fresh information, diverse perspectives, and the real buzz of what the people are saying.

That is why the first response of those in power – in politics or media or business – should not necessarily be to write weblogs but instead to just sit down and read them. For the first time in centuries, weblogs have given citizens the power of the platform and the printing press. It is their turn to speak, and it is time for the powerful to listen.

In addition to using weblogs to organize his supporters – which his campaign did brilliantly – Dean should have used weblogs to listen to those who were not his supporters. If he had done that, he might have heard the drumbeats in Iowa in time to change. If it’s not too late for him, he still can take away important lessons: not to be so harsh and negative, not to assume we’re all living in a national funk, and certainly not to scream like a screech owl on speed in a concession speech.

Weblogs can indeed be magical. They can empower the people. They can change the world. But they can’t win – or lose – an election.

Only candidates can do that.

  • http://www.citycynic.com/ Anthony

    Jeff, Well written but largely wrong when it comes to your view of Dean’s use of blogs. I know you know blogs, but you certainly don’t seem to know or get Dean. Your buddy, Anthony

  • Dan Herzlich

    Beautiful analysis. Wrong conclusion. It was all this blog boosterism that gave Dean his license to shrill. (Yes, punning before noon on a Sunday should be illegal.)
    You should check out Maureen Dowd’s brutal piece today in the NY Times. She gives Dizzy Dean the shiv, but just leaves Judy black and blue.
    Dan Herzlich – looking forward to tonight’s radiocast

  • http://donatacom.com/blog.shtml Terry Heaton

    There’s a sticky wicket in this piece, Jeff. Reading citizen blogs to get an overall sense of how the public feels is impossible. Look at your own blog. It’s a full time job just keeping up with you, let alone hundreds or thousands of others. That means, there has to be a filter or an A-list, B-list, etc., and both are contrary to the essence of blogging. The problem is that no matter how you stack it, the pyramid has a very wide bottom, and blending the modern with the postmodern is always a risky task. Blogs are anti-hierarchy, so we ought not be surprised if a hierarchical “read” is problematic. This is why trying to predict how these things “fit” into an institutional world always makes the “fitter” end up looking like a fool. The Internet simply will not be manipulated for individual gain. It has a life unto itself, and I’m content to just sit back and watch for awhile. Keep up the great work, Jeff.