Are campaigns conversations?

Patrick Ruffini says that campaigns are not conversations and he’ll be surprised to hear that I agree with him. He says:

“Campaigns are conversations.” If I hear this one more time, I swear my head is going to explode. Campaign 2008 already has its most overused cliche, at least among us techie types.

“Let the conversation begin,” blares Hillary Clinton’s Web site. “Start the conversation,” says Chris Dodd’s. “This campaign is about YOU,” proclaims Barack Obama’s. Jeff Jarvis has a new blog on Presidential video dedicated to the Platonic ideal of campaigns as a neverending bull session with the voters.

Problem is, I don’t get the point of this exactly. At some level, this seems like no more than a basic transposition of Doc Searls’ “markets are conversations,” which is brilliant as applied to business because markets are inherently leaderless. It’s trickier to apply this pure and abstract ideal to politics where the voice of the people matters but where voters can and do evaluate candidates as leaders who stand on principle and don’t just do things because they’re popular.

He’s right. The comment I left there:

Actually, I don’t say that campaigns are conversations. In the end, a campaign must be propagandistic: It must be the candidate getting his or her views spread, which includes making your allies spread them for you. The only thing two-way about the Dean campaign was the organizational end (‘hey, kids, let’s invade Iowa’). The messaging was and inevitably is one-way, once the candidate has a stand — and once the campaign has begun, he or she better have a stand. I don’t use propaganstic pejoratively; it’s reality.

Having said that, you’re also right that candidates must listen and there are new ways to listen. So they can be more conversational.

But my real point about the use of YouTube et al is that it allows the candidates to act more conversationally, to look us right in the eye on our small screens after we’ve clicked and talk to us quietly, at a human scale, not from a big platform in a huge crowd. Maybe, just maybe, it also allows us, the voters, to be heard better. But we’ll see.

(Crossposted at