In a much-ridiculed speech at the 1996 Republican National Convention, Newt Gingrich hailed beach volleyball as the embodiment of all that makes America great. “A mere 40 years ago, beach volleyball was just beginning,” Gingrich told the puzzled crowd. “No bureaucrat would have invented it, and that’s what freedom is all about.”
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It seemed absurd to celebrate barefoot countercultural rebellion at a gathering of suit-and-tie-wearing Republicans. But Gingrich was on to something. He understood that Reaganism had triumphed in part because it was identified with Silicon Valley techno-optimism, the garish excesses of Sunbelt prosperity, and the zany creativity that gave rise to beach volleyball. The image of the GOP as the party of an expansive, innovative future represents at least one reason why Americans who came of age during the Reagan era are the most Republican slice of the population.
The fact that Gingrich’s ’96 speech met with such puzzlement now looks like a warning sign to the GOP. A decade later, the inventive spirit behind a new spate of American innovations, from Google to YouTube to Facebook, is almost exclusively associated with the liberal left. From Web-based political communities like MoveOn.org to new-media powerhouses like a The Huffington Post and the wildly successful online fund-raising outfit ActBlue, Internet politics and liberal politics increasingly look like one and the same.
A generation ago, it was Republicans who dominated the landscape of mass communications, with their mastery of the 30-second television spot and their innovative use of direct mail to fund-raise and organize. As recently as 2004, it seemed as though conservatives still matched up about evenly in emerging communications technologies. The initial wave of high-traffic political sites tended to skew right, with forums like FreeRepublic.com and blogs like Instapundit and Power Line, which Time named Blog of the Year after it was credited with helping bring down Dan Rather over the fraudulent memos related to George W.Bush’s National Guard service.
But conservatives were fighting the last war. The Bush reelection campaign actually prefigured the Obama campaign’s success in online organizing, but most movement conservatives used the Web the way they’d used talk radio: as a vehicle for argument and analysis, a right-wing alternative to the hated Mainstream Media. Meanwhile liberals, smarting from a string of political defeats, realized the medium’s real potential—as a vehicle for organizing and fund-raising, a 21st- century answer to direct mail.
Direct mail was pioneered by George McGovern’s Democratic presidential campaign in 1972, but it was perfected by conservative activist Richard A. Viguerie as a means of bypassing the mainstream media to mobilize the right—all while raising tidy sums for Republican candidates. (In the 2001–2002 election cycle, Republicans raised more than $441 million in hard-money contributions, compared with $217 million for the Democrats, an advantage experts attributed in no small part to the GOP’s direct-mail network.) In his 1980 book, The New Right, Viguerie described direct mail’s ability to spur political activism:
A letter may ask you to vote for a candidate, volunteer for campaign work, circulate a petition among your neighbors, write letters and postcards to your Senators and Congressmen ... and also ask you for money to pay for the direct mail advertising campaign.