Report October 2008

Planting the Rightroots

Can Republicans find a way to compete on the Web?

This description could apply equally well to the rise of the liberal “netroots.” But the Internet’s social-networking technology doesn’t just allow the Vigueries of the left to mobilize individuals—it helps them build a community of the outraged and the activated. Barack Obama’s campaign has drawn heavily on the prowess of this new progressive ecosystem, and on its verve and creativity. (By the end of April, Obama had raised $272 million from 1.5 million donors, much of it online.) Just four years ago, liberals fumed with jealousy at the effectiveness of the conservative message machine. Now conservatives are panicking over the strength of the “people powered” movement that was created to counter it.

The panic has produced action. The casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, for example, has reportedly poured tens of millions of dollars into Freedom’s Watch, a pro–Iraq War advocacy group originally billed as a right-wing answer to MoveOn. But Adelson’s group has conspicuously failed to live up to that billing: while MoveOn and its imitators can legitimately claim to be people-powered grassroots groups, Freedom’s Watch feels like the billionaire-funded lobbying outfit it really is.

The more-promising work comes from young conservative activists building from the bottom up. This spring saw the launch of a Web site called The Next Right, formed in conscious imitation of left-wing communities such as Daily Kos and MyDD. Like those destinations, The Next Right is a community Web site—any registered user can start a blog—dedicated to debating the steps conservatives need to take to rebuild a Republican majority, and to pushing the Republican establishment toward a more forward-leaning communications strategy.

The driving force behind the site is Patrick Ruffini, the director of the Republican National Committee’s highly successful “eCampaign” operation from 2005 to 2007, who at 30 looks poised to become one of the most influential Republican political strategists of his generation. As a blogger, Ruffini has cast a harsh eye on Republican tactical failures, while offering more than grudging respect for Democratic successes. Ruffini’s lack of interest in “punditry,” a word he uses with disdain, and his number-cruncher’s love of hard data have set the tone for The Next Right, which has quickly built a cadre of would-be Karl Roves competing with each other to create the cleverest framing devices for where conservatism needs to go.

Another aggressive rightroots figure is David All, a boyish 29-year-old consultant who served as Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston’s ambassador to the blogo­sphere before opening his own shop. All speaks warmly of his relationship with Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s campaign manager and a netroots legend, while promoting a more forward-looking, youth-oriented GOP that embraces geek-chic causes like net neutrality.

If Ruffini and company have set out to copy the community-building side of the netroots’ success, All aims to imitate their fund-raising achievements. Last October, he joined forces with a young California-based developer named Sendhil Panchadsaram to create Slatecard, a Web site that funnels contributions to conservative candidates. From its launch through late July, though, Slatecard raised an underwhelming $442,000; ActBlue raised nearly $30 million in the same period, and has raised more than $50 million since it started in 2004.

All points out that ActBlue took a while to get off the ground, falling short of $1 million during its first election cycle. But that was four years ago, which goes to show how much ground the rightroots have to make up.

Any success they achieve will probably come too late to help John McCain. Republicans looking to the online future might learn more from McCain’s vanquished primary rivals than from the nominee himself. The year’s most successful online conservative campaign belonged to the libertarian populist Ron Paul, whose army of young volunteers created their own Web sites, music, and videos touting Paul’s candidacy and channeling money his way. His astonishing fund-raising totals—$34 million overall—never translated into votes, but Paul’s supporters demonstrated how online tools could dramatically amplify the message of a determined minority.

So too with Mike Huckabee, whose campaign achieved some online success generating small-donor contributions, presumably from its evangelical base, while drawing on the star power of blue-collar celebrities like Chuck Norris and the wrestler Ric Flair. In the process, the campaign demonstrated that a Web operation could raise money outside the latte-sipping, Volvo-driving demographic that (allegedly) fueled the rise of Howard Dean.

What the Paul and Huckabee campaigns had in common was an embattled spirit, a sense of outrage against the powers that be. Jon Henke, one of Patrick Ruffini’s partners at The Next Right, argues that a “unifying grievance”—like the netroots’ opposition to the Iraq War—is essential to mobilizing a party’s base. After years in power, this is something the GOP as a whole conspicuously lacks.

Ruffini is well aware of this problem. Outrage is the logistical backbone of any political movement, he told me—it’s the equivalent of Wal-Mart’s supply chain. No outrage, no ActBlue. No outrage, no Daily Kos. No outrage, no Obama.

“What are we outraged about?” Ruf­fini mused. “If the underlying message is not right, you can’t sell that. You can’t put a shiny package on it.”

This is not to say that infrastructure-building is trivial. Direct mail didn’t just reflect outrage; it helped deepen and define it. Shrewd political entrepreneurs don’t just push pet causes. They follow the grassroots conversation, whether it happens online or off, and identify potent sources of political discontent.

So what will outrage conservatives enough to spark a rightroots-driven revival? To find out, we may have to wait for an Obama administration.

Reihan Salam is an Atlantic associate editor and the co-author of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream (2008).
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Reihan Salam is a policy advisor at Economics 21, a columnist for The Daily, and a blogger for National Review Online.

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