Planting the Rightroots
Can Republicans find a way to compete on the Web?
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.”
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.
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.