I empathize with Internet politics enthusiasts on the Left who are frustrated by the Right’s rapid online ascendancy. That doesn’t justify an obsession with undermining the online-fueled strength of the Tea Party movement, as Micah Sifry, Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) and TechPresident.com co-founder, does in this post.
I have two theories: first, that even with the growth on the right of the past two years, the online progressive base is still bigger than the online conservative base, and second, that the Tea Party's actual base of support--while large and important--isn't anywhere nearly as big as advertised.
He acknowledges that there is more base enthusiasm for Republican candidates than Democrats this year, but takes pains to prove this is not translating online. His proof? Counter-examples to the chart in this recent IBDInvestor’s piece that shows Republican online properties drawing more interest than similar Democratic properties.
Compete.com shows DailyKos trouncing HotAir by a wide margin almost all year, except for the month of May (perhaps due to Rand Paul's breakthrough victory in Kentucky?. The same pattern holds when you look at other top right-wing sites, like HotAir, Michelle Malkin, or PajamasMedia.com.
However, this only shows that the most popular liberal blog gets more traffic than several popular conservative blogs, not an overall picture of conservative blog readership. It says nothing about activism levels.
To debunk the strength of the Tea Party movement online, Sifry hones in on the claims of the Tea Party Patriots, one of several “Tea Party” named groups with an online community. This misses the point.
The Right’s strength online hinges on Tea Party activism, but it also includes excitement around the individual campaigns, and the efforts those campaigns are exerting to harness that enthusiasm. It also includes a media mix of enthusiasm from talk radio.
Rise of the Right
When an online movement helped Democrats take the House and Senate in 2006 and the White House in 2008, they had reason to be confident in their online organizing prowess. Many believed this would help secure their place in power for years, perhaps decades, to come.
Yet, just two years later, it’s Republican elected officials, not Democrats, who have institutionalized YouTube communications; Republican Senate candidates have four times the Facebook support of their Democratic counterparts; the conservative base, under the banner of the Tea Party, has used their blogs, Twitter accounts and email lists to mobilize and fundraise their way to victory over powerful establishment candidates. And President Barack Obama, the Web 2.0 community’s great hope for embracing transparency and changing government through online innovation has faltered.
As Patrick Ruffini, my partner at Engage, and I stated in this January 2010 piece, the Right has caught up online. I’d even argue now that the Right has surpassed the Left. This all depends on what and how you measure, but I suggest an equation that includes, not only blog readership or individual Ning groups, but elected official, issue organization, campaign and grassroots activity.
Regardless, the true measure of a movement’s impact hinges on the number of people influenced to mobilize on the ground and vote. By this metric, Tea Party success this year has left little to debate or interpret.
Sifry, a friend, a liberal progressive, and someone I admire and respect, has focused in the past on showcasing Democratic and Republican advances online in tandem. Yet, this post reeks of sore loser-ism. He couches his post as a heroic attempt to set the media straight. Instead, with a sub-heading “Tea Party Poop,” it comes across as an attempt to belittle.
Enemy of My Enemy
Sifry and I often see eye-to-eye, and here too we agree:
- The media tends to muddle the relationship between online activity and offline momentum, often reporting the former as if it has caused, not resulted from, the latter. This occurred during the 2008 election and continues today;
- You can’t take the numbers -- Facebook likes, blog traffic and Ning membership -- at face value.
I also agree with a point he has made in the past about money-ed organizations playing a role in Tea Party mobilization efforts, although I remind that they also did in supporting candidate Obama. Yet, neither of these points detract from the calculable rise of the conservative movement since the election of President Obama, made possible so quickly through the digital revolution.
If you truly believe that the Internet democratizes the process, you should have a level of appreciation for what is happening. An open democracy is one whereby all interested comers -- regardless of age, race or income -- may impact the process. You shouldn’t laud the virtue of more rank-and-file participation on one hand, and disparage it on the other.
That is unless you confine personal democracy to your own ideology. In that case, it’s just personal hypocrisy.