Flickr photo by Mike Bryant
Lost in the hubbub about the tea parties, the health care town hall protests, Joe Wilson, and the ACORN sting is the outcome of a long-simmering meta debate about the vibrancy of the grassroots right and its capacity to organize online. Along with a slew of other bad political indicators, the perception that the GOP might be stuck in a permanent Luddite rut reached its peak with the election of Obama and the role the Internet played in his victory.
Nearly a year later, not only have things turned around, but they've done so faster than anyone could have dreamed or imagined in those post-election doldrums.
First, hundreds of thousands of people showed up, flash mob-like, at Tea Parties not even three months after Obama Nation reached its apogee with the inauguration. The left was caught flat-footed and stammered that it must have been the creation of Fox News, although Fox News existed in the latter Bush years and during the McCain interlude and was unable to conjure up a similar display of enthusiasm in that period.
In August, the rightroots gained further velocity with the health care protests. This was significant in that it was the first head to head match with OFA and the unions, and it was no contest.
The third key moment came when Joe Wilson was able to raise as much (if not more) money than his Democratic opponent after the "You lie!" outburst. The left's immediate rallying around Rob Miller was a textbook netroots play, aided by ready-made infrastructure (an ActBlue page ready to accept contributions without crashing and display real-time feedback). For a Republican -- especially one deemed to be on the "wrong" side of a PR war -- to have been competitive in money raised with a netroots Democrat is something that simply would not have happened in the Bush years. This is especially striking given that Markos, Stoller, Bowers et al. made money raised for candidates the sine qua non of the netroots, an outgrowth of the left's 1970s era obsession with countering "big money" in politics.
Finally, the O'Keefe/Giles video bust of ACORN -- the right's biggest media coup since Rathergate -- showed the right to be getting its sea legs in investigative journalism, a space virtually patented by the left in recent years.
What we seem to be witnessing is the Feiler Faster Thesis in action, with a robust grassroots opposition to Obama, aided by the Internet, taking shape far more quickly than anyone could have predicted, and comparatively speaking, in a far more timely fashion than it took the left to gets its act together against Bush.
(The big asterisk in that comparison with the Bush years is 9/11 and the wars, but looking back to August and early September 2001, the Democratic opposition to Bush was weak and defined largely by spineless Washington pols like Tom Daschle rather than a sea of grassroots protest, which became apparent only later when the Internet became a viable organizing vehicle.)
So, the fear that Republicans would be disorganized for months if not years after Obama taking office has proven to be unfounded. The right's rise online (and offline too) has been a pretty automatic reaction to Democratic hegemony in Washington, disproving the notion that there is anything intrinsic to the right or the left driving the use of specific tools. And wrapping this up in a neat little bow, the political environment turns out to be the decisive factor in how emphatically people use the technology, not the other way around.
Understandably, not all of this has been online. Talk radio, and yes, cable news, still plays a role, particularly in the critical task of driving calls to member offices. As I noted on Twitter in August,
For all the talk about lefty activism recently, it seems the right has an institutional advantage in contacting Congress... on every issue
From immigration to health care, most of the time you hear about a lopsided disparity with one side shutting down phone lines on Capitol Hill, it's conservatives doing it. While the political climate may dictate how effectively the tools get used, the right and left still have a tendency to focus on different things, with the right jumpstarting its movement in recent months with legislative advocacy and moving bodies to events, and while the left first built the netroots around raising money for candidates.
As a skeptic of the hegemony of money in campaigns and a believer in shoeleather organizing, it's not surprising to me that a newly resurgent right has made such an explosive impact on the national debate in the last two months. All the folks who wondered for five years where our response to the netroots was now have their answer.