The Health Care Debate, Tea Party & Libertarian Splits, and the 2010 Elections

Doug Pinkham, president for the Public Affairs Council has a new post up at the Public Affairs Perspective blog (emphasis mine):

Grassroots campaigns to protect rainforests, oppose gun laws or fund AIDS research have become commonplace. So have campaigns to expand U.S. manufacturing, reform immigration laws or rewrite financial industry regulations. These campaigns, and thousands like them, have grown increasingly sophisticated; they go way beyond calls-to-action encouraging supporters to send an email or call a congressional office.

They often involve Facebook sites, blog postings, issue advertising, media outreach, town hall meetings, YouTube videos, online petitions, rallies, issue forums and a host of other tactics. Some are organized by advocacy groups, associations, unions or companies; others are organized purely by volunteers.

In terms of grassroots strategy, the healthcare debate fell into the category marked "all of the above." As the Washington Post noted in February, everyone from the National Right to Life Committee to MoveOn.org to PhRMA to AARP to health insurance companies got into the act. (For those who want a peek inside one such campaign, the Columbia Journalism Review deconstructed WellPoint's sophisticated Health Action Network in its March 22 "Campaign Desk" column.)

It's easy to dismiss these efforts as special interests unfairly exerting their influence on the political process. The reality is that people are joining groups they trust to help them speak with a louder voice.

Pinkham seems to be suggesting that the keys to 21st century advocacy are a) build trust, and b) make noise. But before anyone rushes off to register for 10 new platforms a day, they should check out Jon Henke's post over at the CRAFTdc blog earlier this year on the diversification of a campaign's social media portfolio:

If you don’t have a specific purpose for using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or a blog...then don’t use them.

Which gets us back to the subject of this post.  CRAFT sells communications strategy, tactics and execution across all channels.  So, when the question, “Should we have a Facebook Fan Page?” came up for discussion, there were two lines of thought:

  • We don’t currently have a strategic or tactical need to create and maintain a Facebook Fan Page for CRAFT.
  • How can CRAFT sell something that we don’t use for CRAFT?  Shouldn’t we eat our own dog food?

My own conclusion was this: If we do not have a strategic or tactical need to create and maintain a Facebook Fan Page, then we should not have one.  When we decide a Facebook presence is justified, we will create one.  Until then, not using a tool we don’t have a specific purpose to use is eating our own dog food.

Henke is right. Campaigns' uses of social media should be context-sensitive, just like approaches to cyber security should be risk-based. How, then, is Pinkham's post instructive? He continues (again, emphasis mine):

Eighty-four percent of those who contacted Congress in the 2008 CMF survey were asked to do so by a third party, such as an interest group. What's more, respondents - whether they had contacted Congress or not - found information from interest groups to be more credible than information from Congress.

Yes, that's surprising, but it says something important about the inability of Washington politicians to cope with the rise in citizen engagement. Many politicians call sympathetic grassroots campaigns "unprecedented outpourings of support" while dismissing campaigns organized by opponents as "Astroturf." They condemn the influence of some special interests, while encouraging other groups to ramp up letter-writing efforts to provide "cover" for controversial votes.

Worst of all, many refuse to acknowledge that high levels of engagement are a good thing in a democracy. The CMF study pointed out that congressional offices are understaffed, under-funded and often lack the technology or training to respond effectively to constituents.

These are pretty staggering precentages that are difficult to ignore, and when taken with resource issues in Congressional offices (which are every bit as stringent on the campaign trail), it's no surprise that both parties rely so heavily on leveraging interest group support. Acknowledging the utility of interest groups could prove catastrophic to the Right, if not altogether suicidal, especially when populism is surging like nothing we've seen in 50 years.

On the other hand, candidates and causes on the Right can try to capture some of the utility provided by interest groups to voters and brand it. Pinkham concludes:

...Congress should assure constituents that their opinions matter and invite them to become more engaged in policy-making.  When members take positions on energy legislation, they can contact citizens who weigh in on climate change issues. People who complain about high taxes should receive updates on efforts to cut federal spending. In short, grassroots communications should signal the need for dialogue, not the need to build a stronger fence around the border.

This is why I haven't (and can't) come out swinging at platforms like YouCut (which Doug Mataconis at Below the Beltway thinks is nothing more than a gimmick) or AmericaSpeakingOut.com (which Jon Henke thinks is crowding the Internet). Party leadership should have branded tools that aren't tied to campaigns. Republicans are poised to take back control of Congress from the Democrats this November. But they will suffer a fate like November 2008 without a policy agenda - without becoming an alternative party rather than being an opposition party.

YouCut and America Speaking Out are fantastic ways for the Right to leverage the utility of interest groups - collecting and collating voter preferences, while empowering them to participate (building trust and making noise) - and they couldn't really be more timely in their advent, coming right at the launch of primary season. These tools might be the first real online method of voter outreach that channels both libertarian policy preferences and Tea Party activism into a substantive national policy platform for Republicans. What once was diffuse, diverse, and disorganized has now become clear, centralized, and convenient - and Republicans shouldn't be shy about reaching out to the little guy.

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