The Limits of Online Activism

Michael Barone has been watching and influencing politics for decades, and seems to be the rare pundit who is not in love with his own opinion. Barone talks today about the ways in which the 2012 campaign is different than those of the last 40 years. He is more or less correct in the three key differences that he finds, but more notable to me are the things that are the same.

Barone says the three rules changes for campaign strategists are:

  1. Money is no longer everything
  2. Personal campaigning is less important
  3. Social conservatives are not the driving force

But it’s still early, and the people paying the most attention are those who always pay attention. The wide swings in the polls show that not only are people unsure whom to support, but that support is thin for most voters and most candidates.

Increasingly, political activists and opinion leaders are in essentially constant contact with one another. We watch debates with one eye on the television and the other on Twitter or a chat session presented on our favorite blog. As Barone says:

Behind all these apparent changes in the rules of the game has been the increasing importance of new media, which makes political communication cheaper, more plentiful (for those who are interested) and harder to control.

But the assumption that new media’s influence with activists will translate into influence with the less politically interested public is a weak one.  More and more people are taking to the Internet to connect with friends, communicate for work and for their many and varied interests. For us, that includes politics. For many, it simply does not.

People use the Internet to search out and locate their own interests, but those interests are not based on geography. Elections, however, are. As long as we base elections on geography and not on individual issues, it will still be necessary to reach out to people geographically.

The old gatekeepers — local politicos, TV news and newspapers — are increasingly bypassed. It’s a more polarized politics, but also one that is more democratic and more open.

The local politicos have been bypassed, it’s true, but that’s primarily because they’ve quit trying, not because of anything structural getting in their way. The basic structure of state, county, municipal, and precinct division still exists.

The problem, as many readers will know, is that of the approximately 400,000 precincts in the U.S., only about 200,000 are filled (in either major party). If you are a Republican, do you know who your Precinct Committeeman is? Have they contacted you and asked you to vote yet this year?

The party structure is of singular importance in who wins an election.  It is the one tool conservatives can use to defeat the left, with their ownership of the media, unions, and the cadres of energetic youth. Yet, we let it gather dust, a curious relic of a bygone era.

Conservatives and small-government activists must enter the Republican Party by becoming Precinct Committeemen where they live. Take care of your own back yard. It’s not a job for people in a far off city, it’s a job for you. You will talk to your neighbors, enlist their help, and burn away the laziness that has infected our national politics.

Because as long as we elect people to represent the place where they live, we will have to elect them by going there.