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November 8, 2003

Politics in a Different Key

There's something happening here and you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Rove?... Mr. Rove?

Chris Lydon has posted a fiery manifesto about the neglected story in the presidential campaign: the “subversion of a discredited game” by new laws of the Internet, where every reader is a writer, every voter a possible sender of news, every volunteer a budding campaign strategist, every Net surfer a potential source of funds.

Lydon is in tune with these facts, which are evident in some places (Dean, Clark, Edwards) but not others. He’s building a superb audio archive of his conversations with thinkers who are active in the new “open style” of politics. He sees—and so do I—a small counter-establishment forming, people from outside politics with ideas about it, getting inside and using what they know to start turning it outward, toward the Net, and its many-to-many rules, and from there into people’s real lives. And so new patterns in politics and media are forming in open rebuke of the “game” and its players.

The game is called Get Elected. All parties play (all who usually get elected.) It is overseen by a class of professionals who are supposed to know: how do you actually get elected in this country? They don’t elect anybody, this class. No. That’s strictly for you, Q. Citizen. You go to the polls, and determine their fate. They only run—and explain—the permanent campaign.

But they do control knowledge of how the game is won. If you’re a billionaire, if you are housewife, if you want to be in it—the winning side of politics—then it is said you must deal with their game knowledge because it is tested and refined, it is cold and factual, it is grimly realistic but then it is also shown to work, year after year, race after race. Raise the money. Watch the polls. Do your opposition research. Plot your moves. Hone your message. Stay on message. Buy your ads. Play the press. Get ready to go negative. Deny that you’ll go negative. Repeat.

It is the K Street politics of the savvy class. Its members are the insiders. They are the pros. They are the pundits, handlers and funders, vultures and parrots who run and staff the campaign story, which is above all the inside story of how you get elected in this country. Its outstanding feature, Joan Didion wrote, is “remoteness from the actual life of the country.” They are the people of this remoteness. The people of the campaign bus, the war room, the press lounge. They surround the campaign, travel with it, come under its employ. They create the public narrative of politics, which is about the candidates but controlled by the pros.

Some live off politics, some live for it— but they are all in and out of the same hotels. The pros are realistic. Their job is to understand how things really work. But then they also tell you they understand because their class includes people who bring us news of politics, and talk on television about it. When Lydon writes about “a drastic subversion of a discredited game,” he means the whole game of Get Elected, starring the savvy class in ten different professions. And if there is anyone who is the big winner in that game right now it is Karl Rove, savviest of all, wizard to the White House, which is still winning big.

Teddy White was the first to write about the inside game, Timothy Crouse the first to show that it incorporated the press. Lydon told me he was a character in Crouse’s classic, The Boys on the Bus, which is about the traveling press corps during the 1972 campaign. So I looked him up. On page 68 Crouse notes that many of the reporters covering George McGovern began to identify with his cause, in that they wanted him to be taken seriously by the pros.

For instance, Christopher Lydon, a thirty-three year old New York Times reporter covering his first presidential campaign, began to feel as early as January that McGovern had a chance to make a strong showing. Lydon rapidly became so enthusiastic about McGovern that Robert Phelps, the Times’ political editor, felt obliged to remind him not to “write from the heart.” [He was eventually bumped from the McGovern bus and had to cover Hubert Humphrey. McGovern won the Democratic nomination in 1972 and lost to Richard Nixon… JR]

I have my own symbol of things changing in politics: my nephew, Zack Rosen. A few months ago he was preparing to return to the University of Illinois, where he was majoring in geek. Now he’s a key person in the Dean campaign, one of the brains behind DeanSpace, which is where geeks go to join in “coding the tools we think will help define the future of political and civic participation.”

Shaken out of their cynicism by a random encounter with a candidate, young people have been joining political campaigns for a long time. My nephew is no different: Dean inspired him, he got involved. It’s what he got involved in that’s strange and new and potentially de-stabilizing for the game of Get Elected. The Dean campaign hired Zack because he had programming ideas for how people could get into the game and share knowledge outside the normal orbit of presidential politics. He had the basic idea himself, then “pitched” it into the In Box at Dean headquarters. The answer came back: we like it, move to Burlington. Now people like Chris Lydon, sensing something radical in train, trek up to Burlington to see Zack because they’re interested in what he’s doing with DeanSpace:

While new “for Dean” web sites come onto the net every day, their ability to share information is, at best, hit or miss…. Disjointed and disorganized, the current online grassroots campaign functions like any old twentieth century grapevine. It could be so much more. We have found a way to harness the passion that has given birth to this insurgent campaign, to empower it with tools that match the intensity of its convictions—a way to answer the all-too-frequent question: “What now?”

Tools that match the intensity of convictions. Christopher Lydon, New York Times reporter at 33, discovered that the New York Times was not going to be one of those tools. In a way, he’s been looking around ever since. Now in his 60s, he found inspiration in the “open style,” which I would call politics in a different key. It’s not in charge, this new politics; it’s just different because it can handle high participation. It has a bottom up energy that the top down people are still figuring out. It has tools that match its convictions. And it has a grave to stomp on: one-to-many man is dead. Read what Didion says on why he deserves to die:

It was clear for example in 1988 that the political process had already become perilously remote from the electorate it was meant to represent. It was also clear in 1988 that the decision of the two major parties to obscure any possible perceived distinction between themselves, and by so doing to narrow the contested ground to a handful of selected “target” voters, had already imposed considerable strain on the basic principle of the democratic exercise, that of assuring the nation’s citizens a voice in its affairs. It was also clear in 1988 that the rhetorical manipulation of resentment and anger designed to attract these target voters had reduced the nation’s political dialogue to a level so dispiritingly low that its highest expression had come to be a pernicious nostalgia. Perhaps most strikingly of all, it was clear in 1988 that those inside the process had congealed into a permanent political class, the defining characteristic of which was its readiness to abandon those not inside the process.

Miles Rapoport—former Secretary of State of Connecticut, now the head of Demos—used to tell me the story of a woman who decided, apparently out of the blue, that she wanted to volunteer for the Democratic Party in her state. “Only she couldn’t find it,” Miles would say. People who knew Connecticut politics directed her to candidates looking for volunteers. But she did not want to work for a candidate; she wanted to do something for the state party.

Ah, said the people who know politics, then you can send money, here’s the address. No, the woman replied, I don’t want to send money, I want to send myself. Can you tell me where to go? Of course, no one could. She wanted to join the party and do something, (and she assumed the state party did things that involved people like her) but she couldn’t find it. No one could tell her where it was. Which raised the question: did it really exist for citizens, or was it just a drop box for checks? Of course there’s a state party in Connecticut, insiders would say, but point of entry is not their problem and it is not their point of view.

Here we come to the dark side of the game, Get Elected— and the thing that should have discredited it many years ago. Points of entry. The fewer people in the game—and that includes voters—the better it is for the career players. That’s how Get Elected works. As a model, it predicts best when participation is low and public attention slight. It’s simple: low involvement means fewer variables, which means the wizards have a chance of looking like wizards.

Political consulting, now a glamour position in the savvy class, emerged in California in the 1950s because California had lots of unattached voters, newly settled in the state, with no roots or loyalties, likely to move around a lot. Parties couldn’t reach these nomads but one-way television could. These were the voters most manueverable by a media strategy, and the first media consultants had to show they were capable of doing that: moving enough votes to justify giving them more control. Low information voters are generally understood to be up for grabs, which is the kind of condition media wizards like. (See Stanley Kelley, Jr. Professional Public Relations and Political Power. Johns Hopkins, 1956.)

Why should anyone be a lower information voter? That’s dumb and arrogant of you. So says Zack. This is where his roots and loyalty are: tapping the Net to make active participants out of the former spectators to politics, the people once known as the audience. Action is what causes people to seek information. So says Zack and he works for Dean and Dean leads the Democratic race, for now. Chris Lydon, a former insider himself, is stomping on the same grave: one-to-many man, he hopes, is dead. Now being born: “a wide open public space in which the closed cronyism of both parties must surely be undone, maybe soon.”

Now we have to find that woman in Connecticut.

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 8, 2003 11:39 AM