Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy
With fake news on Facebook, trolls on Twitter, and viral outrage everywhere, it's easy to believe that the internet changed politics entirely. In Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy, historian Claire Bond Potter reveals the real roots of today's dysfunction by situating online politics in a longer history of alternative political media. Soon after World War II, pioneers on the left and right began to develop alternative outlets that made politics more popular, and ultimately, more partisan. When campaign operatives took up e-mail, blogging, and social media in a new century, they supercharged those trends.
The following is drawn from Chapter 8, MYBARACKOBAMA, which looks behind the pioneering digital strategies of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.
The same passion that brought [veteran Democratic consultant David] Axelrod to Obama also drew a much younger, but equally successful, digital alternative media professional to the campaign. When 23 year-old Chris Hughes took leave from Facebook, the company he had cofounded with Mark Zuckerberg three years earlier, to work with the Obama campaign, he found that despite its eighteen million users, Axelrod and his seasoned operatives neither knew nor cared about the alternative media platform devoted to personal storytelling, friendship, and community building. And yet, everyone in Obama headquarters used digital tools nonstop. Speechwriter Ben Rhodes remembers the young digital natives on the campaign routinely "communicating by Instant Messenger even when we were sitting next to each other." However, Hughes was warned not to speak of Obama as a "Facebook candidate," and to instead say that he was an "organizer," like everyone else, because "the campaign and its energy were not about Facebook at all." Undaunted, Hughes spent his early weeks building a social network around the candidate, using all the digital tools available. Most crucially, he brokered the purchase of a popular MySpace page, MyBarackObama, that a supporter had built after Obama's 2004 convention keynote. It had already accrued 160,000 subscribers.
While they made an establishment campaign consultant like Axelrod nervous, he knew these techniques were the future. Netroots volunteers had ideas about how to "brand" their candidate and "sell" him to their peers, and they were not shy about sharing them with the campaign chiefs. Axelrod had interacted with these activists before when he ran Deval Patrick's 2006 campaign for Governor of Massachusetts. These "young insurgents, some of whom were refugees from Howard Dean's failed presidential bid . . . had glimpsed the potential of the Internet," Axelrod recalled, "and tech-savvy Massachusetts proved to be fertile ground for their new, expansive digital strategies."
Obama's 2008 victory would later be framed in terms of the campaign's mastery of digital alternative media channels, but its leadership, drawn from the political consulting establishment, was reluctant to give authority to progressive populists at the grassroots who might be difficult to control. The many successes of the Dean campaign, such as DeanLink and CivicSpace, built on the early popularity of social networking sites like Friendster and Facebook. But its failures—the high burn rate of campaign funds, overreliance on digital outreach, failure to cultivate mainstream media outlets, and supporters' often eccentric and unrestrained sense of humor—told a cautionary tale about progressive populism's potential for sending a campaign off the rails. Hughes struggled to persuade Axelrod and campaign manager David Plouffe that social media networks were made up of real people, a new generation of potential political junkies who influenced each other. Making good on Obama's promise that "this campaign is about you," Hughes argued, was more important than Axelrod's insistence that the campaign, not a network of digital volunteers, control the message. Initially rebuffed as "the crazy tech guys in the corner," Hughes and his team began to prove their point with results. By the end of the campaign, the MySpace platform Hughes bought had racked up 2 million friends. Supporters had "planned 200,000 offline events, formed 35,000 groups, posted 400,000 blogs, and raised $30 million on 70,000 personal fundraising pages."
While Obama did not seem to have to work hard to be liked by Democrats, despite her extensive digital outreach, Clinton was saddled with a perception that she was unlikable, stiff, and inauthentic. As cultural critic Susan Bordo reflected later, even Clinton's accomplishments were used against her. Her "polish and poise" were read as insincerity, her familiarity with a broad range of issues as ambition and opportunism. The liberal and feminist blogospheres split bitterly on this issue. Obama and Clinton partisans littered each other's blogs and supporters' social media with vicious comments. Bloggers at Daily Kos, journalist James Wolcott wrote, "faced off like the Jets and the Sharks," a reference to the 1957 Broadway play about gang rivalries, West Side Story.
Unquestionably, the Obama team owned YouTube, and that, too, became a vehicle for creating suspicion about Clinton as conspiracy theories circulating about her on conservative populist sites leaked into the Democratic primary. In March 2007, Obama supporter Philip de Vellis created a mash-up of the now-classic Apple "1984" ad. Now titled "Vote Different," it superimposed Clinton's campaign launch speech on the screen that had displayed Big Brother in the original version. Designed to emphasize Clinton's establishment credentials and association with a controlling federal government, by implication, it promoted Obama's antiestablishment, even revolutionary, potential. As Clinton spoke, the same torpid audience listened, but the hammer thrower wore a singlet with the Obama campaign logo. The final screen read: "On January 14th, the Democratic primary will begin. And you'll see why 2008 won't be like '1984.'" Like the earlier Macintosh ad, this video went viral. One media scholar, blogger, and confessed political junkie remained unsure about how such interventions would reshape the campaign, but admitted that he found "the underlying message of citizen empowerment" in the video "irresistible."
Clinton partisans continued to resent what they saw as mainstream and alternative media bias against their candidate. Indeed, the New York Times assigned newcomer Amy Chozick to Clinton, perhaps believing that her gender was more important than experience: Chozick had never covered a single political campaign and never fully connected with the candidate. Worse, as younger female voters migrated to Obama, some older progressive white women, whom Clinton had imagined to be her core constituency, cooled on her as well. In 2007, a multigenerational group of women writers, journalists, and academics agreed that Clinton was not resonating with them. Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary was a collection of essays published as the campaign was getting off the ground: in them, feminists agreed that Clinton did not meet the challenge of authenticity, which was "shaping up to be the buzzword of the 2008 campaign." Why was she simultaneously so well-known and so unknowable? they asked.
How had professional media women who had supported Clinton through the eight years of her husband's presidency and worn buttons that asked voters to "Elect Hillary's husband" come to dislike and distrust her? How did media women fail to identify with an establishment candidate whose life, successes, and challenges, in many ways, paralleled their own. One answer was that feminism was no longer a sufficient bridge between generations, nor did it speak to the growing partisan divide between establishment liberals and progressive populists in the Democratic Party. Novelist Lorrie Moore saw Clinton's public persona as "too often in pragmatic retreat, overmanaged, increasingly botoxed and schoolmarmish." Political journalist Jane Kramer, reflecting on the Cleavagegate controversy, wanted Clinton to be "a good, generous, and loving person and a steely, scary, effective person." According to novelist Lauren Collins, compared to Obama's direct online connection to voters, Clinton's budding social media presence was "frumpy," just an online version of her managed mainstream media image. Ignoring Obama's thin history as an elected official, Judith Thurman charged that Clinton had paid her political dues, but "not from her own account," running for Senate in a state "where she had no roots" (something that was far from unprecedented, particularly in New York). Some of the authors remarked that Clinton's feminism was simply outdated. "There's something about the reality of Hillary Clinton, the accommodations she's made and the roles she's played, that leaves many of us cold," grumbled Dahlia Lithwick of Slate.
At a moment when progressive populism was on the ascendant in the Democratic Party, Clinton's inability to persuade voters that as a woman, she, too, was an outsider to the establishment, was fatal to a national candidacy. By contrast, the Obama team, however reluctantly at first, successfully leveraged digital alternative media support to redefine the race as a generational contest and capture everyone outside the establishment, regardless of gender or race. The Democratic National Committee helped to push this narrative by reframing traditional political rituals. On July 23, 2007, the eight candidates in the race—Clinton, Obama, Joe Biden, Edwards, Christopher Dodd, Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich, and Bill Richardson—debuted in a debate broadcast on CNN and YouTube, where viewers were invited to send in their questions. The United States Department of State billed the event as a triumph of American political values, inspired and facilitated by the internet. "Politicians accustomed to controlling discussions saw people in T-shirts pose cheeky, incisive questions from all over the country and the world," one press release read. "One question came from an aid worker surrounded by children at a refugee camp in Darfur, Sudan." YouTube was becoming a primary destination for all populist political junkies that year. When they learned that Libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul was receiving more hits on YouTube there than any Democrat or Republican, the Republican National Committee quickly announced a YouTube debate for November.
Social media was now a routine tool for political campaigns and for the political establishment. Politicians used it not only to capture the grassroots zeitgeist but also to reach demographics beyond the youth vote, as older people increasingly adopted Facebook. And yet, although the internet was still cheap, it was also still a labor-intensive site for strategizing a campaign. Before turning over the Barack Obama MySpace page to the campaign, its creator had invested thousands of unpaid hours administering it. By March 2007, he sometimes spent his entire evening just approving friend requests. Perhaps this was why one marketing professor who reviewed the sites and apps being used by every campaign in 2007 found many of them hard to navigate, disconnected, and sometimes abandoned.
While maintaining control of their message, the Obama team found creative ways to keep the netroots occupied and energized, while generating content that had a fresh, antiestablishment look. Midway through the primary season, the campaign launched a contest that invited supporters to produce their own political commercials. Sponsored by MoveOn, the "Obama in 30 Seconds" contest was inspired by an earlier, far more divisive 2004 MoveOn contest, "Bush in 30 Seconds," in which political junkies had been invited to create attack ads. This time, makers were carefully instructed to create a positive message. Of course, both worked, since the secret to YouTube virality was to inspire emotion in viewers that caused them to want to view the video repeatedly and share it with others. Videos created by the grass roots were likely to meet that standard; carefully crafted and focus-group-tested videos generated by the Clinton campaign were not.
Organizations like MoveOn, Blue State Digital, and ActBlue, which emerged from the 2004 campaign with powerful email lists of progressive populists, played a game-changing role in 2008 as digital alternative media moved to center stage for fundraising and voter outreach. Well in advance of primary voting, MoveOn, now a political action committee, endorsed Obama, the first time it had ever explicitly supported a candidate. It was also a sign that the netroots alternative media apparatus was throwing its weight behind a challenge to the Democratic political establishment whose most influential, often invisible fundraisers and power brokers were used to picking the candidate they planned to support. MoveOn was now a fundraising and digital alternative media giant. Yet the organization still insisted on its grassroots identity, the importance of small-donation fundraising, and on acknowledging its constituency as collaborators from whom it solicited advice and ideas, not just money. By extension, Obama became the grassroots candidate, a brand that was, ironically, strengthened by his thin political experience.
Why not invite voters with no experience in campaign advertising to join the party? The MoveOn contest rules stated that the ads were not for profit and could not be copyrighted. Instead, the group encouraged the use of the Creative Commons license developed by Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig. Capitalizing on the cultural obsession with reality television contests, the crowd would vote to choose the finalists. The winners would be chosen by a jury of celebrity Democrats that included blogger Markos Moulitsas; progressive actors Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Adrian Grenier; feminist Naomi Wolf; and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. Running the contest allowed MoveOn to identify even more potential Obama supporters as they registered with the site to view the videos and choose their favorites, adding 5.5 million emails to their supporter list. Data collected during those visits also identified the digital profile, and physical location, of each participant. The winner, "Obamacan," featured John Weiler, an Air Force veteran and Republican crossover voter. It ended with a catchphrase that gestured to the growing political divisions between right and left that digital alternative media were accelerating: "Bringing America Together."
Excerpted from Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy by Claire Bond Potter. Copyright © 2020. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.