Politics & Policy


Popping the Left's Internet bubble.

Sounds like any one of a bajillion posts on a left-wing “netroots” website these days, right?

Wrong. It’s from 1998. And I cheated a little. I’ve doctored the quote. “Fascist” was originally “collective.” The activist website? The populist-conservative FreeRepublic.com.

The short history of the Internet is already long enough to repeat itself. In dog years, I’m 288, but in Internet years, I’m Methuselah. I was the founding editor of National Review Online in 1998 (and before that, I worked down the hall from this quirky Microsoft start-up called Slate).

Back in those days, when the Internet ran on a series of pneumatic tubes and hemp-rope pulleys, conservatives were patting themselves on the back for seizing the commanding heights of the digital frontier. The argument was that because the Liberal Industrial Complex maintained a stranglehold on the Old Media, conservatives had, with ninja-like stealth, mastered the fledgling forms: direct mail, talk radio, cable news, and, now, Al Gore’s newfangled invention, the Internet.

“There’s no question that conservatives have become much more sophisticated and much more aggressive in taking their message to the media, to radio talk shows, through the Internet, through faxes, through all kinds of activist groups and, in some cases, are directly broadcasting their message through conservative cable TV networks, for example,” explained Washington Post and CNN media critic Howard Kurtz in 1995. “The Democratic side doesn’t seem to have anything comparable in this realm.”

But news clips like that have yellowed like a dowager’s fingernails. Today, we’re constantly told not only that it’s liberals who have conquered the Internet but that it was their destiny to do so.

In May, the Washington Post suggested that conservatives are losing the battle for the web because of the very “nature of the Republican Party and its traditional discipline,” which is “the antithesis of the often chaotic, bottom-up, user-generated atmosphere of the Internet.”

More recently, Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign manager, described the web as “a medium that abhors command and control.” He continued: “Two guesses: Which party is really good at command and control? The Republican Party. Which isn’t? The Democratic Party.”

Translation: Progressives are better at the web because the web is all about hangin’ loose, letting your freak flag fly and stickin’ it to the Man, and that’s what freedom-loving liberals are all about. “Web 2.0,” we are told, is ushering in a “new politics” of participatory democracy and a new Progressive age.

Feh. “Web 2.0” is a nothing but a buzz phrase designed to make money for people who use phrases like “Web 2.0.” There’s no disputing that liberals have taken the lead on the Web in recent years. Sites such as Daily Kos and Moveon.org have become formidable clearinghouses for activism and fundraising. As a result, every Democratic presidential candidate kowtows to the netroots crowd. It’s also true that the Republican National Committee and conservative activists are playing catch-up.

But enough with the metaphysical mumbo jumbo about how the Web and liberalism were made for each other. The real story is much simpler: Liberalism is having a nice moment — largely because the Republican president and the Iraq war are very unpopular.

The energy is on liberalism’s side — and that translates into success in the digital world. Conservative media and FreeRepublic-style activists prospered in the Clinton 1990s because that’s when they were on offense. And it’s always more exciting — and easier — to be on offense. In the Bush years, it’s the other way around.

In 2000, John McCain was hailed as a genius for raising a lot of money on the web. Four years later, Howard Dean was a revolutionary for the same reason (before spectacularly losing the Democratic nomination). Today, Barack Obama is dazzling the pundits by raising huge amounts on the Web.

What do these campaigns have in common? Brilliant Web gurus and shiny Web 2.0 warp drives? No. The secret ingredient is exciting, popular candidates. Ask yourself: if Sen. Christopher Dodd appropriated Obama’s or Hillary Clinton’s Web operation, would we now be talking of the Dodd juggernaut?

Lastly, the netrooters claim that the Web is hostile to established power. They also claim that we’re on the cusp of some grand progressive era in which the differences between the U.S. and Canada will be some spellings and the use of “eh.” Well, if that turns out to be true (I doubt it), you can be sure that soon enough we’ll be talking about the Right’s dominance of the web. Again.

© 2007 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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