The Dean Campaign, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Nothing

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This is classic political pitch-man territory; the message is “give us the money, we’ll give you change.” The Internet and political contribution sites are just a bigger and better means of passing around the collection hat.

Joe Lockard

The job description of ‘virtual community developer’ almost died during mass layoffs of the Dot Com bust, but Joe Trippi re-invented it as Howard Dean’s campaign manager. His book The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything is a combined presidential campaign history, Internet social philosophy treatise, political autobiography, and job performance self-evaluation. Trippi may not have been able to overcome the forces that limited Howard Dean but he emerges with what he imagines as the next-best prize: the key to empowering individual citizens via the Internet.

Here it is: “Now twenty-dollar checks from regular Americans can be bundled just like George W. Bush’s two thousand-dollar checks. Now Americans stand a real chance against those 631 multimillionaires and billionaires who have been running the country. Now the power is back in our hands.” And if you did not get it the first time, Trippi repeats himself continually: “A hundred bucks from two million Americans. That’s all it will take to send George W. Bush packing. To return America to the principles it was founded on.” At twenty or a hundred bucks apiece the price of America’s salvation is now dirt-cheap and affordable, so hop on your browser and race down to the donation website.

This is classic political pitch-man territory; the message is “give us the money, we’ll give you change.” The Internet and political contribution sites are just a bigger and better means of passing around the collection hat. While it is a pleasant thought to imagine that two hundred million dollars — or, say, less than half the cost of a new university laboratory building — would doom George W. Bush, send the political forces he represents into the wilderness, and create fundamental systemic change in US politics, the super-low shoppers-special price on a new government should send us into reverse sticker shock. Even the Orange Revolution in the impoverished Ukraine cost US taxpayers an estimated $65 million in NGO assistance monies (Associated Press, December 11, 2004), and likely at least double that in covert costs. Moreover, why should we want to return America to the principles it was founded upon? The United States can and already has done much better than those principles, which limited democratic citizenship by class, race and gender to propertied white males.

But that is the job of a good virtual community developer, to ramp up social histrionics, rhetorical hyperbole, and unrealizable promises to the point where the public is eager to buy an intangible product. Not so strangely, those same characteristics also provide a job description for too many politicians in the contemporary United States.

Selling Online Community

Joe Trippi knows this politics-technology cross-over work well. Having emerged from the Silicon Valley in its early days in the 1970s, he wonders what his life might have been if he remained on the technological tidal wave then building. In telling language, he remembers a college friend at San Jose State who together with a couple friends began building a computerized market:

“The little community they built, eBay, now has about forty-five million registered users. This year they will buy and sell $52 billion worth of Pez dispensers, baseball cards, sewing patterns, and whatever else strikes their fancy. But eBay is more than a multibillion dollar business; it is a community, a city of people broken into neighborhoods by hobby and interest and commerce, a community of people who, if they banded together, could rise up, and in a single day change the world all by themselves.”

The term “registered voters” could almost substitute here for “registered users” in order to describe a national community that could be mobilized to support a political revolution. Trippi presents a pure example of rhetorical substitution of the phrase “community” from electronic to political contexts. What happens at eBay lies in the creation of a largely-anonymous global electronic marketplace and exchange-floor, not the formation of an inhabitable physical community where local social decision-making takes effect. Yet Trippi and many others similarly infatuated with technology treat the two phenomena as identical. By doing so they make a fundamental political mistake in substituting global immateriality for local materiality, for in the much-quoted phrase of former House speaker Tip O’Neill, “All politics are local politics.”

Cover image of Joe Trippi's 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised'Trippi’s political career conditions him to make such a substitution. In 1981 he went into debt to purchase a DEC PDP-11 for $17,000 and leased it to the Tom Bradley gubernatorial campaign where he was working on one of his early campaigns. He continually watched the effects of technology on campaign work. By 1992, working the presidential primaries for Doug Wilder, he watched Jerry Brown make effective use of an 800 number for campaign contributions. Finding the political killer ap of joining together computers and fund-raising awaited the take-off of the Internet.

The ideology that Trippi needs to make the connection lies in a realm of technological belief. It is not sufficient to believe in the present technology; one must also believe in the future of technology as a medium for political expression. He confesses himself short or dismissive of those who do not “see the impacts that the Internet and other technology are already having on our lives.” He continues, importantly,

“There has always been a disconnect in America between those people who look at a computer screen and see what is, and those people who look at the same screen and see what’s going to be, between those people who know the world is changing profoundly before our eyes and those people who – for one reason or another – just don’t get it.”

For Trippi this is an evangelistic moment of opportunity, when he can announce that he did get it and other citizens should arrive at similar conversionary conclusions about the nature and effect of technology in the US public sphere. This is a dividing point of salvation, where the citizenry can be divided between those who embrace technology and realize its benefits, and those unbelievers who lack that faith necessary to envision a future that will inevitably arrive. The possibility of a moderated position that appreciates both advantages and disadvantages does not arise here, nor does an understanding that communications technology may alter expression of social relations but not substantively revolutionize them. Rather, an insistence that one must believe in technology in order to understand betrays another secular faith: where once class conflict would function as the great leveler, now it will be technological revolution. For Trippi and other techno-triumphalists, skepticism is not an alternative (nor an income).

After the announcement of the death of a well-known young day trader on the bulletin boards of the THQ gaming technology company, Trippi writes of this tragic loss in much the same terms as Howard Rheingold did much earlier in his formative 1993 book The Virtual Community (see 'The Heart of the Well' chapter). Watching the condolence messages being posted on the board, Trippi writes “This was a rich, fully realized community, a world of real people interacting with each other, sharing their kids’ first steps and crying on each other’s shoulders when they lost someone they cared about, someone most of us had never met.”

Since the critique needs to be reiterated, this is not a community: it is an exchange of communications, and communication is only one of the attributes of community. Emotional exchange happens through many media and the fact that such exchange undeniably exists via the Internet does not establish its claim on community. For Joe Trippi and others of his techno-political class, however, emotional investment in online communities is a basic requirement before online communities can be assembled into the Online Nation. That same emotional charge both helped power the Dean for President campaign and specified its weakness. Just as communications are not the whole of community, neither are emotions the whole of political force.

‘You Don’t Get It’ Techno-Triumphalism

The “you don’t get it” intolerance of techno-triumphalists originates heavily within this experience of online emotional exchange. If challenged on their definition of community, they frequently fall back on recitation of their own emotional experience of community and manifest great unhappiness that such questions could even be asked. To question the terms of that experience of immaterial “community” locates the questioner as outside the “we get it” ranks. It was precisely such a priori acceptances of terminology, circuitous logic, and self-referential forms of argumentative proof that Karl Popper challenged in his critiques of Marxist-Leninist philosophical analysis and Freudianism. But “community” is a saleable item and accurate descriptors of the Internet and its social phenomena would not suit online sellers who need a warm, inviting description for their sales pitch.

And salesman he became. Trippi reports finding the computer skills of the early Dean campaign at a near-negligible level; much of the book concerns how he shaped and directed the Internet presence of the campaign despite a self-designated “technophobe” candidate (although this seems a misnomer, since a physician almost by definition cannot be technophobic). To make an effective transit into material communities, the necessary condition for realizing political functionality, Trippi employed to gather the initially meager numbers of Dean supporters amid crowds of online vampires, Goths, and witches. Blog for America, undoubtedly the leading blogsite of the presidential campaign, began functioning.

As he tells of Dean blogs and the proliferating Internet campaign, Trippi sounds like the wildly impassioned love-child of Wired magazine and Subcommandante Marcos. Referring to RSS technology he writes “This is the kind of technology that could revolutionize everything, harnessing the power of the Net.” But quickly enough RSS feeds will be last year’s hay and another transformational technology will have replaced it. A revolution based on this year’s software is an exceedingly shallow notion of revolution. Trippi indulges this excited voice constantly, but it echoes with classic refrains of progressivism that stops at the denunciation of elites and goes no further. “The Internet is tailor-made for a populist, insurgent movement,” he writes, “The establishment loathes what it can’t control. This independence is by design, and the Internet community values above almost anything the distance it has from the slow, homogenous stream of American commerce and culture.” This is very much the voice of US-style populism, identifiable since at least the days of Jacksonian-era mobs, claiming that the masses refuse control, that elites attempt to assert such control, and that a manifest popular mind understands and exhibits an inherent democratic spirit.

No one remotely familiar with the Internet underestimated its communicative power by the first years of the twenty-first century, but Trippi still employs shop-worn “they didn’t believe, now they do” rhetoric of record sales accomplishment in behalf of Howard Dean. Tellingly, Trippi invests the Internet itself with animated purpose, describing it as a meta-mind that identified and grew the Dean campaign without the agency of human will. What the experts underestimated, he states, “was the Internet’s ability to grow rapidly, virally, to create a movement. What they never understood was that we were not using the Internet. It was using us.” He locates an immanent animation within the inanimate circuitry and processors that constitute the Internet; it is an unspecific force that produces a new, interconnected political life. Just as the market has been mystified commonly as a self-inventing mode of value production beyond effective human control, in this account so too the Internet-as-social-market creates a political economy beyond controllability.

And yet that mystification finds bald contradiction in the fact that Trippi and every other Internet-based political consultant makes a living from their ability to generate online buzz and excitement that can translate into financial support and votes. If there is no specific and identifiable human political agency, only rapid viral growth generated by the Internet itself, then somebody is being grossly over-paid. De-mystification of this electronic political agency is an important point because democratic practice lies in individual participation, collective organization, and their communicative mediation, not a confused belief that the Internet generates its own mass politics.

Like most contemporary technologies, the Internet embodies an encounter between capital and labor. An organic mystification of that relationship (e.g. ‘the hidden hand of the market’) has been an historic feature of social discussions that attempt to merge labor with capital falsely or discount labor entirely. Too many discussions of Internet culture rely on similar obfuscations of labor and commodity production, and it is precisely these vaporous fogs that need dispelling by focusing on the role of labor. The Internet is the work of labor far more than capital, and Internet-conscious politics need to make this clear. A political campaign provides a special case of Internet labor, since it relies on the mobilization of vastly more voluntary than paid labor and Internet-based campaigning provides a more effective means of mobilization. That is a form of voluntary labor mobilization that can be optimized through ‘online communities’ that share common ideological and practical political commitments. Yet these remain mythical communities that disappear as the elections and their labor mobilizations end.

In US society such mystifications have been accompanied by a simultaneous process of substitution between commodity production and political work, fueled by prevalent belief that greater consumption represents greater empowerment. The successful commodity itself promises consumer empowerment. In this political economy, described so brilliantly by Joe McGinness in The Selling of the President (1969), selling beer and presidents require the same techniques. The Madison Avenue top-down television marketing techniques of the 1968 Nixon campaign have evolved into the distributed, chaotic, and participatory networks employed by the Dean campaign, but selling presidents via the Internet is only the newest technological elaboration of a basic premise that presidents need to be sold. It is a challenge to that premise that will create a real democratic revolution.

Joe Trippi, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything (HarperCollins, 2004)

Joe Lockard is assistant professor of English at Arizona State University. He voted for Howard Dean.

Copyright © 2005 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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