You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Chains
Matt shot back "And we who despair march on…" in a comment in my last post, presumably in response to my concluding line, "I think we cut loose."
I just wanted to make sure he (and you, reader) didn't misconstrue the last sentence of my last blog entry re: cutting loose. What I'm suggesting isn't anything opposed to soldering on. I ain't dropping out of this thing (though I do need to find a better way to make it work for me), and I'm not suggesting anyone else drop out either.
What I'm suggesting is that the blogosphere's adherence to the mainstream political dialogue does not serve the presumably laudable goal of maximizing its political impact. Yes, there is an enormous gravity to be resisted, which is really hard especially now, and even then it's not as though we can ignore what the chattering classes discuss. However, the increasing narrowness of coverage -- the tightening in the blogs -- is a bad trend for the future.
Where Are We/Where Do We Want To Be?
Blogs are an order of magnitude away from challenging Big Media on politics in terms of viewership -- it'll take a bunch more good writers and about four years of steady growth to do that -- but the great hope is that we'll create communities which involve vast numbers of new people in the process, thereby providing the best medicine for our sick-ass democracy: more democracy. From a slightly cynical (but pragmatic) point of view this boils down to new money, new voters, and new candidates, though the idealistic holy grails of new conversations and new ideas are tantilizingly near on the horizon.
But whatever. Everyone knows we've got fundraising down. The real proof of that, by the way, is Kucinich, who used net-driven donations and community fundraising to keep his campaign rolling to the last. Expect more of that type of thing -- seemingly hopeless candidates who refuse to die -- in the future. The first elements of proof for new voters is in next month's turnout pudding, but those numbers will be a tangled pile to unravel. And for the rest, well... we'll see.
The point is that we raised all the money in the world and nothing changed. For the net to substantively effect the mainstream political dialogue and system, we've got to start delivering candidates, or at a minimum deliver a significant number of voters to existing candidates who cannot be delivered through other forms.
That requires us to abandon this monolithic conventional wisdom. Why? Because it sucks. It's not the truth, and it's not even interesting most of the time. To be blunt, it's so damn bad that not enough people are willing to pay attention to it to serve our purposes. Politics as it stands today only appeals to 50% of the population, though really it's more more like "appealing" to 15% who then "drag" the other 35 along with them. The political utility of blogs (and other emerging forms of communication) comes down to augmenting those numbers. We'll never do that if we're just another vector for the same old shit.
How Can We Make It Different
Dean was able to rise high in the polls, if not the results, by abandoning the conventional wisdom. He put his campaign on the map by breaking out of a spectacularly constricted moment of groupthink with "what I wanna know," and surged his way to the top of the pack by allowing his message and campaign to become decentralized and networked with "you have the power." What spurred Dean's rise wasn't the media coverage. Though media exposure helped him gain name recognition -- the proverbial foot in the door -- he never looked great on TV and his ads were pretty weak. What sold Dean was two things: he behaved as if he didn't give a flying fuck about the conventional wisdom, and he was asking people to do more than just vote for him.
The trick was he really didn't care about mainstream media coverage. He didn't pay respect and he gave them plenty of ammo, and the gang of 500 burned him down. But the theory is still sound. You let people out there re-tool your central ideas and themes -- the message hardware, if you will -- and use their own language, images and social capital -- the software -- to sell your candidacy. I have the graph of how this works visualized in my head. It's a network. A good 21st century campaign message (just like a good 21st century field operation) is a network, and in order to build that kind of network, in order to widen that circle of participation and take advantage of Reed's law and all that good shit, you have to release yourself from the chains of old media groupthink.
To me -- and I have this freedom because of who I work for, yes -- the time to jump ship is now. I'm fighting for participation because I believe if we outsiders grit our teeth and demand a place at the table, that will get more accomplished than walking away from a fucked up situation. But playing along with the 24-hour-cable bullshit isn't going to help me motivate my peers to vote. I look at my job as creating political message and the tools to disseminate that message which will inspire my generation to get involved and vote in spite of Kerry and all his long-faced somnambulance. Fuck the polls and fuck the conventional wisdom; cut to the heart of what matters and make your own case for doing what you're going to do regardless of what the party or candidate's message is.
We've got to keep it real, homie. If we fake the funk we're going to end up flunkies of the same broken system we set out to fix. Communities of inquiry dig? That's the John Dewey dream. The time is ripe to start making it a reality.
We've Nothing To Lose But Our Chains
Look at it this way: if you're a blogger, what's at stake in the next 30 days if you break out of the conventional wisdom? Perhaps some portion of your readership should you take off in a direction they find displeasing. But if you're good and you write well and the direction you head is honest, you won't lose them. And there's everything to be gained if you break out and stike gold.
There's value in rapid response, and there's value in topical commentary, but those things need not make us slaves to the mainstream. My reasons for participating and my reasons for voting are somewhat different -- and I'll express them very differently -- than the appeals that any present-day campaign or party will make for itself. And you know what? Not surprisingly, I think my reasons are probably much more persuasive to my audience than the campaign's or party's.
I probably have 500 people who will listen to what I post here, and at most 10x that number if I push an idea through Music for America. The value-add is what I'm going to push in the next month is going to be my own brand of politics, and this brand is known and liked by a community of people who don't dig the conventional wisdom. Some of the people who read my stuff might decide to get involved because I said it in a way that no one else did. That's proof this can work.
The system still comes down to people, to votes, and we still own it like that. That we've been conned into playing along with the equivalent of sock-puppet theater as a national debate is an unfortunate accident of history, and one that I believe we can correct.