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The Tea Party, Technological Change, and the Future of Progressives in the Democratic Party

This is a guest post from Delaware blog friend and former Libertarian candidate Steve Newton.

I have argued for years that if Liberals/Progressives in the Democratic Party want to fight the corporatist wing of the party for dominance, they have to employ a model not too far from that used by the Tea Party in fragmenting and then dominating the GOP.

But reading Thomas Friedman’s new book, “Thank you for being late,” has presented me with a new way of thinking about the rise of the Tea Party, and while I am not through digesting the implications entirely, I think it is too good not to share.

First, note when the Tea Party really came into existence. Ron Paul places the real birth of the movement in December 2007, and while different authorities differ (some “Tea Party” tax protests go several years further back) on exact dates, Paul’s has the advantage of capturing the first major fundraising event by a loose national association of groups. Most dates for the beginning of the Tea Party movement as a serious infiltration of the GOP run between late 2007-early 2009.

Hold that thought.

Friedman, in the early part of his book, explains why a twelve month period in 2006-2007 was critical in shaping the modern world we inhabit a decade later because there was literally an explosion of new technology. He cites the following:

  • Facebook was opened up nationwide to everyone over 13 (before that, restricted almost entirely to college campuses).
  • Twitter came into existence.
  • Google bought YouTube and launched the Android operating system for phones and tablets.
  • ATT created the first “Software enabled networks” that allowed cell phone traffic to increase 100,000% over the next seven years.
  • Amazon introduced the Kindle.

Now keep in mind that prior to this the focal point of cutting-edge media use in politics had been the Daily Kos (since 2002), but most analysts tend to agree that the influence of the Kos peaked around 2007-2008—partly because Obama won, and partly because the platform upon which it was delivered had an again demographic.

But the Tea Party arrived right when Facebook, Twitter, Android, Kindle, and “software enabled networks” did, and it is clear that these were the primary tools used for connecting and coordinating various local organizations into a national network.

From a 2010 article on the Tea Party and digital media:

First and foremost, the Tea Party movement has succeeded by connecting local groups to the national conversation.

“I didn’t really start using Facebook and Twitter until I got involved with the Tea Party movement,” said Ana Puig, the 38-year-old leader of Pennsylvania’s Kitchen Table Patriots (KTP).

Puig said much of KTP’s online organizing would not have been possible without the help of two prominent, national conservative organizations: FreedomWorks and American Majority. These well-financed operations provide local Tea Party groups with the new media training and focus group-tested political messaging needed to get results.

In process terms, Freedomworks in particular was not a “Daily Kos of the right” but a project designed to link like-minded groups into a national agenda and coordinate national activities.

None of which could really have happened without that explosion of digital media tech just as the Tea Party was starting to raise money. I am split on whether it was an unconsciously opportunistic process, or whether the organizers actually notice and intentionally seized on new tools. Either way, it is difficult to postulate such an effective political organization being mobilized so quickly without them.

My point is NOT that Progressive/Liberal Dems need to ape the Tea Party digital media strategy; I don’t think it would work. What needs, instead, to happen, is some key folks with the money to create a spoke-type linkage equivalent to Freedomworks, need to take a look at the changes coming in digital media now and over the next two years, and exploit them. They’re out there. Many of them are almost ephemeral in nature (like our kids’ attention span for political discourse), but our kids understand them.

Food for thought: technology controls the potential for political progress by a determined minority. Always has, I think, but maybe now more than ever.

10 comments on “The Tea Party, Technological Change, and the Future of Progressives in the Democratic Party

  1. This makes sense, but I keep stumbling on one thing. The reason Freedomworks, etc. works is due in large part to their audience. Tea partiers take the “info” they were given and never look for confirmation. They don’t fact check anything. So… this approach works on them.

    How would we address that?

  2. Steven Newton

    pandora, That’s true, but immaterial. From 2007-2010 most of what FreedomWorks did that matters was create distribution chains, coordinate events, and publish material the individual groups could use to attract likeminded people to the meetings/parades/etc. The Dems actually had a similar organization put together, but it was only by and for Obama’s 2008 campaign; it was one of the reasons he won the nomination and turned out the voters in the General. But that organization was never generalized to the DNC from the campaign, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because that particular type platform didn’t work that effectively in 2012, and the Obama campaign placed far less reliance on it.

    More to the point, if you are reading (have read) FreedomWork after about 2010 you are not seeing what they did prior to that. Once Armitage took over he consciously tried to ape both the Heritage Foundation (his competition on the right) and various left-leaning think tanks in focusing far more on publishing content than on seeing organizing as his primary mission. Many conservatives within their own circle are deeply critical of this change in emphasis, and credit it with a large part of McCain’s loss in 2012.

    The point is that Armitage (forget the politics, concentrate on the process) didn’t understand why FreedomWorks had worked, and he changed a critical part of the approach without realizing it.

    It’s also the reason that Steve Bannon, Briebart, and the alt-right are so dangerous from a process point of view–they thrive in a post-truth environment because they consciously created that environment on various platforms of social media precisely in order to benefit from it. They spent years creating and testing the use and abuse and spread of memes and “fake news” both to undermine the existing press and to flatten the hierarchy of information (correct or incorrect) distribution. They also apparently read George Lakoff’s work on “framing” much more closely than the Democrats did, because they have mastered framing and the Democrats now suck out loud at it.

    They used asymmetrical tactics to create this environment. Now the challenge is first to become competitive in this environment (something the Dems have shown exactly zero aptitude for) and to shape the next environment to their own advantage.

    The good news is that these environments are not static. What worked so well for Bannon et al will not work as well in 2 or even 4 years. Information dominance is transitory.

    The bad news is that Bannon is completely aware of that, and is consciously using Trump’s current communications strategy to keep everybody focused on that as he concocts his next strategic overhaul.

    It would be nice to say that Democrats and liberals and progressives don’t want to play the game of competitive “fake news” memes, but it is more realistic to say that they don’t even understand yet what was done to them. How do you fight back against a weapon whose existence you don’t even recognize?

  3. cassandram

    I haven’t read the Friedman book (and he often a day late and a dollar short to the conversation), but Facebook and Twitter, etc are just extensions of the 30+ year old effort by the right to change the conversation — starting with its “think tanks” and then moving to various state policy groups, media centers, ALEC, FOX News, the building of its echo chamber has been a long time coming. They could capitalize on twitter or Facebook because they already had remarkable mailing lists that could get people out and move them to other communication platforms. Breitbart and Freedomworks are small pieces of a much bigger, several decades of building a specific echo chamber. Dems haven’t built an echo chamber, largely because they didn’t have to.

    When you are trying to convince people that tobacco use is really not much of a problem, or that clean air is over-rated or somehow detrimental to our economy, or that rich people getting tax cuts = jobs for you — you *have* to spend alot of money to make that argument. The “fake news” has been out there forever — and it has been captured by the “he say/she say” journalism that always needs two sides to report on. The truth of either isn’t necessary — just two sides.

  4. cassandram

    There’s a big chart showing the tracks of all of the money in the right wing noise machine, but this report on the funding and reach of the State Policy Network starts to show it. They started with fake news and a need to legitimize it — so they spent billions not just communicating with the faithful, but in creating an infrastructure and lobbying apparatus that would specifically use that fake news to push their agenda forward.

  5. I can see the organizing impact. We used it on Eugene Young’s campaign.

    But… there are several moving parts. The message is important. It has to have buyers. And that’s where I see the problem with Dems – and that isn’t necessarily complimentary. Look what we did with the ACA. Yes, it had problems, but when you had Ds sounding exactly like Rs criticizing it – while ignoring every good thing about it – the media (main stream and social) lumped everyone together as hating/not liking the ACA. That was the message (some fake, some not) everyone heard – and Dem/libs/progs fed that message. Basically, we suck as cheerleaders.

    I fear the problem lies with who we (Dems/progressives/liberals) are. How do you sell something to people who aren’t buying, especially when the group that does buy this stuff doesn’t care if it’s true. It’s like Bigfoot sightings or seeing ghosts. If you don’t believe in them you aren’t clicking or sharing.

    I hope these environments aren’t static, because I can’t see how we get our message out this way. I need to speak with my kids – who don’t listen to podcasts anymore. Go figure. I’m so far behind.

  6. snewton929

    How do you sell something to people who aren’t buying

    Five years ago, three even, nobody but a fringe of the conservative movement, even the most right-wing of the right-wing Tea Parties, was buying what Bannon and company were selling.

    They created the market for it. I understand the objections above, but I think you’re both sort of missing the point. Of course there is continuity in methodology; of course there is continuity in patterns of funding. What changed is how information was processed–and it changed independent of whether the information was objectively true or not. That’s key.

    I know that liberals and conservatives (and libertarians, too) like to believe that what they are selling is the truth. That the truth is nuanced and complicated, and that the difficulty in selling it is that liberals and progressives stick to the truth and don’t demean themselves by making stuff up and not subjecting their ideas to reasonable criticism and responsible debate. I get it.

    What I’m afraid you don’t get is that–in process terms–how you handle the information in the square of public discourse is in fact disconnected from whether your content is factually true or not. It can be, and in a better world it not only should be, but that should also be part of the “score.” But information moves and convinces based on other characteristics beyond “truthiness,” and if you want to convince people to support your policies and vote for your candidates you have to take those elements into consideration, and right now the Democrats really don’t.

    Because they don’t even understand what’s been done to them.

  7. cassandram

    Five years ago, three even, nobody but a fringe of the conservative movement, even the most right-wing of the right-wing Tea Parties, was buying what Bannon and company were selling.

    This is definitely not right. Ideological predecessors the John Birch Society (founded in part by some of the original funders of the right wing noise machine — Kochs and Bradleys) were very big on the conservative, racist and isolationist pushed by Bannon and friends now. I read some place (but can’t find it now) that even William F Buckley thought that the Birchers and their like would lead to fascism here.

    But my original point had little to do with truth or fact of material sent to anyone — it was that the right has been at the forefront of using the technology of the day to create their echo chamber. You can find in histories how well they were able to create, curate and use regular snail mail mailing lists — which still has some traces in how much some Republican communications consultants can still charge small campaigns. Just for mailing lists. These were not just lists of “their people” but “their people who would do stuff”. Whether it was send money, or volunteer or add their friends to mailing lists or show up to meetings — the right has always been good at using the technology of the day to motivate (not just communicate) their supporters. But the organizing theory of the GOP effort is always that the tribe is under attack. The Dems don’t do as well with either an organizing theory OR in binding their supporters to their organizations nearly as well.

  8. Here are the differences in the Tea Party’s origins and influence on the Republican Party from my perspective then in the epicenter of the Tea Party movement down in Texas. Money. Dick Armey created at the outset a funding mechanism with the Kochs; one that gave him an $8 million contract to give you an idea of money magnitude.
    Next, they already had an inside track to power in the Republican Party through the right wing network they had in place with their common cause……racism. That is, key allies already in place in powerful positions in State Party organizations as well as elected office, Armey being an example. This was done, repeat, through State Party organizations, with major racist roots in southern Party organizations well tied together with communications, way before social media took hold. They were smart about adding social media through their communications channels already well in place. The RNC was incidental to their work at this point….it was solidly grassroots work that made it work.
    So, they had what the progressive movement didn’t and still doesn’t have within the Democratic Party….Money, a powerful ideological common denominator to bind disparate local groups together…..racism, and a foothold within the local Party structures with allies in place in Party and elected offices.
    Democratic Progressives are fragmented, mostly without serious $$$$ and have made little effort to build allies in the Dem Party structure and with electeds. We’d much rather throw crude, homemade bombs at these folks and watch them blow up than work with them, consolidate left factions and together raise serious money from Liberal Elites, whom we scorn.

    • cassandram

      It is really hard to effect change when you lead with disdain for government, process and the people involved in it. It is also hard to effect change when you look down on using the system to your own advantage — with the idea of changing it when you can.

      Excellent observation, Stan.

      • So much this! If you only throw stones, you won’t create the change you claim to want. If all you bring to the table is disdain, scorn and personal attacks, then stop being surprised you’re not at the table and your voice isn’t heard.

        I’m not saying to stop calling politicians out, but always supplying nefarious motives to people results in people tuning you out. You make yourself easy to dismiss.

        I want a seat at the table. I’m sure I just lost my progressive card! 😉 But that’s really the Dems biggest problem. We are unable to cheer on the good things. We tend to focus on the bad. Want proof? We couldn’t suck it up and move the ball down the field on the ACA. We gave Republicans the assist they needed to create the narrative that exists today. The ACA was one of the biggest examples of tackling income inequality (took from the rich and corporations and gave to the poor), but we ignored that. I’m still not sure why. Is that really our nature?

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