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Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Reading List: The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy

York, Byron. The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy. New York: Crown Forum, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-8238-2.
The 2004 presidential election in the United States was heralded as the coming of age of "new media": Internet-based activism such as MoveOn, targeted voter contact like America Coming Together, political Weblogs, the Air America talk radio network, and politically-motivated films such as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and Robert Greenwald's Uncovered and Outfoxed. Yet, in the end, despite impressive (in fact unprecedented) fund-raising, membership numbers, and audience figures, the thoroughly conventional Bush campaign won the election, performing better in essentially every way compared to the 2000 results. This book explores what went wrong with the "new politics" revolution, and contains lessons that go well beyond the domain of politics and the borders of the United States.

The many-to-many mass medium which is the Internet provides a means for those with common interests to find one another, organise, and communicate unconstrained by time and distance. MoveOn, for example, managed so sign up 2.5 million members, and this huge number and giddy rate of growth persuaded those involved that they had tapped into a majority which could be mobilised to not only win, but as one of the MoveOn founders said not long before the election, "Yeah, we're going to win by a landslide" (p. 45). But while 2.5 million members is an impressive number, it is quite small compared to the approximately 120 million people who voted in the presidential election. That electorate is made up of about 15 million hard-core liberals and about the same number of uncompromising conservatives. The remaining 90 million are about evenly divided in leaning one direction or another, but are open to persuasion.

The Internet and the other new media appear to have provided a way for committed believers to connect with one another, ending up in an echo chamber where they came to believe that everybody shared their views. The approximately USD 200 million that went into these efforts was spent, in effect, preaching to the choir--reaching people whose minds were already made up. Outreach to swing voters was ineffective because if you're in a community which believes that anybody who disagrees is insane or brainwashed, it's difficult to persuade the undecided. Also, the closed communication loop of believers pushes rhetoric to the extremes, which alienates those in the middle.

Although the innovations in the 2004 campaign had negligible electoral success, they did shift the political landscape away from traditional party organisations to an auxiliary media-savvy network funded by wealthy donors. The consequences of this will doubtless influence U.S. politics in the future. The author, White House correspondent for National Review, writes from a conservative standpoint but had excellent access to the organisations about which he writes in the run-up to the election and provides an inside view of the new politics in the making. You have to take the author's research on faith, however, as there is not a single source citation in the book. The book's title was inspired by a 2001 Slate article, "Wanted: A Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy"; there is no suggestion of the existence of a conspiracy in a legal sense.

Posted at August 9, 2005 00:03