Time magazine has graced its cover with any number of presidents, presidential candidates and their poll-happy strategists. But no cover has featured a more powerful political force than Time’s choice as the 2006 Person of the Year.
By acknowledging the immense power of the individual in 21st century America, the magazine’s editors marked the dawn of the information-technology era and the ability of any one person to connect, communicate and create causes with many others at speeds and efficiencies unknown before the Internet.
“It’s a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before,” wrote Lev Grossman for the magazine. “It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.”
The empowerment of an individual via technology is a trend that impacts all of American society, but especially politics, which in its rawest form is the art of turning the support of one voter into the votes of many. Abraham Lincoln ordered his county captains to “procure from the poll-books a separate list for each precinct” of Whig voters, and then “see each man of his section face to face and procure his pledge … (to) vote as early on the day as possible.”
Immigrants to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were met at the boat by somebody who helped them find jobs, homes, schools for their children and safe neighborhoods. When the Good Samaritans — local party operatives — returned a few months later and asked the immigrants to vote Democratic, their acts of kindness were almost always repaid. Politics is still about peer-to-peer communicating, connecting and community-building, but 21st century technology makes these ancient arts exponentially easier and faster.
In 2004, President Bush’s re-election strategists blended Madison Avenue techniques and technology to identify which of its 7 million volunteers, mostly average Janes and Joes, were opinion leaders in their local communities. They identified 2 million of these “Navigators” and, according to Bush adviser and HOTSOUP.com co-founder Matthew Dowd, the campaign lavished more attention on those influencers than the other 100 million-plus voters. HOTSOUP.com is an issues-based social networking site aimed at so-called Navigators.
In 2004, Democrat Howard Dean created crude communities of fellow anti-war Democrats by tapping into a social networking Web site called Meetup.com, which helps people with shared interests meet offline. The smart presidential candidates in 2008, those who presume to lead this viral democracy, will employ social networking tools to create e-communities and identify the “Navigators” within them.
In last month’s midterm elections, blogs, YouTube, instant messaging and other new technologies played a critical role in many races. Three examples:
- There are more than 130 videos on YouTube about Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, including one showing him napping during a committee hearing critical to his state. That video alone received more than 100,000 views. It had to have an impact on a race he lost by about 3,000 votes.
- Sen. George Allen of Virginia, who had been the conservative favorite to replace President Bush, was the subject of more than 400 videos, 75 of which featured damaging remarks he made at a rally to an Indian American working for Democrat James Webb. Allen lost by 9,000 votes. His political career may be over.
- Instant messaging cratered the career of Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., and helped seal the fate of his party when graphic details of his communications with congressional pages became public.
The thing to remember is that this is all so new; we’ve just seen the tip of the Internet iceberg. When President Clinton took office in 1993, there were only 130 Internet sites, and now there are tens of millions — a bottomless pit of news, entertainment, consumer products and virtual companionship. The number of blogs on the Internet went from practically nothing when George W. Bush took office in 2001 to tens of millions today.
As Time put it: “It’s a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter.”
Think about it: For a few pennies — the cost of uploading a video or sending a text message — a person can change the course of a political campaign. Money will always be important in politics, but the Internet has made communicating less expensive while making it easier for candidates to raise cash. Dean had little money of his own and few Democratic donors on his side early in the 2004 campaign. But he had a message that resonated — and he ran at the dawn of an era when a compelling message can spread from one person to millions in a keystroke.
It’s your era. As Dean liked to say, you have the power.
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