Can the Internet Save Democracy?

The Howard Dean campaign's fate is in a pending primary, but the candidate's certain victory is in casting the Internet as an effective election tool, says Joe Trippi, former Dean campaign manager.

In fact, Trippi credits the Net as nothing less than the last hope for democracy in the U.S.

"This was not a dot-com crash," Trippi told an audience of alpha geeks at a Digital Democracy Teach-In at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego this week. "The Howard Dean campaign was a dot-com miracle."

Digital Victories

Trippi points to the campaign's success raising $45 million, much of it in small donations solicited online, since its launch in January 2003. The effort started with just seven people, $157,000 in the bank, and 432 known supporters nationwide. "He was an asterisk in most of the polls," Trippi says.

Whatever the campaign's outcome, it is praiseworthy for its innovative use of such new Internet tools as blogs and Meetup.com, Trippi says.

The veteran political consultant says he also takes heart in the digital campaign experience as a sea change in how technology has affected American politics for more than 40 years. Until the interactivity offered by the Internet, technology had shifted campaigns to what he calls "broadcast politics" that discourage debate.

It took years for people to realize after the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates that television, a one-way medium, had removed the people from the political process, Trippi says.

"That is what the Dean campaign, and all of us, ran into. We were trying to change that system," Trippi says. Television did not support debate among citizens on such issues as the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act. "That debate isn?t happening anywhere in the country except on the Net," Trippi says.

For example, blogs gave the campaign a new way to engage supporters in nearly real time. Trippi says several of the Dean campaign?s most innovative ideas were initiated on blogs and on Web sites such as Meetup.com, on which 200,000 supporters have registered. Both of those are new, interactive tools that Trippi contends will bring candidates and elections closer to the voters.

"After being held hostage by this system for 40 years, [[the American people]] now have the beginnings of the tools and the platform to take it back themselves, to demand that the American people?s voice will be heard, to demand that there will be debate in this country," Trippi says.

Room for Improvement

Another great online resource for the campaign was MoveOn.org, a site founded in 1998 by Berkeley Systems co-founder Wes Boyd to encourage Congressional censure of then-President Bill Clinton. It also promoted a petition urging Green candidate Ralph Nader to drop out of the 2000 Presidential race lest he draw votes from Democratic candidate Al Gore.

"They were best practices," according to Trippi.

Trippi isn't unequivocal in his praise of the people creating and using these new tools, however.

"The Internet community doesn?t really understand the hard, cold realities of politics," he says.

He says one of those realities is the broadcast media's continuous replaying of what is now referred to as the "Dean scream." Even though the well-played video clip of Dean rallying his supporters after the Iowa caucuses was out of context, its omnipresence on the airwaves hurt their cause, Trippi says.

"It was the heat-seeking missile hitting its target," as the footage was run repeatedly, he adds.

Still, he remains optimistic about the Internet's role in U.S. elections. He predicts that even if it doesn?t happen in this political cycle, technology will revolutionize politics.

"There?s only one tool that allows the American people to take their government back, and that?s the Internet," he says.

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