Thursday, December 29, 2005

The (libertarian) revolution is not being televised


I wanted to take a few days to cogitate on this article from the Associated Press's Ron Fournier, and on Steve Gordon's response to it over at Hammer of Truth. So I did. Now I'm gonna dive into the dissection.

The danger in thinking that the Internet has "changed things" politically is that it's easy to assume proficiency in its use will automatically change the overall equation of political power. It won't. As I've previously pointed out with respect to blogging in particular, most Internet phenomena are just cheaper, easier-to-use, more accessible versions of long-existing tools.

Reading Fournier's article, I see examples of the same activities that could have been organized -- and 20 years ago would have had to be organized -- via phone, fax, flier and postcard. The cost reduction and time/effort savings represented by the Internet have made it possible for more people to become activists and organizers, but they haven't changed the essential nature of activism and organization.

Here's where Steve makes a tiny, but critical error. He notes that libertarians beat others to the punch in inventing and making use of Internet tools for political purposes ... but forgets that the punch never landed. Yes, the Libertarian Party was the first party on the web. And there it sat. Waiting.

Part of that waiting was involuntary and inevitable, because getting your troops to the objective first doesn't do you any good if you don't have enough troops to assault, overrun and take that objective. The LP was, and is, a small party. It's trying to pull itself up by its bootstraps -- engaging in real, effective activism (to attract the attention and support of voters) with limited numbers of activists, while simultaneously trying to develop a larger activist cadre which can exploit and enlarge its previous accomplishments. That's inevitably going to lead to incidents like -- pardon the military analogies, but they're the best I can come up with -- the Battle of the Crater in 1864, when damnyankee troops blew a hole in the Confederate line at Petersburg, then were thrown out when they couldn't defend the breach and move enough troops through it to break the line completely. The Union defeat seems to have been more a matter of incompetence in command than of lack of troops per se, but you get the idea and I'm not going to extend that part of the analogy to the LP. At least not right now.

Libertarians are very much engaged in an asymmetrical political warfare with the entrenched "mainstream." The mistake is in thinking that the asymmetry which can be successfully exploited lies in the nature of the Internet. It doesn't. Advocates of the other political persuasions have just as much access to those tools -- that weaponry, if you will -- as we do.

What are the asymmetries which libertarians can advantageously exploit? One of them -- exactly as both Fournier and Gordon describe but don't note -- is "stealing a march." The activists described in Fournier's article, and the libertarians mentioned in Gordon's, didn't have access to any tools their opponents lacked. But they used those tools first ... before their opponents did ... and reaped certain advantages of position. Libertarians, being "early adopters," have stolen a number of marches -- first political party on the web, some of the first effective "online petition" drives, etc. -- but as mentioned above, they haven't been able to exploit their position once they've reached it (or, as below, their exploitation ability has been limited).

A few examples from last year, which Steve alludes to but modestly fails to elaborate on:

- Aaron Russo (whose LP presidential nomination campaign Steve managed) hit the issue of military conscription early and hard -- getting mentions in major media and embarrassing Democratic candidate John Kerry into pulling his own "national service" plan out of circulation. The Republicans might have tried it (although they lacked credibility on the issue), but didn't. Kerry could have gone the other way -- anti-draft from the start -- but didn't. Russo stole a march on an issue that resonated, and he was able to exploit it with the public (but not with the LP, which decided to nominate Michael Badnarik instead).

- Michael Badnarik (whose post-nomination LP presidential campaign Steve acted as communications director for) exploited Internet advertising, real polling and TV ad buys (produced by Russo, btw) to drag both Bush and Kerry to New Mexico -- a state which neither had originally intended to spend much much time or money on -- and as part of that showdown, Bush unveiled initiatives (most especially a US troop drawdown in Korea) which were clearly intended to defuse "the libertarian bomb." If they actually eventuate, the promises made for the purpose of crushing Badnarik in New Mexico may be the most significant LP achievement of 2004. Unfortunately, Badnarik was only able to follow half of Nathan Bedford Forrest's directive: "Get there firstest with the mostest." He got there first, but the money just wasn't there to back his play the way he'd have liked. His "5% and gaining" threat evaporated after doing only limited damage to his opponents. He made the breach, but got thrown back for lack of troops to widen and fully exploit it.

- One of Steve's most brilliant ideas -- and one which played a significant role in raising funds and gaining attention for Badnarik's campaign -- was using Internet advertising to raise funds and elicit interest from non-libertarians. He placed Blogads in prominent "liberal" blogs to raise funds for Badnarik to run ads in states where the race was close ... and the "liberals" responded on the (not too terribly inaccurate) presumption that if Badnarik did better in those states, Bush would do worse and Kerry would be more likely to win. Once again, a brilliant tactical move. The reaction wasn't strong enough to achieve the full intended effect, but it did make a significant difference in Badnarik's campaign budget and public profile.

Libertarians have proven their ability to "steal a march" on the enemy, and that's a valuable ability, but it's short by half of what we need. The next step is amassing enough troops -- activists, dollars and voters -- to take, or defend, the hill we reach before the other guys get there too. Figuring out how to take that next step is going to require some genuinely creative thinking, not just an assumption that the tools will get us there. The inability to figure out the other half of the equation is what brought Howard Dean and Joe Trippi to grief in Iowa, and it's what Steve's been breaking lots of skull-sweat over for the last couple of years or so. I understand his irritation at the attention Fournier et al pay to non-libertarians doing the same old things -- and if I was a betting man (I am), I'd bet that Steve will solve the problem elegantly and effectively and hopefully first -- but that irritation is itself evidence of libertarians' forward concentration versus the media's backward gaze. We need more of the former. The latter is to be expected of the media, but is dangerous for us.

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