Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Kooky-Koded Granola-Flake Streamline Bloggy


(Or, How Teh Intarwebs Have Recombobulated The Internal Dynamics of Political Parties)

The Libertarian Party was (probably, and so I've heard) the first political party to get a web site up, and back in those heady days of the early-to-mid 1990s, we thought the Internet was going to change everything for us. And it did, but not at all in the way we expected it to.

Naturally, the Democrats and Republicans caught up in terms of tech. It was probably Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign that really put the web over the top as an external campaign tool. What I find more interesting personally, and especially in the context of the LP, is the Internet's effect on the internal, organizational dynamics.

That effect is by no means unique to the LP, of course. The Democrats and Republicans have felt (and groused about) strong pull to the left and right respectively from their own "netroots" (some say "nutroots" -- so we know what they think about the whole thing).

In the LP, the Internet has proven its value over the last 18 months in terms of allowing party members to instantly and effectively respond to actions of the Libertarian National Committee.

At some point back in the days of yore, the following language made its way into the party's bylaws:

Upon appeal by ten percent of the delegates credentialed at the most recent Regular Convention or one percent of the Party sustaining members the Judicial Committee shall consider the question of whether or not a decision of the National Committee contravenes specified sections of the Bylaws. If the decision is vetoed by the Judicial Committee, it shall be declared null and void.

In the nearly 40 years of the party's existence, the Judicial Committee had been called upon to act precisely once, in the mid-1970s, and I'm pretty sure that was actually at a national convention pursuant to another process.

Before the Internet, and before a large proportion of the party's membership got wired into the Internet, fulfilling the requirements of an appeal was an extremely burdensome process. A membership appeal in particular still is, for the simple reason that LPHQ doesn't just hand out its list of sustaining members (convention delegate lists, on the other hand, are available on request from members).

An appeal way back when meant identifying 1% of the membership or 10% of the last convention's delegates, then contacting them by snail mail or phone (in the days of per-minute long distance charges and no switchboard.com!) and hoping for a high enough positive response rate to get over the bar.

Today, an appeal is a matter of posting an online petition, publicizing it, and getting a bulk email out for members or delegates whose addresses can be found. It's not easy, but it's easier by far.

Last year, for the first time in the party's history so far as I know, delegate and member petitions were filed with more than enough valid signatures to require that the Judicial Committee act. That committee overturned an act of the LNC, the removal of LNC member R. Lee Wrights. While the Committee chose to accept his personal appeal (as elsewhere provided for in the bylaws) as opposed to the delegate or member appeals, the whole thing was proof of concept:

The LNC no longer enjoys an environment of unquestioned authority. Its acts can be challenged, and if those acts are controversial they will be challenged.

It's my opinion that the new, Internet-enabled accessibility of this appeal process played a big role in last week's LNC meeting, at which the body rescinded a convention "floor fee" requirement. Several state parties had acted quickly (and in large measure were able to do so because they now conduct, or at least debate, business via email) to pass resolutions against the "floor fee." Moreover, the LNC's members had to suspect (correctly) that appeals to the Judicial Committee were already written and ready to be launched if the "floor fee" survived.

This shift toward accountability hasn't gone unlamented. One frequent complaint is that "them blogs" -- in particular, Independent Political Report -- wield a disproportionate amount of influence over party affairs. That complaint is often accompanied by the twin complaint that "only about 30 people regularly comment there."

I don't agree that IPR's influence is "disproportionate." IPR was launched both to cover third party news and to provide an open forum for discussing that news, and that's precisely what it's accomplished. At this point, it is only slightly less popular (per Alexa) than the LP's official site, and is the de facto news source of record for anyone who wants to know more about what's going on in the party than they'll get from "official" (read: promotional) releases.

LP officialdom has always had a problem with coverage that strays beyond the boundaries of the "puff piece" reservation.

At one national convention (I think it was Indianapolis 2002), LPHQ initially denied press credentials to a correspondent for Liberty magazine, a respected movement journal. The correspondent managed to get seated as a delegate, which allowed him to do his reporting as well, but the incident revealed a tendency on the part of LP staff toward trying to "manage" the party's image by exclusion of "unfriendly" media.

IPR itself was established -- on about 24 hours' lead time -- in response to a similar situation. Third Party Watch, a venerable institution, was bought out by allies of Bob Barr, a contender for the LP's 2008 presidential nomination, just before the national convention. The new managing editor (who had just left his job as the LP's executive director and gone to work for the Barr campaign) instantly fired (and requested revocation of the LP convention press credentials of) its writers who didn't support Barr.

It's difficult to blame LP officialdom for becoming discommoded by blog coverage which toes no line and answers to no authority. The LP's officials and staff rightly consider it their job to put the best face on, and get the most positive coverage possible for, the party.

But it looks like they're going to have to get used to it. And personally I think that's a good thing. A bright sun overhead may burn, but as Louis Brandeis said, sunlight is also the best disinfectant.

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