Cyberactivists Are a Must-See for Candidates
They've put up extensive websites, started to write blogs, and created YouTube videos. They happily answered debate questions from online videos featuring rednecks, snowmen, and tax-hating musicians. Now to give even more validity to online activism, almost all the Democratic presidential candidates are planning to appear at a progressive convention this weekend centered on Internet grass roots and named after a popular and sometimes controversial liberal blog, the DailyKos.
Seven of the eight Democratic contenders will be in Chicago this weekend at the second annual YearlyKos convention, appearing at a presidential leadership forum. Even Hillary Clinton, who isn't always a hit in the liberal blogosphere for her Iraq war vote, will be there, and the only one missing out, Sen. Joe Biden, may yet commit.
This comes after all of the Democratic candidates snubbed the moderate Democratic Leadership Council's "National Conversation" last weekend, which led to much speculation that the Democratic candidates were embracing the left more than the center.
Michael Cornfield, a political management professor at George Washington University, argues that it's not about the candidates moving ideologically left but about the "netroots" community that treats blogs, like the popular DailyKos, as an online hub for political discourse.
"If the DLC had a network of 2 million people they could reach on E-mail, [the candidates] would go back to the DLC," Cornfield says.
The netroots community extends further than those just engaged in blogging. It involves pretty much anyone who is using online tools for political activism, explains Peter Leyden, director of the New Politics Institute. These activists began showing their strength with the blogs of the 2004 Howard Dean campaign and then again with the "macaca" YouTube video that contributed to Sen. George Allen's re-election defeat.
Considered one of the first influential political blogs, the DailyKos was started back in 2002 by Army veteran Markos Moulitsas, or "Kos." Moulitsas says he began it as personal therapy in a time that was politically stifling for progressives. Today the blog features commentary from such prominent progressives as antiwar mom Cindy Sheehan and helped the Democrats take back a majority of Congress in the 2006 midterm election.
"The candidates we supported had a great success ratio," Moulitsas says. "We've proven clearly to the party establishment that...we aren't a bunch of kids screaming into the Internet, that we can actually deliver results."
While the blog served as inspiration for this weekend's event, Moulitsas says that this presidential campaign is becoming bigger than just the blogs.
"Four years ago, the blog was the new hip kid in town," Moulitsas says. "It's boring now when you see the really cool stuff going on on YouTube and on the social networking sites Facebook and MySpace."
And most of this online activism is being dominated by the left. Robert Bluey, a conservative blogger for the Heritage Foundation, notes that there isn't anything comparable on the right. While former Sen. Fred Thompson has assembled a talented Net team for his unofficial presidential run and Ron Paul and Mitt Romney have been fairly innovative online, nothing they are doing comes close.
The prominence of the upcoming event, which features 200 speakers and is expected to draw crowds of more than 1,400, may be a wake-up call for the less Internet-savvy organizations and candidates.
"So this is a lesson to the center and a real lesson to the Republican candidates," Cornfield says. "If you want to win elections in the digital age, you have to have a network; you have to have digital grass roots."