Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Boys and their Toys: Political campaigns eternal search for the magic bullet

In the classic 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy’s dog, Toto is able to run around and help Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man (the Lion broke down and bailed out a window, missing the discovery) unveil The Wizard of Oz as the man behind the curtain.

Following the huge, overwhelming success of the 2008 Presidential election campaign of Barack Obama, there is an absolute rush throughout much of the political world to emulate the on-line organizing success of this brilliant, historical campaign that raised $500m from over three million supporters.

In the State of California, early contenders in the 2010 Governor’s race are already building and using on-line tools and social networking to create a feeling of linkage and “product” (candidate) identification with the on-line work of the Obama Campaign Team.

Right on cue, then, Blue State Digital - the company that managed Obama’s online campaign - is opening a UKLondon. Their aim is simple: to convince organisations that bottom-up, emancipatory online campaigning is a ‘crucial political tool’ that is part of a fundraising and communications strategy. With my barackobama.com as a case study, one imagines that they won’t be struggling for business when it appears that the UK Government’s door (to name but one) appears wide open to new initiatives and measures to re-connect with the electorate. office in

Notwithstanding this, we feel compelled to provide a note of caution. The revolution in on-line campaigning is no panacea. Certainly, the widespread excitement about the possibility of increasing voter interest and participation in all political campaigns and elections is welcome; particularly if Britain is going to engage with the apathetic and disillusioned.

Yet the nature of politics, and arguably what U.S. voters wanted in the candidate they were going to select, had nothing to do with Facebook, Twitter and e-mail networks and fundraising. It was the message and the messenger, stupid.

The toys, these new electronic campaign vehicles, are just that – they are toys, the vehicles which campaigns, candidates and parties can communicate, broadcast and establish networks for the message and the messenger.

At the end of the day, it was not about the tools, the toys and the campaign consultants behind the curtain, no matter how important they were. The message and the messenger remain the bread and butter – the entire point – of what a political campaign should be, which brings us neatly back to the U.K.

It is clear, as Thomas Gensemer has pointed out, that the way British political parties are embracing new media is flawed. “They have focused too much on gimmicks and what they can sell to the press," he asserts. No doubt they will improve. In fact we are already seeing a tech savvy Conservative party doing just that.

But will they be brave enough to utilise new media and revolutionize grass-roots politics? After all such extensive democratic renewal is now taking place in the U.S. Only last week, Organizing for America prompted everyday Americans to have ‘house parties’ to discuss and encourage others to support the financial stimulus bill.

How successful these parties were, in many ways, are irrelevant. Here is a way not only to renew our fractured democracy and bring new blood into grassroots politics, but create collective consciousness and much needed social inclusion in our communities.

New media, or a cup of tea anyone?

Chuck Dalldorf, CSPP Blogger
Barry McCulloch, CSPP Policy Officer

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