Rebuilding conservatism: tech isn't magic
January 2, 2009
Ars Technica published a solid piece on the internal dialogue conservatives are having about the party’s future. A vocal faction in the grassroots is pressing for a greater emphasis on “outside-the-beltway” input from Silicon Valley folks and others who come from a tech background rather than a political one.
It's worth noting that the folks on the left Erickson acknowledges as models actually tend to be people with political backgrounds who learned some tech, not the opposite.... You need some people with serious kung fu on your team. But that's probably not the bulk of what a tech strategy is actually going to involve. Especially if you're talking about exploiting social media, a big part of the task is leveraging tools other people have built without any particular partisan agenda. That means thinking of innovative ways to think and use existing tech more than rolling out your own redundant ideologically-branded version of a popular site. (Cf. Conservapedia.)
That last point is an important one. It’s worth noting that Erick Erickson, one of the drivers behind the ‘rebuild conservatism: we have the technology!’ push is the founder of RedState, a me-too clone of DailyKos that launched using the same open source software platform and the same group-blog model. One of the remarkable qualities RedState has demonstrated is message discipline: members who deviate from the site’s party line are blocked or banned quickly. One of the most memorable instances involved the ousting of Ron Paul supporters during the Republican primaries. Months later, they complained that they were stymied trying to find volunteers to maintain their tech infrastructure. Turns out, one of the people who’d written the software went off to help build Ron Paul’s web site.
That kind of scenario implies a deeper issue that might need addressing. The political left (or at least left-of-Republicans), for all its enthusiasm towards building tools, has a long history of grass-roots organization. Even more important, it has a long history of integrating lots of diverse sub-groups with sometimes messily conflicting ideals. While that makes message discipline across an entire political party (or even a web site) difficult, it means that they are, as a group, already comfortable with the wild west nature of distributed social tools.
The right has traditionally relied on church-based social connections for its own grass roots mobilization: witness Huckabee’s showing in Iowa during the primaries, based solely on canny leveraging of area churches. And the Church has faced similar challenges trying to figure out how to leverage social media tools. It came up recently in another discussion about Christian-Branded versions of sites like YouTube and Twitter.
The impulse to clone an existing “thing” and slap a culture-specific label on it is strong. Unless the people you’re hoping to empower with the tools are familiar (and comfortable!) with the way they work, you’re just throwing code into the wind. It’s interesting to watch this kind of a discussion play out in a semi-public way; I imagine it must have been similar as political parties tried to figure out how to best leverage radio and television…
UPDATE: Erick’s post on RedState is actually a better summary of the issues they’re facing than my one-liner gives him credit for. He’s pointing out many of the same problems with magic tech-bullets, but he engages in the traditional RedState game of “No, the LEFT is top-down, WE’RE bottom-up!” when discussing the social differences in the activist base. Ah, well…