Bob Beckel is one Democrat who makes no attempt to sugarcoat, or otherwise spin, the defeat that the Democratic Party suffered on Tuesday. As he quipped to me last week, “Did you get the license-plate number of the truck that ran over my party?”
Yet at the same time, he makes an astute point about the politics of 2010 that should challenge the confidence of any Republican, as well as any Democrat. The Internet, Beckel says, is on its way to trumping both political parties. The Internet has, indeed, created a new organizing mechanism for politics -- a mechanism that neither party has yet figured out.
Even as he acknowledges the “shellacking” -- to use President Obama’s word -- that the Democratic Party suffered in 2010, Beckel reminds me that Democrats won big in 2006 and even bigger in 2008. If we have three “wave” elections in a row, going in differing directions, he says, the lesson must be that neither party rules the waves. That is, neither party can count on guaranteed support when political storms erupt. And one reason for these suddenly shifting currents is the rapidity of communication: Anyone interested in politics these days can get an earful -- and an eyeful -- with just a few clicks. Faced with a torrent of information, it’s easy for loyalties to be washed away.
That’s why, Beckel says, both parties are losing their long-term grip on voter identity; the big winner of the future, he adds, will be free-floating independents.
Yet Beckel goes further, arguing that the Internet itself has become its own kind of party. “Think about it,” he told me, “the Internet is its own organizing tool. It provides message, it provides community, it provides rapid response.” In other words, the Internet provides much of what the parties once provided.
In fact, as I listened to Beckel’s argument, I was reminded of the media visionary Marshall McLuhan, who proclaimed back in the 1960s, “The medium is the message.” That is, the medium itself -- be it print, radio or television -- provides its own special rules, which anyone using the medium, including politicians, must follow. Scholars have been debating McLuhan’s point ever since, but it’s obvious that politics has been changed by changing media.
Once upon a time, the parties played a much larger role in people’s lives. In the 18th and 19th centuries, even into the 20th century, politics was one of the few forms of entertainment available to most folks. Along with church sermons and courtroom theatrics, political speeches offered people the chance to hear the spoken word, delivered with passion and articulation. And so, audiences would gladly sit through political speeches lasting for hours.
Then came radio and television, and so political communications, and politics itself, changed. Speeches became shorter and punchier, because they had to. Audiences after all, could and would change the channel if they grew bored. Political oratory was still exciting -- but only for the hardcore junkies; everybody else had other options. So the politicians who flourished in the new era were generally those who presented themselves well on television; they learned to shorten their message, boiling it down to “sound bites.” Good looks and a telegenic manner became more important, along with TV-friendly quips and banter. It’s hard to imagine for example, the presidencies of John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan without television, just as many have said that Abraham Lincoln -- gangly, speaking in a high-pitched voice -- would never have made it in the TV era. Part of the reason that JFK and Reagan succeeded in televised politics is that they fit in so seamlessly with all the other pleasant “talking heads” on television, from Dave Garroway to Merv Griffin to Regis Philbin -- and more recently, women, too, such as Oprah Winfrey.
And now politics confronts a new medium, the Internet. Once again, politics will change. The problem is that we haven’t figured out how politics will change in the Net era. But one thing we do know: Thanks to social-networking sites such as Facebook, politics can be entertaining, even to non-junkies. Why? Because Facebook is about you and your network. You can exchange any information you want with your old friends, and new friends -- in a way that is both inexpensive (free, in fact) and cool. Thus the town square has been revived online; a new ecology of personal and social interaction created.
So where will this Net-centric politics lead? Especially as young people, to whom the Internet is second nature, take a larger role in future politics? Beckel is the first to say that he doesn’t know for sure, but the common thread in all politics is human nature. The values of shared belief, shared community and shared energy will always be powerful motivators and organizers, in any medium, from a TV network to a social network.
Yet if the Internet becomes its own kind of party, then perhaps people will identify with the Net itself. People will still be Republicans and Democrats, at least for a while, but, over time, the new values of the Internet, whatever they are, will prevail. After the Civil War, a slogan in both the North and the South was “Vote as you shot.” In the Net-ified 21st century, it could be “Vote as you click.” And that’s Beckel’s point.
So both parties are on notice: Another time of political and technological transition is upon us. Thus political parties and politicos must evolve, or else risk going the way of the telegraph, the newspaper and broadcast television.
James P. Pinkerton is a writer, Fox News contributor and the editor/founder of SeriousMedicineStrategy.