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Why the Right Fails Online -- Lessons From History for the GOP

If you think the Internet revolution encompasses only areas like business, advertising, publishing and entertainment, you are sorely mistaken.

In less than a decade, starting from nearly nothing, left-wing powerhouse MoveOn.org created a force that can put a million volunteers on the ground, can raise $30 million in small donor contributions every cycle (several times that number in 2008 and likely 2012), and never needs help from big check writers. The group's small donors kept Barack Obama even or ahead of Hillary Clinton in fundraising throughout 2007, even while he was 20 points down in the polls, and their activists won him the caucus states by an average of 70-30, ultimately delivering the Democratic nomination.

There is nothing like that kind of online political powerhouse on the right. Nothing.

Conservatives have spent a decent amount of money on technology over the past few years, and they don’t lack for efforts to “be the next MoveOn” (at least if you listen to their fundraising pitches). What’s more, they’ve been quite successful in certain areas of technology, particularly blogging and other alternative media. They know how to use the new medium to broadcast. So why don’t they know how to use it to organize?

A similar question could have been asked of the French Army in 1940.

The tank dominated World War II battlefields, but it was invented in World War I. Needless to say, in 1917 and 1918, tanks were very different: they were slow (5 mph), their main armament was weak, and in many cases, rather than carrying a main gun, they carried a lot of smaller machine guns dispersed around the vehicle. They were also, being based on the automotive technology of the time with massive weight added and battlefield conditions factored in, very unreliable.

The armies that invented the tank saw them as infantry support vehicles, weapons platforms that would help break the trench warfare deadlock of WWI’s western front. As such, they spread them out all along the line with the troops, and gave them the job of machine-gunning pockets of stubborn resistance.

By World War II, tanks had become a lot more sophisticated in virtually every way. The French Army was believed to be the best in the world (however difficult that may be to believe now), and it also had the heaviest, best armored tanks. But the French had not rethought armored strategy in a generation: it had not even occurred to them to do so. And neither had anyone else.

Except Germany.

In the 1930s, German General Heinz Guderian created a revolution when he realized that tanks were not simply infantry support platforms, but rather, the modern equivalent of cavalry. Guderian realized that the proper use of a tank was not singly along the line, but massed in formation; and that these armored formations should form spearheads, punching through the traditional front line and shooting behind it as far as lines of supply could be maintained. In so doing, the army could encircle its hapless foes and force their surrender with minimal fighting, even if the enemy force was technically superior.

And this is exactly what they did. After overrunning Poland in three weeks, the German army turned on the complacent French and forced the surrender of the world’s finest army in a month. The same France that had held off the Germans for four blood-soaked years a generation earlier went tamely under the Nazi yoke in June of 1940. The better army was defeated by a better understanding of how to use the tools available.

Let’s say that again: it’s not the weapon, it’s what you do with it, and who’s using it.

This is why conservatives are failing online: they are employing an outdated paradigm as their model for use of a revolutionary technology that changes everything. 

Their consultants view e-mail as if it were direct mail, but don’t see that online we call that “spam.” 

Their candidates hire “social media experts” whose primary qualifications are that they’ve been paid to tweet for someone.

When Barack Obama decided to run for the White House, he didn’t hire a Beltway consultant: he hired a co-founder of Facebook. And he wound up beating odds too high to count.

The left succeeds because it’s serious. It understands the new medium because it hires genuine innovators, people who’ve actually helped build companies worth billions of dollars with tens if not hundreds of millions of users. They are not political junkies with a new toy: they are the best and the brightest in a cutting-edge field that has already completely changed the world.

Which group would you hire? Or to put that another way, would you have your airline pilot – no matter how good he might be – perform your brain surgery?

What the right is leaving on the table is staggering. Gallup tells us that just 20% of Americans self-identify as liberal, 42% call themselves conservative. If 2010 demonstrates anything it is this: That independents are overwhelmingly susceptible to a well-articulated conservative agenda. And Tea Party numbers imply the possibility of an online conservative force more than twice the size of the left’s.

Along with friends from PayPal and Apple, I am working to create that force through what we call The Vanguard Project. We’ve put a lot of money behind it ourselves. We need more: Billionaire George Soros and his friends put $24 million behind MoveOn in its early stages. It’s not cheap, any more than PayPal or Facebook were cheap. Modern tanks were more expensive than horses too, and needed officers with different experience.

But the clock is ticking. The left has leveraged a minority into dominance: conservatism’s 2010 wave is no match for the full organizational power of our opponents. The Tea Party has given conservatives an army. Whether we back, fund and deploy a modern technological infrastructure to undergird and support that army will determine whether we take back America, or whether we experience the ugly lessons learned by the French Army, or worse, the Polish Cavalry.

Rod D. Martin, founder of The Vanguard Project, is a leading futurist, technology entrepreneur and conservative activist from Destin, Florida. He was part of PayPal.com’s pre-IPO startup team, serving as special counsel to founder and CEO Peter Thiel, and also served as policy director to former Governor Mike Huckabee. He is President of the National Federation of Republican Assemblies (NFRA), a member of the Council for National Policy, and serves on numerous nonprofit and for-profit boards.