David Lytel, co-founder
Democrats.com in Northern California
The Brune-Reutlinger House
Thanks to Lucille Arneson and Norma Armon for organizing this, to Richard for hosting us in his beautiful home, and to all of you for coming.
Democrats.com is now in its 3rd year and is at a point in its life that it is possible to get off of the Internet and out into the real world. There are two sides to Democrats.com – We are a vendor of Internet campaign services to candidates and we operate the largest independent community of Democrats. We now have enough people nationwide to begin to reach critical mass in particular parts of the country. Our experiment with local chapters starts where all social experimentation in the U.S. begins – San Francisco. What can we do to make Democratic activists more effective? If the answer to that is not the formation of a new organization that’s fine with us. We want to know what role we should play, what role you want us to play and what role you want to take on yourselves.
I have some ideas to place on our agenda, but first I wanted to set out for you where I think we are now in the business of forming a center-left coalition that successfully installs a government that reflects the will of the popular majority.
My way into that topic is to tell you a story.
Probably the most fun gig I ever got paid for was a traveling educational roadshow – a Chatauqua now that you all know what one is – in which I got up on stage in full costume and played the role of Alexis de Tocqueville. There was no script and I had to answer audience questions, so I had to master de Tocqueville’s writings fairly well. Tocqueville had many prescient insights and observations about democracy in America and in general. But in essence the reason we still read him today is because he understood so much better than his contemporaries where the threats to liberty would come from in the future.
Tocqueville lived in an era in which the primary democratic accomplishment was the overthrow of royal governments, but he challenged the idea that a popular government was necessarily a just and democratic one. In fact, Tocqueville argued, clever tyrants in the future will rule with popular support and will manufacture consent as they need it. So if you are prepared only to do battle with royal forces to end to despotism and dictatorship, he said, you will not succeed because the true threat to liberty is actually someplace else.
We are at a similar moment now in the long history of democracy in America. After considerable experimentation and innovation, the anti-democratic forces have invented a new way of undermining the popular will, expressed both in public opinion polls and free elections. Conservatives built and operated a reactionary opposition industry that successfully undermined Clinton and Gore and installed Bush as president. Regrettably, what we do mostly in the progressive opposition is to hew to the old strategy of pouring over different policies and policy formulations, as if we could come up with the absolutely perfect formulation of a policy agenda and the Bush government would be so overwhelmed by its perfection that they would just roll over and abdicate. In fact, the return of progressives and Democrats to power has almost nothing to do with the formulation of a policy agenda. Hell, the only reason they got the 2000 presidential election close enough to steal was by running on our issues. It is almost purely a matter of strategies and tactics and the creation of a new opposition industry that is as well-organized as their opposition industry was.
Let’s take a look at the vibrant and dynamic opposition industry the right wing created during the Clinton presidency. Conservative think tanks, interest groups and political organizations achieved an unprecedented level of coordination and cooperation. They engaged not just in parallel play with one another – which is mostly what we do – but they genuinely forged a functioning opposition industry. They pioneered new techniques for mobilizing public opinion, amplifying minor transgressions into major political scandals, and engaging their activists. They understood the evolution of the media matrix well enough to exploit new assets like talk radio very effectively. These innovations in technique were far more important to the right’s ability to paralyze the Clinton government and deny Gore the presidency than any "policy" initiatives.
If we are to be similarly successful, progressives and their organizations must achieve a similar level of collaboration and be similarly innovative with their techniques for mobilizing and organizing. And it is far more complicated than just watching what the right did and doing that. We have a different set of challenges and different assets and it is a different time.
For our movement, Internet-enabled organizing is crucial. In many ways it is the most important new tool for us to get right because it is the fundamental mechanism by which we can effectively share our audiences with one another and build a coalition. The greatest single unrealized opportunity before us is to pioneer new ways to do collaborative electronic mailing list development. The dynamics of general mailing list sharing are well-established, but electronic mailing list sharing is more complex due to the requirement that the permission envelope not be breached. Still, I know as I am sure you know that there are millions of progressives in this country who would be willing to be engaged in more aggressive Internet-enabled organizing if we can find them and attractively frame and present the opportunity. It is very unlikely that there will be a handful of dominant organizations in progressive politics who will suck the e-mail addresses of progressive activists into their database like a giant virtual vacuum cleaner. For our side of the political spectrum, cooperative mechanisms for such prosaic yet essential activities as the cross-promotion of action alerts and mutual assistance in membership building campaigns are absolutely critical.
So with that in mind, what are some of the concrete projects we could undertake together that would make Democratic political activism more potent and successful?
1. Create Web sites and e-mail campaigns designed to attract and engage more Northern California Democrats: RichScion.com or BigoTree.com
2. Should we organize ourselves to oppose the granting of broadcast licenses for Fox radio and TV stations when they begin coming up for renewal next Spring?
3. Virtual volunteering: Come up with mechanisms to use the Internet to let Northern California Democrats volunteer in races around the country.
4. Should we and can we focus our efforts in California on helping to elect Democratic Congresspeople and deny re-election to incumbent Republicans?
5. Should we do events to raise money for candidates, either independently or in cooperation with Progressive Majority PAC or other organizations?
6. RadioActivism: Engage people in a campaign to fight the complete domination of a commercial and allegedly non-partisan broadcaster by aggressive right wing partisan advocates.
7. Other ideas
Conclusion: The only strategy that ever works to bring the left to power is mass mobilization. The Internet is simply the best tool ever invented to do that. It is the only way that people who have $50 or less to contribute to a cause can be effectively engaged. When we return to power, I have no doubt that it will be in a progressive coalition led by a popular Democratic politician who occupies the White House because he or she got the Internet very right in his or her campaign. So picture Vermont Governor Howard Dean or North Carolina Senator John Edwards turning to his aides, as John F. Kennedy did after the 1960 election pointing to a television set, and say “we wouldn’t have won without that thing.”