Politics and community-building online


Devastating national defeats in the past two months demonstrate that parties of the centre-left in the US and Australia need to re-build their shrivelled and listless support bases if they are to re-emerge as competitive political forces.

The US Democrats and the Australian Labor Party have let their community support infrastructures wither away; as they turned to a dispiriting version of modern marketing that sees leaders and policies as the equivalent of products that can be sold to the electorate.

The upshot of this modern technocratic approach is that centre-left parties are no longer seen as concerned with principles and morality. Disturbingly, conservatives on both sides of the Pacific, by piggy-backing on evangelist Christian movements, have been able to capture the ‘moral’ tag with an agenda that does not include traditional left concerns with income inequality and personal freedoms.

Broad centre-left parties are not obsolete. As Dr Michael Keating has pointed out in his new book, Who Rules?, the Howard Government collects as much tax as a proportion of GDP as any other in Australian history.

And despite this much-vaunted era of small-government, Australian governments still spend as much or more on services as they ever did. In other words, our community still sees a major role for government across economic management, welfare, health, education and much more.

The political problem is that these centre-left parties have deserted their bases rather than the other way around. Instead of the hard grind of building a modern movement around new ideas about the continuing role of government, they have thrown the switch to vaudeville.

Rather than engaging with large numbers of supporters and using them to proselytise the case for change, the ALP and the US Democrats prefer focus groups, voter surveys and a range of clever communication techniques designed to hit the voters’ ‘hot’ buttons. It’s an awful, passive, demeaning and ultimately defeatist approach.

The Howard Dean campaign is the only recent example of a successful national effort to engage voters by a centre-left party on either side of the Pacific. Dean ultimately failed because he was simply unsaleable, which makes his internet-driven rise from nowhere to Democrat front-runner all the more remarkable.

In just a few months last year, he raised $US50 million in donations mostly of $100 or less. This ability to use the Internet made him competitive with both George Bush and John Kerry in terms of fund-raising. His campaign showed that large numbers of people want to be involved and committed but today’s political processes generally leave them without a meaningful role to play.

Joe Trippi, Dean campaign strategist and author of The Revolution Won’t Be Televised, points out that the Democrats get more big donations than the Republicans while the Republicans get far more small donations than the Democrats do. Of course, this is the opposite of what we would expect and it says something important about the changes in political alignments over the last few decades.

Trippi wrote at the time of the Iowa caucuses: ‘We have an army of almost 600,000 fired-up supporters, not just a bunch of chicken-dinner donors, but activists, believers, people who have never been politically involved before and who are now living and breathing this campaign. Through them, we have tapped into a whole new vein of democracy and proven the Internet as a vibrant political tool.’

In Australia, the ALP has become increasingly reliant on big business, as well as the denuded union movement, to provide its funding. Many of these business donations are bigger than the deposits traditional labour supporters need to buy their homes.

At the same time, the perceived (and mostly real) policy differences between the major parties in both countries have become far less significant to ordinary voters. This closing of the policy gap has been achieved partly through the exclusion of all but a small party elite from the policy development process.

As we have seen with Beazley and Latham in recent elections, secret policy formulation and marketing style releases “ complete with inane slogans like ‘ease the squeeze’ – at a time technocrats consider strategically clever has proven to be a miserable failure.

The ALP needs to re-build its credentials as a party of ideas that genuinely wants to involve a broad section of Australian society in its policy and campaigning processes. That will take time and it can’t be done without a willingness to have open debates with the broad church of the centre-left, not just the professional party cadres.

The ALP should build online communities of people who want to contribute to policy discussions on a range of issues, and then enlist these people to go out and fund and support campaigns (inside and outside of elections) to achieve agreed policy positions.

Online communities suit the desire of many people these days to participate in politics without committing large amounts of time or abiding by the scheduling disciplines of old-style party activities.

Nevertheless, the Dean, and other local, US Democrat campaigns, also show that online participation stimulates many people to want to get involved in more traditional political activities. Online communities can provide a ‘soft’ way to introduce a generation of people to formal politics who have little experience of it.

Every ALP politician and intending candidate should start a blog and tell people what they are doing and thinking and invite feedback and so on to build strong relationships with a whole new generation of potential political activists.

Blogs are simply the easiest and cheapest way to communicate with anyone who has access to an internet-connected computer, upwards of half the population and growing.

And time is running out, the biggest lesson from the use of blogs and other Internet tools in the US is that you have to start years out from when you will be running for office if you want to see a dividend on polling day.

At the moment the ALP still sees the Internet as a marketing tool. And even here its performance leaves a lot to be desired. During the recent federal campaign, the ALP’s online efforts were surpassed by those of the Greens and the Liberal Party. The ALP was slower to post releases, policy documents and transcripts on its website. It often missed the twenty four hour news cycle completely, which is bizarre.

Before it took up marketing, the labour movement held some considerable political assets in its organisational structures and the sense of belonging to a movement with a cause to promote that many Australians felt.

A generation or two of ALP politicians have been running down these assets; its time to start rebuilding them and the Internet is a powerful mechanism for getting the ball rolling.

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