Sunday, February 08, 2004

Thinking Through Dean’s Demise: Burst Bubbles and Sea Changes

Yesterday Kevin Drum posted an interesting contemplation of the apparent Hindenberg crash of the Howard Dean “internet phenom” over on Calpundit, but his discussion of the equally intriguingly histrionic pile-up of self-criticism among chastened one-time Deaniacs is also interesting. With the smug objectivity of a long-time Kerry supporter, I can admit that I have personally found both the Dean High and the Dean Hangover a bit perplexing in their extremity. As symptoms of the new Dynicism he quotes:

 John Perry Barlow: "We may have been too glued to our monitors to remember that while elections get won by money...they are also won by people on the ground."
 Dave Winer: "Barlow is right about the echo chamber. There were a lot of people who thought it was about dating."
 Clay Shirky: "The volume of interest that came from rallying the faithful looked, to us, like a surface sign of 10 times the interest underneath. This bubble of belief was staggering."
 Doc Searls, co-author of dotcom bestseller The Cluetrain Manifesto: "We need to make a careful assessment of what we've learned so far. What's going on here is more like tectonics and geology: It's great shifts taking place underneath everything."

Drum’s conclusions are usefully sobering: “I think the internet enthusiasts are being too hard on themselves. It's a given in my business that the best marketing in the world can't sell a product that people don't want, and in the end I think that's all that happened here. After all, look at what the internet accomplished for Howard Dean: it raised a ton of money and generated loads of activist enthusiasm, which in turn bought a huge ground staff, encouraged endorsements from two of the biggest unions around, allowed the campaign to saturate the airwaves with advertising, boosted him to #1 in the polls, and helped fund a 50-state organization that was the envy of every other candidate.”

The frontloading of the Primaries seems to have had the consequence of staging an apparent contest between “Old” broadcast and “New” network modes of political organization in this early official season of earnest Primary campaigning. But it seems really wrong to identify Dean’s foundering as a victory of traditional broadcast over digital network hype. Framing the discussion in terms of Another Burst Internet Bubble, though it effectively points to some of the hype-nosis that has suffused the cyberspatial sprawl since last summer where Dean is concerned, ultimately sheds little light on the real scope and shape of the storm Dean has been riding. It pays to remember that Dean is not really unprecedented at all, but represents the second chapter in a longer story that began with the fundraising successes and buzz that briefly buoyed John McCain in the last Presidential cycle, and is likely to consolidate further next time around. Dean seems rightly regarded as a participant in an historic sea change, even if it doesn’t land him in the White House. As Drum helpfully goes on to suggest: “[T]he internet was instrumental in helping build all the traditional mechanisms that elect a candidate.” Those who expect the networks to Change Everything are of course courting disappointment, but in their disillusionment it is too easy to miss the bigger story of just how much is changing after all.