Connecticut Democrat Ned Lamont’s primary victory on Tuesday has been widely heralded as the first major win for the online liberal advocacy community. But how much credit do the so-called “net-roots” really deserve? Brooke speaks with Internet theorist and NYU telecom professor Clay Shirky about the political web in its age of adolescence.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. When political pundits look for bellwether elections, they rarely look in Connecticut, but they did Tuesday, when Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman lost to challenger Ned Lamont, largely over the issue of the war, which Lieberman supported and Lamont did not. Some say it was a referendum on the President. Some say it was a referendum on Lieberman. Some say it was a referendum on the community of online liberal activists, called the "net-roots," which backed Lamont. We wanted to know what Clay Shirky says. He writes frequently on the impact of the virtual world on our real lives, and he joins us now. Welcome to the show.
CLAY SHIRKY: Thanks very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, Ned Lamont bests Lieberman in Connecticut's Democratic primary by four points, and the net-roots declare victory. Should they?
CLAY SHIRKY: Yes, partially. I mean, one of the interesting things that we saw up there is what you might call the end of causation. In the old days, it was really easy to say, well, the blogosphere did this or the blogosphere did that, because it stood so separately from the rest of the political establishment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like the blogosphere brought down Dan Rather during the National Guard story, the blogosphere brought down Trent Lott after that Strom Thurmond lunch.
CLAY SHIRKY: Right. And in both the Dan Rather and Trent Lott cases, we can actually go back and find individual posts from individual bloggers and say, this is the moment when this point or that point entered the conversation. Blogs are now so integrated into political discussion, there's never a moment of coup de grace where you can say, there I saw someone post X, and after that, these things changed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, before there was something called net-roots, there was another net-roots candidate, and his name was Howard Dean. And the media fell all over him and his Internet muscle, at least for fundraising, and many people in the so-called gang of 500 Washington pundits declared Dean to be the winner far in advance of, you know, Iowa, because of the Net. So why were they so wrong?
CLAY SHIRKY: They were wrong – and, in fact, I should say we were wrong – I was one of the people calling the Dean candidacy one of the first successful uses of the Internet. And like many people, I believed that that was going to be transformative. And when first the Iowa failure and then the New Hampshire failure in the Dean campaign happened, which was really the moment for me where I recognized how wrong I'd been, it became clear that what Dean had succeeded at was raising both awareness and money. But what he'd failed at was to actually convince people to vote for him. And one of the big differences between 2004 and now is that people thinking about the use of Web blogs in political campaigns have learned both lessons. They've learned how to use blogs to raise awareness, but they also learned that merely talking about things wasn't enough to get out the vote, and so they linked the conversation about the candidates with other get-out-the-vote movements. And, indeed, the turnout in the Connecticut race was one of the highest ever recorded in a primary.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, how do we know that Lamont wouldn't have won anyway? In a blue state, an increasingly polarized country, it's a Democratic senator, Joe Lieberman, increasingly crossing the political color line to support the president on the prosecution of the war, to hush the critics of the war, to stand with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist on reattaching Terry Schiavo's feeding tube. At a time when the President's numbers are sinking and public discontent rising, it seems to me the race was Lamont's to lose.
CLAY SHIRKY: The list you just went through of many of the things that people were aware of about Lamont were actually things that came from the national framing of the debate. People in Connecticut weren't bringing up the Terry Schiavo stuff. It didn't resonate from the moment that Lieberman said that through this campaign. In fact, Lieberman was polling roughly 70 percent support a few months ago. So in a way, the framing of the debate to include things like Terry Schiavo, which was an event [CHUCKLES] in Florida, not in Connecticut, was part of what the Web blog world did, which was to turn this into a referendum on national issues and on the Senate's relationship to the executive branch. Lieberman would always have gotten national attention. He was a three-term Democratic senator. He had run for vice-president. He was on the national stage. Ned Lamont was not a national figure, and having his profile promoted to national interest, in part by the blogosphere, actually allowed him to fight his election campaign, framing it with national issues, without having to get into many of the bread-and-butter issues that actually typically characterize local campaigns.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So where does Lamont stand in the political history of the Internet? You've called him the last of his kind.
CLAY SHIRKY: In part, Lamont is the last of his kind, but much more, this race is the last of its kind. And this may be one of the last elections we see where there is clearly a net-savvy candidate going head to head with a non-net-savvy incumbent. The operatives who think about national races pay attention to these bellwethers so clearly, and you know that Karl Rove and his staff are going through the results of the Lieberman-Lamont race, and they're picking out particular techniques that Lamont did that Lieberman failed to do, and they're going to be adapting them for the November of 2006 races.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I was thinking that the most potent example of what you predict happened on election day when the Lieberman website went down and the Lieberman campaign immediately accused the net-roots of hacking their site. I guess the net-roots people had to come in and say, hey, it wasn't us. You ran out of gigabytes because you didn't pay for them.
CLAY SHIRKY: [CHUCKLES] I think that's a perfect example. The fact that the Lieberman campaign has simply not paid for their domain name registration through election day is indicative of how unfamiliar they are with the basic operation of the Net. And that kind of thing is going away, simply because it's become too important for the campaign staff not to understand.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Thank you very much.
CLAY SHIRKY: Thanks very much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Clay Shirky writes on the social and economic effects of the Internet and teaches a New York University's graduate interactive telecommunications program.