A Surprising, Unexpected, Recurring Factor in Partisan Realignment—And What It Means to the Netroots

By Matt Kerbel and Chris Bowers
This is the fourth of five diaries looking at the 2016 election from the perspective of our new book Next Generation Netroots: Realignment and the Rise of the Internet Left

Cross-posted at Daily Kos

At several moments in American history we have experienced inflection points in our political direction. 1828. 1860. 1932. 1968. In these years, the prevailing alignment of political parties succumbed to changing political, social or economic conditions and a new alignment began to emerge. These moments are complicated and are the product of a host of institutional and social forces. In our book, Next Generation Netroots, we examine one often overlooked but compelling force associated with political realignment: changes in media technology.

Technology, and specifically communication technology, are not obvious factors in explaining how successful partisan coalitions emerge, endure and eventually collapse. However, there is an intriguing overlap between the emergence of new media technology as a political tool and these moments of political instability, with parties or leaders who unlock the political potential of new technology emerging victorious.

We write in Next Generation Netroots:

[The] delay between the introduction of new media technology and the perfection of its political use has repeated throughout history in an uncanny cycle coinciding with the coalition shifts associated with most critical elections. There is a noteworthy correlation between the maturation of communication technology and the Jackson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Nixon elections. Each of these elections and the regimes they ushered in was facilitated by the use of a new technology in a novel and creative way that would later define how that technology was used in politics: Jackson and mass printing; Lincoln and the telegraph; FDR and radio; Nixon and television.

The key isn’t simply the availability of new technology. It’s understanding how to use it for political purposes. The telegraph existed for years before Lincoln, just as radio was used by three presidents before FDR and television was ubiquitous in American households for a decade and a half before Nixon made his comeback in 1968, not to mention an essential feature in the creation of John F. Kennedy’s mystique. But no one had figured out how to maximize their political impacts before Lincoln used the telegraph for information control, Roosevelt used radio to create a sense of false intimacy with the electorate, and Nixon–learning from Kennedy’s slick use of the medium in 1960–entirely re-invented himself by fabricating a phony “New Nixon” on TV.

Interestingly, the lowest-tech instance of utilizing technology to establish a successful political coalition is the one with the most parallels to our own time: Andrew Jackson’s skillful use of inexpensive printing technology. Jackson’s story (and in this case we’re talking about his skill with the political process, not his political objectives) should sound familiar to anyone who has ever confronted the helpless feeling of being on the outside of an insular political system and trying in vain to overcome its fortresses.

In 1824, expanding suffrage made it possible in theory for a frontier candidate with popular appeal to mount a credible presidential challenge. In fact, largely due to the changing demographics of the electorate, Jackson was able to receive a plurality, though not a majority, of electoral and popular votes in a four-way contest. However, he was ultimately rebuffed when the election was decided in the House of Representatives.

Four years later, Jackson mounted an entirely different type of campaign. At the time, printing technology was improving, printing costs were falling and literacy rates were rising. Against this backdrop, Jackson built the first mass-based party operation with a web of newspapers at its core, utilizing that network to build a rudimentary grassroots infrastructure and forge coalitions across distant regions. Jackson thus applied new media technology to circumvent the congressional elites who had dominated the presidential selection process in the preceding decades, and in so doing he successfully secured a majority of electoral votes.

Technological improvements in the 1820s allowed newspapers to reach remote frontier towns in what could be considered America’s first information revolution. It was common practice at the time for newspapers to be partisan, so there was nothing unusual about Jackson purchasing dozens of newspapers in far-flung communities around the country and establishing loyal partisans as editors. What was revolutionary was the idea to use this network of newspapers to support a national political campaign organization.

The Jackson campaign coordinated the efforts of newspaper editors with each other and with sympathetic state party organizations and local officials. The editors in turn performed the essential functions of a mass-based campaign. They synchronized campaign operations, circulated a unified campaign message, generated grassroots excitement and mobilized voters–all without a national mass medium of communication. But Jackson used the technology available to him in a way no one else had. It was relatively low-tech, but effective.

In Next Generation Netroots we contend that in 2016 we are plausibly nearing another reconfiguration of our political landscape. Once again, changes in media technology–in our case, the Internet–is helping to drive us closer to the inflection point.

Since the turn of the millennium, we have repeatedly seen digital-fueled campaigns challenge established political norms.  In 2003–the dawn of the netroots–MoveOn.org, the progressive blogosphere and Howard Dean all bootstrapped themselves from obscurity to national prominence by using new social media platforms and email-based organizing tactics to harness the significant anti-war sentiment that the media and political establishment had dismissed. In 2008, Barack Obama used cutting edge email, SMS texting, and online to offline community building tactics to defy expectations and become the first African American President of the United States. Social protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter utilized social media to create massive new cultural and political waves despite starting from effectively zero. In just the last 12 months, Bernie Sanders rode a tsunami of digital organizing and social media buzz to rise from being an obscure progressive folk hero into a serious contender for the White House.

For better than a decade, the netroots have repeatedly used the Internet to build the networks and structures necessary to compete in the political process. Like Jackson, the effort took place on the outside and required doing things no one had done before or even thought possible, such as using vast quantities of small-dollar donors derived from email-based organizing to surpass the fundraising capability of candidates with closer connections to large Democratic donors.

Like in Jackson’s time, our party system and electoral demographics are in flux. Historically, these have been moments of opportunity for groups, movements or individuals that are strong enough, well positioned enough and savvy enough to understand how to find maximum advantage in a new or emerging communication technology. Are the netroots capable of using digital media to break through as a majority partner in a new political alignment? We will consider the possibility in our final diary tomorrow.

*  *  *  *  *  

Purchase Chris Bowers and Matt Kerbel’s book Next Generation Netroots and take advantage of an exclusive 33% discount available only to readers of Daily Kos and Wolves and Sheep. Purchase directly from Routledge Publishers and type the promo code NGN16 at checkout.