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The death of political Luddites


If Ned Ludd were alive today he would probably not own a computer, nor would he like politics very much. And he would be amazed that someone like me was beginning to use social media.

Between 1811 and 1816 British workers rioted against new labor-saving machinery being installed in the textile industry. Ned Ludd was the leader of this opposition to mechanization, and so ever since that time one who opposes technological change has been subject to wearing the label of “Luddite.” The staff of the Stennis Institute would be the first to pin the Luddite label on me when it comes to anything related to the no-longer-so-new social media. Indeed, after years of trying they have finally taught me how to forward an email.

There was a time when the honorable approach to political campaigning involved numerous stump speeches and the necessity of removing a sweat-soaked shirt at the end of a long summer’s day of “pressing the flesh.” It was assumed that we had reached the end of the technological array of possibilities when we acquired the ability to photocopy mass numbers of campaign flyers or blast campaign messages over the “fax machine.” Little did we realize that this was simply the end of the old era. Surely somebody was standing there to tell us, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

One of the long-admired figures in political circles has been the master organizer at “grassroots politics.” This was the person who could find voters where nobody else could and in turn deliver them to the polls. Whether attending church services several times a Sunday or local organization meetings all during the week, a candidate wanted the grassroots political organizer on his side. While such a political expert is still coveted, the methods employed would no longer be recognizable to political players from the old school.

The first thought that enters a potential candidate’s mind as he or she ponders a run for office — particularly at the national level – is whether or not they can gather enough money to make a legitimate run. In the 2004 presidential campaign former Vermont governor and later Democratic Party chair Howard Dean exploded onto the scene by virtue of his newly devised ability to gather funds from the masses of people via the Internet and personal computer. Lightly regarded at first, Dean became a serious candidate by virtue of his highly successful new fundraising strategy. While Dean did not win, his successful use of the Internet launched the media wars as a permanent component of political campaigning.

As new technology has come into view the political world has jumped to the front of the line to take advantage of it. In the 2008 campaign Democrat Barack Obama discovered how a candidate could use all forms of social media to assemble a largely unknown and unseen army of millions to campaign constantly from coast to coast. For example, Mr. Obama’s campaign used YouTube for free advertising. Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean’s campaign, said at the 2006 Web 2.0 summit in San Francisco that Obama’s YouTube videos were more effective than television ads because viewers chose to watch them or received them from a friend instead of having their television shows interrupted. And, by the way, they could use their credit cards to make campaign contributions over the Internet every few hours if they so chose.

Staff at the Republican National Committee readily admitted to being impressed by the innovativeness of the Obama social media driven campaign, and they immediately set about the task of building a better political mouse trap. Naturally, the Obama re-election was prepared to double down on their social media efforts. The upshot of all of this is that the “presses” of the social media, via thousands of outlets, are running full-speed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The lives of confirmed Luddites like me have been turned upside down. I have entered the world of “Twitter” and have even tweeted enough to get into trouble. I swore that I would never cave in to Facebook or LinkedIn and now I’m on both. I have so many “apps” for political blogs on my phone that I could spend all day every day reading political commentary from the right and the left ends of the political spectrum. Of course there are the 24 hour news programs on television and radio. Because of them I can mouth the talking points from both sides just like one could recite the lines from a favorite movie.

Gone forever is the dependence on the 30-minute nightly news cast. Similarly well-targeted direct mailings using the postal service are almost a memory, and the earned (free) media of stories in printed newspapers is likely approaching the end of the line.

Is this virtually total transition to campaigning by social media and 24-hour coverage by traditional electronic media a good thing? One can make a good case that this explosion of access to political news has had a tremendously “democratizing” effect in that it is impossible not to have access to the most current political facts. On the other hand, the fact that anyone with the know-how to “go electronic” can make their version of a story look and read like real news regardless of the level of veracity.

Regardless, those with even the slightest political itch best go ahead and get “connected.”


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About Marty Wiseman

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