A Response to Dean Barnett

Patrick Ruffini

9/27/2007 9:28:00 PM - Patrick Ruffini
What, you didn't think I would stay out of this, did you? As tiresome, grating Action Alert Guy, how could I?

I get that online activism is not the kind of thing that'll get everyone's skirt up. But taken to its logical conclusion, the view that "it's all about punditry" is just as short sighted as Kos's whining, thought-free winnerism.

Dean's right that it is about ideas. Ideas are the foundation of everything we do in politics -- the door knocking, the envelope stuffing, the donating. But punditry is increasingly divorced from actual ideas.

How many blog posts do you see with a bright new idea for dealing with Iran, or solving Social Security? Such posts are few and far between because the people who have time to think them up are few and far between. So instead, what we mostly have is clever, witty commentary on the history others are busy making. If that's what punditry is, count me out. There are probably thousands of other bloggers who could turn a phrase better than I can on the Petraeus Report. It's just not my thing. I don't want to spend my time being the 6,297th voice in a giant echo chamber.

That's what 99% of punditing has become -- but it's the other 1% that really interests me.

Take a look at Dean's example of the supremacy of punditry. It was an intellectual at AEI who first proposed the surge. Stop right there. That's as far away from the pundits bloviating on the Sunday Shows as you can get. Frederick Kagan wasn't regurgitating second-hand information. He was proposing an original idea, one powerful enough to get  picked up on by the White House.

In my book, pushing an idea from concept to execution is not punditry. It is activism. In another realm, doesn't the term "judicial activism" connote the idea that one need not look up from a law book or leave chambers to be an activist?

You do not need to give money or trudge through Iowa to be an activist. All you have to do is propose an original idea and own it like a dog with a bone. You can do that that through writing alone if the idea is important enough.

I try to only blog when I have something original to say, whether it looks outwardly like I'm being a "pundit" or an "activist." The state-of-the-movement discussion we were having this summer is a perfect example. That conversation was not an act of punditry, but of activism, and of trying to generate the intellectual capital necessary to move the party in the right direction in time for 2008. It was commentary not for its own sake, but to achieve certain definable objectives.

Even in my ideal world, blogs will do commentary the vast majority of the time. What concerns me is that we don't always properly appreciate the implications of what that writing can accomplish. Do you understand what TPM Muckraker did with its team of reporters to seed the narrative of a corrupt GOP in the last election? Or (as Jon Henke can sing chapter and verse on) what they did in conjunction with that famous New Republic piece to create a narrative of George Allen as racially insensitive, without which "macaca" may never have taken hold? Poring through FEC reports and doing original reporting is something we simply don't do enough of. Call it boring activism if you must, but looking at  the Left's dominance of original reporting, the Internet creates an opportunity for conservatives to level the playing field.

And what about straight activism? Is Dean actually implying someone should never bother to contribute under $100 to a campaign (psst... at the evil, top-down RNC, where I used to work, that's where we got most of our money)? Or that one shouldn't bother to volunteer? Yes -- a few exceptional bloggers will always have the greatest impact with their words, particularly when they can inject new ideas rather than rehash the day's news. But what about busy readers who don't have time to blog themselves? Can't they make their impact by making a quick donation or calling their Congressman?

The bottom line is this. I'm concerned about the message we're broadcasting to everyone in our movement when we suggest that activism is somehow unworthy of us. The Goldwater-Reagan Revolution would not have been possible with that mentality. Some have the luxury of being pundits exclusively, but most people will make their impact through activism of one form or another.

In cases like MA-5, the contrast is even more pronounced. All the commentary in the world will not elect someone like Jim Ogonowski, because no matter compelling the words are, fewer than 1 in 435 readers will be in a position to act on the message with their votes. But contributions, on the other hand, are convertible into hard assets that matter in the district. And by creating a narrative about why this race matters, we can exercise a disproportionate impact on a race that could have a disproportionate impact in damaging the Democrat-controlled Congress. I'm hopeful that we did more than just raise $15,000. By creating enough of a buzz, who's to say we didn't signal some big donors to jump in too? Only 7 new maxed-out donors and we've doubled our money. It's all about knowing what buttons to push and picking the right battles.

At the Presidential level, things are actually worse than Dean imagines. Yes, the blogosphere is spread too thin to be able to make much difference activism-wise at the Presidential level. The blogosphere actually had relatively little to do with Howard Dean, or Jim Webb, or Barack Obama, or (arguably) with Ron Paul. Heroic efforts like MyManMitt's still remain the exception.

But don't underestimate the millions -- yes millions -- of activists who will be inspired to give money next year. And the fact that Democrats have figured out how to create a huge markets for online fundraising and actually raise anywhere from a third to half of their money through the medium should scare us. This is about more than Kos -- he can only move coin in the low seven figures. I'm talking about the eight and possibly nine figures that the broader Democrat activist space can produce because their leaders have been strategic in fully embracing the medium and doing the important things online.

The bottom line is that now is not the time to be risk averse. Now is not to be time to circumscribe activism. Not with the country at risk of complete Democrat control.