Like many of us, I'm intrigued by the notion of political influence, how systemic changes get made through the political system. As one example of how this question is debated, right-wing blogger Patrick Ruffini is making the argument that the traffic of Dailykos is overstated, with the implication that the liberal blogs aren't as important as they are treated. As for the specifics, traffic patterns across the blogosphere are in flux, with growth concentrated in new emergent systems like Facebook. The question of influence, though, is not tied to traffic, and so Ruffini's attack will fail, as plenty of other attacks on liberal bloggers have failed before.
But the question of influence versus reach works both ways. Take the latest episode of Rush Limbaugh and the flame war with VoteVets over the 'phony soldier' flap. The RNC sent out an email to its list on Rush Limbaugh, as did the DNC. The DNC had something on the order of twenty times the response rate, and yet, the email from Republican Eric Cantor did something that VoteVets, Moveon, and nearly every Democrat did not. It made a policy ask. Cantor asked RNC recipients to sign a petition to kill any attempt to resurrect the fairness doctrine regulating talk radio. Only Wes Clark on our side made an ask related to the controversy which would change the nature of the system itself: remove Rush Limbaugh from Armed Forces radio. Cantor's request was echoed by every Republican echo chamber, so that a minimally resonant minority view was translated into policy momentum for something promoting right-wing values.
So while traffic patterns are important in understanding leverage, they are not dominant. In fact, one of the characteristics of modern global politics is how organized minority factions are able to overwhelm majority views (something Steve Clemons noted in a session I attended a few days ago). From the settlers in Israel to hardliners in America or Iran to Al Qaeda in Iraq, minority factions are able to overcome views, sometimes even powerfully held views by a majority. The problem is fractal. Bush/Cheney controls American foreign policy and pushes for a war with Iran, McConnell controls the Republicans in Congress and pushes against SCHIP, Blue Dogs control the Democrats in Congress, Mark Penn steers the Clinton campaign, and right-wing business elites control the US Chamber of Commerce or the AMA. In every case, the leader of the group represents the minority view of the constituent group. Hardliners control small institutions that control larger institutions that control most relevant national instruments of power.
Breaking through this pattern is vitally necessary to build a progressive economy. It's not just that America is run by lunatics, it's that changing Congress did not alter our governing coalition because of this odd characteristic of modern political architecture. Our efforts weren't in vain, but there's no doubt that our strategic understanding of the political system as a two party fight with power passing back and forth between then is inadequate.
Here's how I'm beginning to think through a new framework for political strategy, based on Eric Beinhocker's The Origin of Wealth. Politics is a nonlinear dynamic system, not a traditional closed system. Nonlinearity means that change doesn't happen in a steady fashion, but comes in violent clumps. Much of our political leadership doesn't think this way. Steny Hoyer thinks that Democrats will be in control of the House, and then that Republicans will be in control of the House, that there is a balanced oscillation. Choice, labor rights, environment - these are the 'issues' upon which one must take the correct 'positions' according to polling data. And yet, the assumptions here is that the electorate doesn't change its mind very quickly, that new problems won't arise, that pollsters tell the truth, and that priorities or intensity of feelings don't change. We'll push back and forth over certain bills, and compromise will be the result. The political system's contours are considered static, and linear.
This is true throughout the activist single issue world as well. NARAL based its strategy on the idea that electing pro-choice Democratic women in swing districts would gradually lead to an increase in abortion rights, just as labor orients its strategies around the Employee Free Choice Act. This is a closed strategy model.
And yet, this model doesn't work. How does NARAL deal with terrorism? It doesn't, because terrorism is 'not their issue'. And yet, 9/11 unleashed a dramatic change in our constitutional fabric, one that cannot be explained by a two party model of politics and one that has significantly changed the Supreme Court in a way that will negatively impact abortion rights for generations. The disjarring nonlinear change unleashed by 9/11, the dynamic shifts in popular opinion, were just not captured by the Democratic party establishment or its substantial infrastructure. By contrast, terrorism allowed the conservative movement to push through everything from increased executive power to tax cuts to rollbacks in consumer and worker safety, most of which were tangential to terrorism. Indeed, the war in Iraq was completely tangential to terrorism. I believe this lack or surfeit of adaptive capacity explains both the rise of the networked or 'open left' and the success of the right-wing in its dominance of the American political scene.
Conservatives see politics as a nonlinear dynamic system, not as a two party system. They take advantage of crisis moments, as Naomi Klein points out in the Shock Doctrine, or even foment them, to create positive feedback loops for conservative ideas. Media consolidation under such institutions as GE and the gutting of antitrust create a dishonest media system that allows the country to go to war. War allows companies like GE to make money from selling weapons. Tax breaks for churches that become an arm of the GOP, creating corruption in government as a way to attack the concept of government, etc. These are all positive feedback loops for conservatives. The evisceration of the Fairness Doctrine in the 1980s by conservative Republicans allowed the rise of Rush Limbaugh, who then promoted more conservative Republican policies such as further media consolidation to spread Rush to more channels across the board, along with increased capital to fund more right-wing talk radio. Defending Rush is about defending this positive conservative feedback loop, just as attacking the structure of media would change the feedback loop to a more progressive direction. Less Rush means less conservative media ownership structures which means increasingly less Rush.
Because of these feedback loops and the nonlinear nature of change, complex adaptive systems are very hard to understand and are full of uncertainty. In such systems, there is a strong sensitivity to initial conditions, and accepting that means accepting our lack of explicit control over political change. Were Al Gore in the White House on 9/11, the world would look very different; the attack on America could have come a year earlier, but it didn't, which is a random and seemingly small shift in time lapses with large consequences over which we had no control. And path dependency, or history, matters. The argument Eric Cantor used about the Fairness Doctrine builds upon an argument that has already been made for forty years, but if Iraq had not happened, it's likely that he would be able to make a much more credible claim about an attack on Rush being an attack by the 'liberal' media.
All of this is a way to say that our movement, which really is an emergent phenomenon, should begin to prepare for small shifts that produce outsized effects with discrete asks to change the contours of the system. The Rush Limbaugh controversy was used by the right to further drive a stake into the heart of the Fairness Doctrine. And yet, there is a fight at the FCC later this year on media consolidation, on who owns the media. Commissioner Adelstein wants a 'independent, bipartisan panel, representing broadcasters, female and minority owners, investors, advertisers, and the public to investigate ways to have a more diverse ownership of the airwaves. This is the change in the system we want. Rush Limbaugh can be taken down, but we must take advantage of nonlinear events such as the Imus controversy, any number of Limbaugh scandals, the Fox News controversy, the Wall Street Journal takeover by Murdoch, or the Judy Miller scandal to push for this change. Why aren't antiwar vets given a chance to respond to Rush? The answer is that the FCC allows Clear Channel to make money through regulatory decisions denying it to them. That's the leverage point.
There's a generic issue here, which is that we must tie our policy asks to the media moments. Hurting Limbaugh was a media fight, but the Steny Hoyer's delay of the FISA expansion was an internal Congressional and activist fight. The point is that there are leverage points everywhere in our political system, once you stop seeing the fight as a fight between two teams and begin to consider politics as a dynamic system with regular nonlinear events that can be used for the institutionalization of our values.
Anyway, I don't have an answer as to why right-wing minorities are controlling larger entities right now, but I think that their capacity to work within an adaptive framework and push for their values consistently, to see the totality of the system instead of barriers they must not cross, is a key part of it.