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Will Democrats find their technology mojo in time?

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*June 7, 2010: Updated with Henke quote

The Personal Democracy Forum held its eighth annual gathering in New York City this year on June 3 and June 4. According to its website, PDF describes itself as:

One hub for the conversation already underway between political practitioners and technologists, as well as anyone invigorated by the potential of all this to open up the process and engage more people in all the things that we can and must do together as citizens. We value your input and ideas.

PDF has a reputation of being dominated by liberal progressives who attend the yearly event. However, PDF founder Andrew Rasiej told me the organization has been reaching out to conservatives to attend the annual forum since its inception:

 “We’ve been inviting conservatives to this conference from the beginning, and the first year they were ten percent of our audience, the next year it was twenty, this year it is closer to thirty-five,” he said.  “You’ve got Saul Anuzis here. You’ve got Jon Henke here. You’ve got Mindy Finn, David All. Patrick Ruffini spoke to us many times. We’ve given those people as much of a platform as anybody else.”

David All heads up the David All Group, a right-of-center Washington D.C. based new media consulting firm dealing with the “interactive grassroots.” In an email statement, Mr. All pointed out that more conservatives are finding their way to technology conferences like PDF:

“PDF is a rewarding experience for folks on all sides of the aisle and   increasingly every corner of the world. It provides a unique platform where smart people come together to help push the industry forward.

This year there were more than 40 conservatives in attendance including: Saul Anuzis, an elected member of the RNC, and staff from offices of Leader Boehner, Whip Cantor, Chairman Price, and Rep. Darrell Issa. After our panel on how conservatives are innovating online one leading Democrat operative walked up to me and said, ‘wow, Republicans have caught up.’ Clearly.”

Speakers at this year’s PDF included Arianna Huffington, Newt Gingrich, Markos Moulitsas, Jane Hamsher, and Saul Anuzis.

With such political animals in one space, snarky remarks are bound to come from attendees as well as speakers. Mr. Rasiej said:

“There was one [snarky comment] yesterday by Jane Hamsher.”

The PDF founder reminded Ms. Hamsher that day that politics should be checked at the door after she took a shot at Mr. Gingrich during her time on stage.

“It was a little surprising when Jane made that remark. She couldn’t help herself, but it gave me the opportunity to remind everybody that since we started this organization, [there has been] diversity of political opinion, we’ve been working hard on diversity of gender, we’re also working hard on diversity of color, and it’s a constant process,” said the PDF founder.

Mr. Rasiej pointed to another time a speaker took a political jab:

“Last year Todd Herman (Republican National Committee Technology Director) was on stage, and he made some snarky comments toward some progressives in the room, so that happens from time to time. It’s pretty clear here, as you’ll see from the conversations going on outside, Jon Henke is sitting down with Markos Moulitsas. This is a very collegial group and this is a community that believes that technology makes our democracy stronger, more transparent, and more accountable.”

For a number of years, The Leadership Institute’s conservative president Morton Blackwell has said, “Most political technology is philosophically neutral.” The question liberals and conservatives face from time to time is who is using political technology better? Mr. Rasiej gave a little history on the issue:

“For decades the Republican Party had a major advantage over the Democratic Party in understanding information and communication technologies and invested heavily in IT actually…mostly around databases, direct mail, and delivering very consistent messages to a network of organizations that would carry that message for them from school boards to college Republicans on up through the hierarchy of the Republican Party. 

Democratic Politics are much more diverse than the ones in conservative politics. It was much more difficult to galvanize communications around Democrats, so Democrats were really behind. It wasn’t until 2004 with Howard Dean being the ring through the bull’s nose dragging the Democratic Party kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

Markos Moulitsas and others were basically the vanguard of the new voice. The Democrat Party failed to organize its constituency, so the constituency organized itself, and many of the insurgency were formed in 2004 and 2006. We didn’t have You Tube. We didn’t have Twitter. We didn’t have Facebook. We had blogs, basically. By 2007 and 2008 we had a lot more tools and platforms. There was a lot of pent up anger. People felt that they didn’t have a voice, so they organized themselves. 

At last year’s conference, I told a lot of my friends like David All, Mindy Finn, and Mike Turk—I know they were sad that John McCain lost, but it may have been the best thing that happened to their businesses, because now they were going to be called by everybody that never really paid attention [to political technology issues] before.”

Jon Henke of the Next Right took issue with the idea that the Right was ever behind in terms of using technology. In an email statement he said:

“The Right has not been behind in “technology”. Technology is a commodity, available to everybody. What the Right has been missing is motivation.  When Republicans were in power, innovation didn’t seem necessary. Now, the technology adoption gap is closing because the Right is motivated again.

I have to admit that I am disappointed that the Right has not led the charge on transparency at the federal level. Republican politicians and the conservative/libertarian movements have allowed left-of-center groups like the Sunlight Foundation run with that issue. Politicians and organizations on the Right should have been leading the transparency movement at the federal level.”

 While Howard Dean did not ultimately benefit from the left’s grassroots campaign technology push, President Barack Obama and his Democratic Congress did. However, was this a short-lived political technology honeymoon before liberals disconnected themselves from politics after Mr. Obama took office?  Mr. Rasiej sees how the Democrats have slipped some in this area since January 20, 2009:

“As as soon as the election was over, the Democrats kind of went back to the old model…just top down. They stopped listening. Organizing for America was sort of not communicating, and they stopped doing feedback to all these people who had been organized. They had a great deal of trouble re-galvanizing them around health care. Now granted, getting someone elected…getting 13 million people on an email list to organize themselves to pull the lever for one guy in one day is a lot easier than getting people to agree on health care.

With the Scott Brown election, we saw that the conservatives are able to use these tools just as effectively. This is the first time in modern American political communication history, where both parties have equal capabilities—an equal understanding of the potential of the tools.

That’s the good news. The bad news for both of them is that the tools have also empowered a whole lot of other people who don’t want to self-identify themselves as connected to a party but are interested in self-identifying themselves related to particular issues.”

Mr. Rasiej hopes to expand the PDF conference outside of the United States to places like Barcelona, Santiago, and areas in Africa.

follow me on twitter: @KerryPicket

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About the Author
Kerry Picket

Kerry Picket

Kerry Picket, a former Opinion Blogger/Editor of The Watercooler, was associate producer for the Media Research Center, a content producer for Robin Quivers of "The Howard Stern Show" on Sirius satellite radio and a production assistant and copy writer at MTV.

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