SHEFFIELD: Online, conservatives miss bigger point

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Besides coming to grips with the lukewarm presidential candidacy of Sen. John McCain, there are few questions roiling the online Right more than what the future holds.

Get the average conservative or libertarian talking, and you’ll hear a variety of explanations for what went wrong. For the most part, most discussants seem to break down into two camps, one believing things are bad because allegedly conservative politicians have gone astray following the siren call of big government.

The other group blames the current state of affairs on technological ineptitude.

Both have some reason to their arguments, and yet both get it wrong. During the Bush era, the Republican Party at both the presidential and congressional levels seems to have acted less conservatively than before. This has been a great disappointment to many on the right. Unfortunately, they draw the incorrect conclusion that the sole reason the GOP’s electoral fortunes look dim is because it hasn’t been sufficiently conservative.

This is a tempting conclusion to reach, but it requires that one ignore that liberals have co-opted this argument for their party. Ask almost any liberal blogger, and they’ll tell you the reason Democrats lost elections prior to 2006 was that they weren’t liberal enough.

Both arguments cannot always be true. Each side does have its own ideological core of support. Appealing exclusively to that base is not a good long-term strategy, however - especially at the presidential level.

It is also slightly problematic to hear conservatives on the one hand reject the ability of politicians to effect “change” on a societal level and then at the same time to see the right put its faith in the ability of different politicians to keep themselves in line.

While more conservatism does not necessarily equal victory, it is also true that better technology does not, either. Superior technology never saved a bad candidate, as Presidents Howard Dean and Ron Paul can attest. Observing their losses, however, many on the right have drawn the wrong conclusion, thinking that the failure of either candidate to acquire the traction they needed was because engaging the Internet is not useful (beyond raising money) or that it only appeals to young people who don’t vote.

That last point is one particular myth that just won’t die.

Contrary to popular misconception, people who read political blogs tend to be middle-aged. This ought to be self-evident, given that younger people generally are not interested in politics, and older people are less likely to be on the Web. It’s long past time we put the myth of the youthful blog reader to rest.

Still, however, if it hadn’t been for the Web, both Mr. Dean and Mr. Paul would have been doomed to obscurity.

Mr. Dean was able to go from being the governor of a politically insignificant state to the No. 2 candidate for his party. Thanks to the Internet, Mr. Paul was able to raise massive amounts of money and garner a lot of attention, despite having an ideology that advocates a return to the gold standard and an almost total disarmament of the country. That wacky ideology is probably what has kept more sober-minded leaders of the right from learning what they should have from his experience: the Internet is likely the most cost-effective way to communicate with people who want to support you. Democrats have done much better at learning from their high-tech bust candidate and are now reaping the benefits, fiscal and otherwise.

A good Web site and marketing plan is no substitute for good operations in other areas, however. That’s why it is frustrating to hear some Internet consultants promising the world if you’ll just pay them to build your site for you. It simply doesn’t work that way. Good technology is good tactics. Good tactics can never save a bad strategy, but a good strategy usually requires good tactics. Countless political and business startup Web sites come and go, many built on technology that was far ahead of its time.

As different as they may seem, both the spending and the technology camps are making the same type of argument: one of tactics, not strategy. The reason the Right has fallen on hard times is that it is in need of a strategic recalibration, not just newer and more conservative tactics.

The conservative movement needs to take stock of its principles in the 21st century and find ways to reach out to voters about the issues of our time. Fighting terrorism is vitally important, but it is far from the only issue facing America. It’s time for the Right to step up to the plate and forcefully articulate an agenda that addresses not only foreign policy and other traditional Right-friendly topics, but also issues like the environment, education, high-technology and government reform - in a manner that adheres to conservative principles and exploits available technologies.

We’ll have to do it eventually. Why not start now?

  • Matthew Sheffield is a web consultant and creator of NewsBusters.org.
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