A Reprise to “Bloggers and Politics”

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An entry by a Singapore Economist entitled “Blogger and Politics” has caught my attention today. Two days back, Joe Lieberman, an incumbent three-term senator from the state of Connecticut and also a vice-presidential candidate hopeful, lost the Democratic primary to a political novice, Ned Lamont. The US blogosphere or the netroots movement was cited as one of the main factors for Lieberman (see this article from Time magazine). Coupled with the Connecticut democrats’ unhappiness with Lieberman’s pro-Iraq war stance and closeness to George W Bush, Led Namont was able to pull off a surprise victory in this primary.

As I have been following the US midterm elections 2006 closely via both the US mainstream media and blogosphere (for example, Huffington Post and Daily Kos: State of the Nation), the intention of the article is to examine the implications of this event in the context of Singapore. This short analysis hopes to complement earlier articles in Singapore (for example, see the earlier articles by Hou and my fellow colleague, Ringisei from Singapore Angle).

Ari Melber asked the question in Huffington Post, “Did the bloggers defeat Joe Lieberman?” Currently, the US MSM and blogosphere are discussing the repercussions of the Lieberman’s loss in the democratic primary. In his own words,

Bloggers constitute a small slice of progressive Internet activists, known as the netroots, which includes organizations like MoveOn.org and Democracy for America; informal networks like e-mail lists and MySpace groups; and Internet activists who use websites to raise money, broadcast videos and disseminate information.

Similarly like the Daily Kos blogger, Markos Moulitsas, who was skeptical about the bloggers effect, he examines the other factors which are also crucial to Lamont’s win in the Connecticut democratic primary. Most famous political bloggers in US divert the hype that they are responsible for Lieberman’s defeat. Let us look at the other factors that I believe, have contributed to Lieberman’s defeat:

  • Innovation and Creativity demonstrated by the Lamont strong campaign team:: Under the leadership of Sean Smith, a Connecticut democratic operative and also campaign manager to Lamont’s campaign, the team has adopted various strategies that made Lamont look like a different kind of democrat. Of course, the basic platform which Lamont ran on, was on his opposition to Iraq war and Lieberman being too close to George Bush. As the events unfold, the team established him with positions on other issues, for example, the Terry Schiavo case and Patriot Act. With all the frustration mounting on the Bush administration’s foreign policy in Middle East and other domestic failures (healthcare and social security), Ned Lamont has managed to come from behind to beat Lieberman. If you type “Ned Lamont” in youTube, you find that the Lamont’s political ads are pretty innovative and breaks away from the conventional political ads in the US. One can attribute to Lamont’s background as a businessman who made his money in the media industry. Jon Stewart, from Comedy Central, was the first to pick up the way how Lamont narrate with his approval of his political message. For example, he ends with “I am Ned Lamont and I approve this message” with his team adding, “and so do we all”. He was able to deflect the Lieberman’s negative campaign by running a humorous ad that mocks himself as a person with a messy desk and makes bad coffee. In short, he was also winning the media campaign against Lieberman.
  • Strong grassroots movement by established Democrat internet engines: Lamont has the support of not only the Connecticut bloggers but also established internet organizations like Moveon.org to help him to do fundraising. Melber also pointed out that the first netroots activist that brought about the defeat of Lieberman’s loss was Keith Crane. He described about the process in how Keith using not only blogging but also normal marketing strategies to help Lamont propagate his message:

    As I write in this new Nation piece, Ned Lamont’s Digital Constituency, the first netroots activist to break through in Connecticut was Keith Crane, a retired truck driver who sparked Internet rumblings against Lieberman in February 2005–without a blog. Crane had never even touched a computer until 2003, when he volunteered to work on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, and he still types with one finger. After Lieberman voted to confirm Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General, Crane began a grassroots campaign to recruit a primary opponent and launched DumpJoe.com. Yet as a Democratic Town Committee member in Branford, Crane did not confine his activism to the Internet. While his website highlighted the infamous image of Bush kissing Lieberman, Crane also created hundreds of “kiss buttons” and Iraq stickers that he distributed in the parking lot at the state party’s largest dinner in March 2005. He remembers that the buttons struck a nerve because “every car was stopping” to offer a thumbs-up.

  • Political knife from his fellow Democrat senators: Most of the major Democrat senators, including their Senate Minority leader, have made it clear that they would only support the winner of the Democrat Primary rather than endorse the incumbent senator ahead of the primary. They were also unhappy with Lieberman’s unwavering support to Bush, particularly his objection to filibuster the Sam Alito’s nomination as a justice to the US supreme court.

The MSM in Singapore may hijack this repercussions to this event and hype the blogger effect in US so that they can urge the authorities to take a tougher stance to the blogosphere, using a slippery slope argument that if the establishment don’t do that, they will end up like what happened to Lieberman. I am not going to counter this type of fallacious argument. Instead I will play the contrarian and provide a few reasons why it is extremely difficult for the Singapore blogosphere to have significant influence in our political elections:

  • There is no alternative MSM in Singapore: Adding to my earlier argument that most bloggers tend to read ST first before quoting them and adding their disagreements with the piece, the second issue is that there are no alternative MSM in Singapore. In the US, Ned Lamont has the support of New York Times, even he was constantly painted as a “unpatriotic” and not “trustworthy” individual by Fox News.
  • Lack of Grassroots and Activists: This is the problem of the opposition parties in Singapore. Without a strong grassroots movement, there is no way that they can win an election. After all, the grassroots activities provide the most direct and simple way to bring voters to the polls.
  • Political bloggers prefer to be anonymous: We don’t have Markos Moulitsas or the team of bloggers in Huffington Post who are not anonymous and stand up to the establishment. With all the Internet and Sedition Acts, it is virtually impossible for bloggers of such genre exist. Of course you can, call yourself “anonymous” or pick a nice pseudonym.
  • Spring up innvoative approaches in the election campaign: Ned Lamont knew how to play the media game, but in Singapore, it is impossible to play the media game. Yes, the Singaporean netroots person can upload videos to youtube and google video. At the end of the day, counting the unique visitors for downloads, you would realize that it is only about 0.2% (the highest download for the election was about 100K and I use the population of 4.3M as my denominator and I agree that it’s a very rough and dirty estimate).

Of course, at the end of the day, it is an interesting phenomenon to see how the netroots activists in US have created an interesting case study of how bloggers have assisted in a political election. Did they really help to bring down Lieberman? I take the skeptical hat and conclude that it is more than the bloggers that make the difference.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist