Internet & Political Passion: Discussions 1994-2000

I was an early adopter in using the Internet for civic causes and political organizing, way back in 1994. Here are excerpts from some of those early discussions on the meaning and impact of this new medium: 

Communication Energizes and Motivates Volunteers

For many years, Dean Axelrod of Tucson, Arizona was “politically homeless.” He believed in many of the tenets of the Democratic Party, he said, but he “felt disconnected from the decision-makers and the party itself.” In 1996, he discovered the White House World Wide Web site and other Democratic sites. “Those activities led me to become more personally involved in the Party locally,” he said. “I joined the Democratic Writer’s Guild, I now attend my state legislative district meetings, I talk to the candidates, and I volunteer.”

“I don’t think that the Internet can or should ever replace people getting together in the same room and talking face to face. But in my case, it gave me the momentum to get up from my desk and get out into the world. Ultimately, that’s where politics has real meaning.”

Tom Angi of Ohio wrote that interacting by computer about politics is “a lot of fun….Here in south Suburban Dayton, I’m the only Democrat for three blocks east, two blocks south, five blocks west and four blocks north. It gets lonely at times.”

Alicia McDonald was also inspired to get involved in politics partially by her activity on the Internet. “I wanted to give something back to the community, and I was looking for a campaign to work on,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I wir helped convince me to volunteer for the candidate I did select.”

The time people spend communicating with each other about politics on the Net “helps get them motivated and energized,” she said. “And being able to see how elected officials voted is a phenomenal thing.”

“Very few days go by that don’t include some level of political discussion over the ‘net,” she wrote. “I’m sure my views have been shaped by all of this. Some of the best political conversations I’ve had have been on-line.”

Internet Elevates Level of Political Discourse

“Sound bites have lobotomized classical political discourse,” Alan Arnold of Rockville wrote in an e-mail. “The ideas of Socrates, Lincoln, Churchill, and Roosevelt could not survive in such a sterile, toxic wasteland.” He suggests that the Internet is reviving intelligent political dialogue. On the Internet, for example, for the first time he read what he called thoughtful remarks by President Clinton on the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt. “This is the first time I have appreciated the President’s superb grasp and phrasing,” he wrote. “FDR actually had an advantage because there was no TV with a zillion channels, and people had to give a single radio speaker their close attention.”

Activists’ Thirst for Information Quenched

Individual activists have a variety of perspectives on connecting to politics via computer. “I thirst for information,” John Maylie, a student at Penn State University wrote in an e-mail. “I find the popular media sources do not provide me with enough information to form an educated opinion on many issues. For instance, President Clinton extended disability benefits to Vietnam Vets who were exposed to Agent Orange, some kind of herbicide….What I want to read is the actual scientific reports that link the herbicide to illness….This is only one small issue. But it illustrates the kind of detailed information I need to form opinions.”

Third Parties and “Non-Mainstream” Viewpoints More Accessible

“The internet is making politics possible for me,” writes John Lowry, who’s frustrated with America’s two-party system. On the Internet, meaningful political affiliation is now possible. He’s involved in populist-progressive causes, and can promote them, network with other activists, and build the foundation for a viable third or fourth party movement. Libertarians are also quite active on the Internet. Washington Post columnist David Broder was so impressed with their political organizing skills on the Internet in 1996 that he predicted they will become a very serious political movement in the coming years.

Interestingly, the Reform Party used e-mail in balloting for its nominees in 1996. Since Ross Perot eclipsed former Colorado governor Richard Lamm, it wasn’t much of a contest. But the Reform Party did make contact with tens of thousands of voters via the World Wide Web in 1996.

In my view, these third, fourth and fifth parties have new opportunities to build political foundations. On the Net, disenchantment with the Democrats’ and Republicans’ “duopoly” seems high. Some even talk of a political party for Internet users.

Cynicism, Paranoia, Rumor-Mongering, Hacking, and Obscenity

Alicia McDonald sees the Net having both positive and negative impact on politics. “There’s a free flow of information, a level of excitement around politics that hadn’t been as easy to catch, a sense of immediacy and accessibility on issues, and honest-to-goodness grassroots movements.”

On the negative side, she says “it’s scary how quickly people fall into cynicism (in ways they wouldn’t with other rhetorical contexts), wildly incorrect information being propagated widely and quickly, and people becoming more polarized. It’s scary when ‘we, the people’ are more negative and extreme than the political ads!”

b>Liberals Can Be Narrow-minded and Hateful, Too

Ron Moore, California: “Jim, you know, on the Internet I’ve run into people who are supposedly mainstream who are filled with anger, hatred and angst. Liberals are some of the worst offenders…I have had local Democrats come up and tell me that they didn’t know a conservative could be a nice guy or care about social issues. I have also, in open meetings, had someone say to me “when you Republicans up in Sacramento get through screwing people.” I know lots of GOPers who feel they get screwed by tax laws or by govt. intrusion, but it seems that Dems figure that conservatives are out to get them….Not only is there anger, but paranoia. So many of these people are paranoid. They think the corporations just arbitrarily want to screw the workers, not that the corporations lay off people because they have to stay competitive…There are violent anti-white groups (gangs?)–I don’t know if one could call that political, or just criminal…I do agree that the greatest threat of actual violence today does come from the right…I get angry at specific proposals of the Democrats, but overall, I either agree or disagree with their policies…but I don’t have a blanket hatred of them.”

Words Have Consequences by Jim Buie

Ron, thanks for your comments. A lot of people on both the left and the right (and the center) channel their anger into political energy. Nothing inherently wrong with that. Without anger, we wouldn’t have had the American Revolution. The problem is, as you say, when it becomes irrational hatred or escalates into violence. But also that words have consequences. A lot of people on the Internet are very loose with their words. They engage in personal attack, they say just awful things about the leaders of our country, and spew flames with abandon, often anonymously. I suppose these people must get some temporary gratification in taking no responsibility for their words. But that either makes their words meaningless or they are just littering the bandwith with trash. IMHO, some of the worst has been focused against Hillary Clinton. Talk about a virtual lynch mob! On the other side of the aisle, since the 2000 election muddle and the perception that forces aligned with George W. Bush did not win the election fair and square, I’ve also observed many uncivil and venomous attacks on Bush. Before he was even inaugurated, a discussion group called Impeach Bush was formed. It’s amazing to me that some left-wingers who deplored the “politics of personal destruction” and uncivil tactics of right-wingers against Clinton immediately resorted to the same tactics against Bush. I guess on both sides there is a cynical belief that “this is how the game is played.” As of this date, I’m not aware of any Democratic member of Congress who has embraced the “Impeach Bush” crowd the way that some Republican members of Congress embraced “Impeach Clinton” shortly after he was elected. For the most part, this new medium has given people a platform to rant and vent their frustration against people they perceive as far more unjustly powerful than themselves.

By reading the rants in certain Internet news groups back in 1995, I could have concluded that Timothy McVeigh was representative of a movement of those who viciously hated government. In fact, after reading that stuff, I wasn’t all that surprised by McVeigh’s action. But there ultimately was not much evidence of a vast rightwing conspiracy to blow up that building in Oklahoma. More likely, McVeigh was just a kook. I should take my own advice and not jump to conclusions, not get hysterical about the potential of the Internet to empower extremist groups. I do remain concerned about it, though, and I track the online activism of groups of all stripes here.

Just as I remain active on the Internet partially to act as a foil against reactionaries, you’d probably say, Ron, you’re active partially to correct flaws in liberal thinking (or not thinking). On the Net, average people, not self-appointed corporate gatekeepers, can provide balance for each other.

The Net is Self-Correcting by Jim Warren

“The Net is a phenomenal self-correcting tool. Somebody will always come up behind you to say that’s bs, and here’s the truth.” Free speech Internet activist Jim Warren, quoted in US News & World Report,, Feb. 19, 1996.

We Agree: Radicals May Be Very Vocal on the Net,
But They Usually Play A Minor Role in National Politics

Ron Moore: “Interesting points that have some validity. But, I also think the right-wing radicals who don’t hold office or have much power play a minor role…

Jim Buie: “I’d say the same thing about the left-wing radicals on the Net who don’t hold office or have much power, really. They play a minor role. There is a certain unreality to political discussions on the Internet until you see people taking action in the real world.”

Cyberspace Challenges to Racism and Hate: Each One, Teach One

From Audrie Krause, Netaction: “We all know…cyberspace is a gathering place for racists, hate-mongers, religious bigots…As a Jew, I feel a particularly strong sense of outrage over the Holocaust denial movement, which seeks to erase this ugly chapter from history. The best way to counter hate speech is not with censorship, but with more speech. Nizkor is a Hebrew word meaning “We will remember.” The Nizkor Foundation offers the Internet’s largest collection of Holocaust-related material, providing point-by-point refutation to neo-Nazis and anti-Semites on the Web.

Also, check out the The Virtual Activist 2.0: A Training Course

Internet Has Reawakened Me As Well

Mr. Buie, I just read your outreach statement to people of “moderate political persuasion”, and I agree with it entirely. My roots are “liberal” – gosh that word is so hushed these days! But I worked on Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign staff in Detroit. After his assassination, I literally floundered for almost 30 years – looking for an outlet for the political ideas and ideals that he stood and lived for. I am fast becoming an internet junkie – with reawakened political needs, desires, hopes – that this country can come together as one – without the extremes on both sides. Please write back, and let me know what I can do over the internet to reach others who perhaps have “slept” through the last 30 political years. Jeanne Palmer

Internet Reinvigorates Political Energy
Liberals, Conservatives Challenge, Learn From Each Other

Jane Prettyman, a writer and editor in Los Angeles who worked for the old Esquire magazine, read my piece and wrote a thoughtful letter about her experience. She is publisher of “The Real News Page” on the Web, critiques of mainstream media from a progressive point of view. Excerpts from her letter:

“The Internet, by its nature full of joys and annoyances and shocks to the system, is healthy for its reinvigoration of political energy. It re-awakens me every day and I find my political self changing and growing like a long-legged adolescent, touching–in a post here, an insight there–an adult moment.

“I founded and moderated a lively Media Watch board on AOL. That experience caused me to look at all sides of everyone’s argument and to meet conservatives halfway. It practiced me in the difficult art of finding that halfway place where we could associate, turn from confrontation to shoulder-to-shoulder yoking of a problem vital to us both. Even the most strident often had a morsel of insight and I went after it the way one eats crab, down to the meat in the claws. It helped to be focusing not on politics but on media, but still the politics sizzled.

“Some came into the Media Watch board roaring like lions, spiteful, hateful, full of anger. First I had to overcome my own anger at them and then I would try to find a way to make them stay, slow them down, acknowledge their desires, let them know my own and let them see how similar we were. More often than not, they wanted that acknowledgement and once they had it, they stayed and turned and became quite reasonable and helpful compatriots on a common quest. Moderating a board was literally a moderating experience for me politically.

“There is something in the (mainstream) media, however, that does not love commonality, that makes endless jokes of Clinton’s notion of “common ground,” as did Time and Newsweek. Yet we will not survive if we do not find it. When we find it, we will prevail, not as liberals and conservatives, but as human beings…

“(The violence of extremist, hate groups) is profoundly unfortunate but the violence comes from their being unknown, unresponded to… They are ignored in our education, suppressed in our media. Commercial media is incapable of containing extreme ideas because they rock the beamy boat of the marketplace which relies on broad demographics…We remain–even after OK City–profoundly uneducated about the extremist mindset. This is dangerous.”

Mountain politics and the Net by Scott Cloud

“I live deep in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia. We have an odd mix of politics here. The labors unions, particularly the United Mine Workers , have had a traditional stronghold over most everything political around here for decades. However, conservative and fundamentalist thought is slowly taking root in our community with both union and non-union citizens. What a time to get the Internet!…(It has created) real fireworks politically. After Congress passed the Telecommunications Decency Act (censoring the Internet), an upset young man posted an article on the local Political Board severely criticizing the law and everyone in politics who supported it….None of us on the Net supported the censorship aspect of the law and we blamed the other party for this clause. We have grown to love the internet… There have been messages from a fanatic marijuana legalization proponent, a homosexual Republican, and an anarchist (all anonymous)….Not many important local political leaders are on-line yet. But it’s only a matter of time….Our county clerk (Democrat) led an effort to put the Clerk’s records on the web. But the Virginia attorney general wrote him and told him not to do so claiming it was illegal. There are still a lot of people who are intimidated or just misunderstand the Internet. It will take several more years for it to be tightly interwoven into the American experience. Scott Cloud,CompuNet, http://www.compunet.net/ and Radford University student.

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