Home Quick Thoughts + Shares America’s Digital Activism Gap: Who’s Really Winning?

Conservatives are losing online but winning everywhere else.

In the United States, conservatives and progressives are not only divided ideologically, they’re also divided in the way they conduct digital campaigns. What’s odd is not that their tactics are different, but that the tactics ofconservativeonline organizations apear less effective than those of their progressive peers.

In a recent poston his blogShouting Loudly, Dave Karpf, author ofThe Moveon Effectnoted that conservative organizations like Liberty News, an attempted Moveon clone, send their email lists sponsored offers (ads) and requests to read blog posts on their own sites, while progressives request their list members to take action. Writes Karpf,

Sponsored messages… go out on Liberty’s list pretty regularly. Sometimes they’re from political campaigns, sometimes they’re investment opportunities. There simply is no analogue in the online progressive universe. Progressive advocacy groups don’t sell their lists to one another. They sure as hell don’t open up their lists to hucksters in order to make a quick buck. If MoveOn or the PCCC sent out a sponsored product pitch like this, the blowback would be enormous. Entire panels at Rootscamp and Netroots Nation would be devoted to dissecting the failure…. Culturally within the progressive netroots, this simply isn’t done.

While Movon and Change.org boast lists in the millions, Liberty News started out with about 70,000 people on their email list two years ago and new has only 80,000. Dave asks the question, if progressive tactics work better, why don’t conservatives adopt them? His answer is that the problem is culture, which I agree with, but perhaps it’s that the wrong question to ask.

The important question is not about output (email list size) but outcome (realization of strategic goals). The Tea Party, and conservatives in general, have been quite successful in achieving their strategic goals. They elect candidates to local, state, and national office. They have prevented advances on longterm progressive goals like keeping money out of politics and protecting the environment, and on short-term goals like banking reform, immigration reform, prison reform…. I could go on.

In the wake of the Aurora shooting neither the Democratic nor Republican candidate for president mentioned gun control. That’s power.

Maybe conservative digital activism has not adapted because it does not need to. The movement can still achieve its strategic goals without successful online campaigns. Progressives, on the other hand, are great at digital campaigning, but cannot claim the electoral, policy, or legislative success of conservatives. If conservatives are succeeding strategically with small lists and bad online campaigns and progressives are failing with large lists and digital savvy, who’s really winning?

3 replies to this post
  1. I think you’re right (and thanks for the link). It’s pretty elegant explanation, actually: conservatives haven’t learned to be good at digital activism because they don’t *need* to be good at digital activism. Between the NRA, Fox News and the business lobby, they’re in good shape.

    That, in turn, points to the limitations of digital activism (or, hell, *any* activism). Building political power is difficult, particularly around deep strategic goals. The conservative movement spent decades building their existing bases of power, dating back at least to the Powell Memo. Particularly in the first dozen years or so, victories were few and far between. Despite the ease of tactical mobilization, power-building is still a painfully slow process.

    • My take-away is not that activism has limited impact, but that digital campaigners need to focus on:

      1. outcomes over outputs (enough with list size already, what was the actual effect?)

      2. seeing the big picture (congrats on that BoA fee campaign, Change.org, but they still own economic policy in Washington).

  2. Your line “Maybe conservative digital activism has not adapted because it does not need to” is apt. Conservatives use other means of activism that work pretty well. That’s not to say they *shouldn’t* become more digitally active (the more sources of activism, the better), they probably just haven’t felt compelled to do so.

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