September 11, 2009
Posted by David Karpf
By now I’m sure we’ve all heard about Congressman Joe Wilson’s (R-SC) outburst during President Obama’s Health Care speech on Wednesday. After Obama claimed that his bill would not cover illegal immigrants, Republicans en masse erupted in murmuring. That’s common during a joint session of congress. Then, after they’d quieted down, Wilson took the opportunity to shout out “you lie.” That was.
Wilson issued an apology in less than an hour, probably after his colleagues took him aside and politely explained that this made the party look even worse than protesters showing up to town hall meetings with misspelled signs and assault rifles. But of course, in 2009, the fun doesn’t stop there.
Much like Michele Bachmann (R-MN) before him, Wilson essentially volunteered to be the target of progressive mobilizers and activists. DailyKos and other political blogs immediately launched an ActBlue fundraising page for his congressional challenger. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee sent out an e-mailer to their over 200,000 members with a link to an e-petition calling for his censure. They’ve already gathered over 30,000 signatures and raised $19,500 to fund the short-term campaign effort. Someone anonymous blogger decided to take a more comedic route, setting up a phrase-generator for the web address www.joewilsonisyourpreexistingcondition.com At least within my various social networks, that one went viral. Every time you click on the page, a different Joe Wilson-phrase showed up, all of them offensive (ex: “Joe Wilson peed in your soup”). At the bottom of the page is the tagline, “you dissed America, we’ll diss you right the f*ck back” and a link to his opponents ActBlue page.
As with the Bachmann episode (which I wrote about for the YouTube conference… I’m waiting to hear back on the Revise&Resubmit suggestions; it will hopefully be published in a special issue of JITP), Joe Wilson is only going to be in the media spotlight for a few days. Maybe he’ll be censured by Congress, I don’t know. But by Monday, he’ll be a punchline. It’s tempting for critics to therefore dismiss the blogstorms, YouTube clips, epetitions and twitter retweets as just a bunch of noise, signifying nothing. That would be a mistake though. It’s a bunch of noise that signifies one, very important, thing.
It signifies money. Rob Miller (Wilson’s opponent) raised $614,487 in the 2008 election cycle. In the past 36 hours, via ActBlue, he’s surpassed that with $768,006. Wilson has launched his own counter-fundraiser, and is touring the Fox News and talk radio circuits to promote himself. So far he’s at $200,000. Charlie Cook has upgraded the competitiveness of the race as a result.
Will it make a difference in the end? Hard to say. Wilson won by 10 points in 2008, a year when Democratic motivation was at an historic high. 2010 will likely be the reverse. All the youtube clips, blog posts, and activist ridicule in the world won’t knock a Representative out of his seat if his district is conservative enough. But money, particularly early money, can have an impact on campaigns. And a talented media consultant should be able to craft some dynamite ads of Wilson embarrasing his district, the Republican Party, and nation given the raw material now available on YouTube. And the national media is going to be a little more interested in running stories about Wilson’s campaign from here on out. And top political campaign staffers are a little more likely to find the race worth investing in. So “maybe” seems about the right answer.
More broadly, I’d suggest that this is indicative of one of the positive effects of new media on American politics. In the old media environment, the zanier members of Congress were good for an occassional soundbite, but beyond that they were backbenchers who kept safe seats because their districts were aligned with their particular brand of crazy. In the new media environment, there is a serious cost associated with their outbursts. In 1999, if an equivalent Congressmember had heckled Clinton in the same way, little would have happened. Political organizations had email lists, but none of the single-issue groups would be activating their membership around this short-run campaign (and if they did, it would be as an organizational fundraising tool, not as a small donor-funnel to the congressional challenger). The Sunday talk shows and 24-hour news networks would have discussed it a bit, but by November 2000 the whole episode would have faded from public memory. In the new media environment, we get more types of activist group, stringing together media artifacts in a wider variety of ways. And several of those new tactics generate money — lots of it. And giving a challenger who was at a 2-to-1 fundraising disadvantage in the last election a 3-to-1 advantage early in this one can indeed make a difference.
This, by definition, can’t happen to every congressperson. It’s a coordination game. It happens only to the most offensive congresspeople — the ones whose words and deeds are so outlandish that they volunteer to be the tactic of opposition ire. If new media is indeed making it easier to sanction the worst actors in congress, it’s hard to see how that’s anything but a public good.