This morning I received an e-mail from Liberty News Network, titled “What Has Liberals Whining Now?” The e-mail reveals a lot about how conservative activists and progressive activists use technology differently. Only a few best practices are actually shared across the ideological divide. While MoveOn’s model is pretty well-known at this point, groups like Liberty haven’t actually bothered to emulate it. The reason is cultural, rather than strategic.
Liberty is the latest conservative attempt to build a rightwing MoveOn. I wrote about them two years ago, during their launch. I also write about them in chapter 6 of my book. The group’s membership never grew much — it started with a 70,000-person list, and grew to about 80,000. One reason was that they rarely issued action alerts. Progressive Netroots organizations mobilize their list to take action on the issues at the top of the media agenda. Conservative organizations like Liberty mobilize their lists to read blog posts on the issues at the top of the media agenda. It’s great for establishing epistemic closure. But “click here to read more” is an awful means of growing your member list. Liberty has since merged with GrassFire Nation, which claims to have a list of over 1 million conservative activists.
Today’s message had an obvious link to the media agenda. In the aftermath of the tragic theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado last Friday, both progressive and conservative advocacy groups are contacting their membership about related issues. MoveOn is talking about the assault weapons ban. Liberty/Grassfire is talking about… well, just take a look:
“These sponsorships help us provide Liberty News Report at no cost to you.” Because e-mail action alerts are just so expensive. “The Shocking Self Defense Secret That Has THOUSANDS of Liberal Activists… Begging to Get it Banned.” …What? The link takes you to a hand-to-hand combat training program. I don’t even know how one would go about banning a hand-to-hand combat technique. And this isn’t exactly a hot-button issue for progressive activists. (Issue #1: get money out of politics… Issue #2: climate change. Issue #3: that scary hand-to-hand combat technique. Issue #4: universal health care …. Issue #28 oh right, what about that assault weapons ban?) This is paid promotion, plain and simple.
Conservative organizations treat their member lists as suckers. Progressive organizations treat their member lists as supporters.
Sponsored messages like these 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. Change.org or SignOn petitions would be launched immediately. Culturally within the progressive netroots, this simply isn’t done.
The cultural legacy within the conservative “rightroots” is different. Conservative e-mail borrows heavily from conservative direct mail. And conservative direct mail was pioneered by Richard Viguerie, whose famous habit of treating mailing lists as Russian Nesting Dolls led political scientist Jeffrey Berry to call him “a one-man tragedy of the commons.” Viguerie would cultivate one organization’s mailing list through direct mail, then create a second, similar organization by mailing to that same list. He profited handsomely through this technique, but the organizations would be left with an exhausted donor pool and would soon collapse.
I often get questions about the difference between the netroots and the rightroots when I talk about the book. Academics and organizers alike have a hard time believing that neutral tactical innovations like A/B testing and basic listbuilding techniques aren’t used by both sides. If the right sees these things working for the left, why wouldn’t they just adopt them? Messages like “What Has Liberals Whining Now” provide stark evidence, though.
The root cause isn’t technological, it’s techno-cultural. Technologies are embedded in cultural practices. Those practices are shepherded through networks of influence. The progressive netroots form one network. It is built from and responds to the cultural legacy and institutional strengths, and weaknesses of existing progressive organizations. The conservative rightroots form another network, built from the cultural legacy and existing institutions of the American right. There simply isn’t much cross-partisan learning or technological convergence.