Patrick Ruffini of TheNextRight.com posted a provocative blog entry Sunday night, titled “Rising Rightroots and Declining Netroots Now at Parity (or Better).” I believe Patrick is trying to make two core points in this piece. The first, with which I agree, is that “the political environment turns out to be the decisive factor in how emphatically people use [online] technology, not the other way around.” The second, with which I have to disagree empirically, is that the Right’s presence online now matches or even exceeds the Left’s.
As evidence for his argument, Ruffini points to four recent events. First is the April 15th “Tea Parties” which he claims were “flash mob-like.” Second is the Right’s presence at the August recess health care town halls. Third is the aftermath Joe Wilson “you lie” debacle, in which the Right’s fundraising equaled the Left’s [note: my previous post on the topic was written before the Wilson fundraising had kicked into full gear]. Fourth and finally is the flipcam takedown of Acorn by two conservative activists associated with biggovernment.com.
Regarding Ruffini’s first claim, I think he’s clearly on to something. In a recent APSA paper, I argue that there are multiple incentives for the outparty to embrace technological and strategic innovations. At the interest group level, I quote Ruffini’s fellow NextRight blogger, Jon Henke, who points out that one advantage to the left from 2004-2008 is that for advocacy groups, it’s “more fun storming the castle.” Simply put, it’s easier to mobilize citizens to take collective action in opposition to a government proposal than in support of one. There is plenty of data supporting that assertion, the most obvious being that membership levels in leftwing advocacy organizations rose at the advent of the Reagan administration, fell after Clinton took office, and rose when Bush took office. Oppositional politics leads to bigger crowds, more fundraising dollars, etc.
That said, is the online Right really equal to the online Left? There are a lot of ways to answer that question, but the short version is “no.”
For starters, the April 15th protests were hardly flash mobs. Fox News, which has essentially embraced it’s role as the mass media arm of the conservative movement, actively promoted the protests. A flash mob occurs when networked communication platforms (think text messages, social network sites, or email lists) allow a group to coordinate unexpected offline action. It’s a cool term, and I’ve seen the left misuse it as well. But, for the record, if you have a major media organization actively promoting an event for weeks on end, then showing up to cover it, that’s definitely NOT a flashmob. When we don’t take terms like that seriously, they quickly lose all meaning. 100,000,000+ people all turned out to polls on November 4th, 2008. That wasn’t a flashmob though, it was an election.
Various pundits and activists on the left have decried the rightwing protests as “astroturfed.” That, again, is a term with a relatively specific meaning. If a PR firm hires people to attend a counterprotest and pretend to oppose a policy, that’s astroturfing. If a consulting agency gins up fake names for a petition, that’s astroturfing. But if the same groups active far-right networks and urge them to turn out to events, that’s pretty standard campaign activity… campaign organizing, if you will. It appears to me that the health care townhalls and tea parties have been a mixture of astroturf and standard organizing, and have mostly been the latter. The Left ought to take these things seriously.
Likewise, the Joe Wilson fundraising is a strong signal that the Right is finally starting to catch up. This is the first time they’ve demonstrated fundraising parity with the progressive netroots. Ruffini is maybe making a bit too much of this indicator, but it again is a sign that opposition party-status breeds action among nascent issue publics.
That said, the “Rightroots” are still FAR behind in building online infrastructure. They may be whipping up masses of protesters for occasional protests and moneybombing for new standard-bearers like Wilson, but where is the right-wing MoveOn, or ActBlue, or DailyKos?
MoveOn has 4.5 million members. Every conservative attempt at building a similar juggernaut has collapsed (and there have been several).
ActBlue has raised over $100 million, mostly because it allows users to register and create their own endorsement list. To date, SlateCard and RightRoots trail so badly that they can hardly be listed as equivalents. It would be like comparing Wikipedia to Conservapedia. The difference of scale is so immense as to be a difference in kind.
In the blogosphere, the progressive netroots continue to dominate. I operate a blogosphere ranking system called the blogosphere authority index. It provides monthly “top 25” rankings of the left and right blogging neighborhoods, based on network centrality, hyperlink authority, site traffic, and community activity. It also merges the two lists into a combined “top 50,” which is useful for figuring out which network is stronger.
When I started the rankings in November 2007, the average “top 50” rank for progressive blogs was 23.5, while the average rank of conservative blogs was 27.48. That four-point difference indicates that, on average, more progressive blogs were showing up in the top half of the top 50 than conservative blogs.
As I demonstrated in a March 2008 paper for the Midwest Political Science Association Annual Meeting (available here), that gap grew from 4 points to 10 points during the 2008 election cycle. As traffic to the elite political blogosphere increased, the gap between progressive and conservative blogs did as well.
So one measure of Ruffini’s assertion would be this average rank. The BAI provides monthly updates. Have conservative blogs caught up with or surpassed progressive blogs in the rankings? Do they demonstrate parity? I spent the day crunching data, and here are the results:
month left right difference
sept ’09 21 29.56 8.56
Aug ’09 19.4 31.12 11.72
July ’09 20 30.6 10.6
June’09 20.36 30.28 9.92
May’09 19.08 31.32 12.24
April’09 19.92 30.72 10.8
March’09 19.28 31.24 11.96
Feb’09 20.76 29.8 9.04
Jan’09 21.12 29.48 8.36
Dec’08 21.4 29.32 7.92
The average pre-election difference was 10.15. The average post-election difference is… 10.112. In plain english, the progressive netroots neighborhood has maintained its dominance in the blogosphere, even as overall traffic and interest has receded.
Conservatives have made much of HotAir’s rising popularity. What they tend to ignore is that DailyKos’s traffic has continued to rise as well. And that the Left also still boasts HuffingtonPost, TalkingPointsMemo, FireDogLake, etc.
Ruffini is aiming to be provocative and is clearly playing to his audience with the piece. And he’s right that opposition status has helped get conservatives to take action, both offline and online. But if we move beyond the hand-waving and anecdotes, it quickly becomes clear that the political right still has a long way to go before they’re out of the electronic hinterlands.