December 06, 2013

Barack Obama

Does Barack Obama's presidency signal the end of big politics? Nicco Mele argues that it does. Credit: National Defense University / Wikimedia Commons


In 2003, before the web was even a blip on the political screen, Nicco Mele heard about a presidential candidate who was drawing huge crowds: former Governor of Vermont Howard Dean. So Mele conducted a little experiment: he set up a Google search ad to lead to Dean’s political homepage. Web traffic – and campaign donations – skyrocketed. 

Soon, Mele became Howard Dean's webmaster, and he quickly realized that introducing the Internet into politics was changing the game. Under Mele, the Dean campaign revolutionized grassroots fundraising and shocked the political establishment.

Howard Dean in 2004

Presidential candidate Howard Dean with supporters at a rally in 2004. Credit: stevebolt / Flickr Creative Commons

But technology only grew in importance after Dean's failed 2004 run. Mele says that, in 2008, "The entire reason that Barack Obama was able to defeat Hillary Clinton was that the Democratic party was really a major donor cultivation network, not a political party." Obama's huge Internet network of grassroots supporters was able to topple that cultivation network – pushing power, he says, to the people. 

According to Mele, the end of “big” won’t just rock the political world. The rise of technology has already disrupted other institutions, including the media. To wit: in the last 12 months, the combined price of The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and Newsweek was less than the price Yahoo! paid for the blogging site Tumblr. 

New York Times headquarters

Mele says the Internet could lead to the dissolution of major media institutions like the New York Times, shown here. Credit: wallyg / Flickr Creative Commons

What’s the cost of losing these bulwarks of old media? Mele says it’s no accident that the most significant moments in American history were often accompanied by great moments in American journalism (if you think “Watergate,” for example, no doubt one of the first things that comes to mind are the names “Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein,” the two Washington Post reporters who broke the story.) 

When old media disappears, we will need other means of holding power accountable. Will new media take on that role? Mele says it's possible; after all, it took nearly a century for newspapers to understand their role in the public sphere and live up to it.

For more on the end of “big” – including how the rise of terrorism is challenging the defense establishment – tune in to our full interview with Nicco Mele, above.

Still curious?

Nicco Mele, defense, Sci and Tech, Culture, politics, Internet, media

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