There's no question Howard Dean's campaign generated lots of sizzle in its beginning. Just about everywhere you looked, mavens discussed the ramifications of how the campaign used the Internet to raise money, connect supporters and generally spread the Dean gospel.
If nothing else, this campaign showed that people can be motivated to get off their keisters and participate in politics, and that's significant, given the alarming increase of voter apathy in the last several years.
What's curious about the Dean campaign's use of the meetup.com Web site is that Dean devotees first used the site to mobilize themselves and organize meetings in various cities where Dean was due to stop. Campaign leaders knew a good thing when they saw it and slapped a link to meetup.com on the campaign Web site.
If I'm a special interest group or a lobbying firm, I might get worried. This kind of thing could spell real trouble.
People start acting funny when a bunch of them coalesce because they all believe in the same thing. Then they manage to get other people to start acting funny. Suddenly people take action against the thing that's upsetting them. Maybe they make up a few signs and stage a protest and land themselves on the local news.
Maybe it's no big deal, but even if only five or 10 people watching the news are suddenly struck by the urge to join the protest, then at least one goal was met -- getting people to care enough to do something. Maybe it's boycotting products made by a particular company. Maybe it's car-pooling to work one day or volunteering to go door to door to talk about the candidate you believe in.
No matter how well financed or how well thought out a slick PR strategy for a special interest might be, that strategy can be washed out by a groundswell of public opinion. Marketers know that. They know the best advertising is word of mouth.
If people truly want to influence the political process, they've got to present a unified face to politicians. The little guy's opinion is squelched because it's easy to snuff out one tiny voice. But millions of voices? Singing in unison (if not exactly in harmony)?
Try drowning that out with a series of slick ads or a well placed campaign contribution. Yes, money talks in politics, but keeping one's job also talks.
If a member of Congress (or a state legislature, city council or board of county commissioners) feels their job is in jeopardy come next election, he or she will pay attention to those little voices.
Maybe, just maybe, Dean's campaign revealed the true power of the Internet -- not just that it delivers political information, but that it makes it convenient for the public to join the political process. If something is convenient, people will do it.
There's a reason convenience stores make money, and campaigns could raise significant political capital if they made it fast and easy to join a cause and fight the power.