E.J.Dionne has a very good column today about Kos, Yearly Kos and seeing all of this in a longer-term context of partisan mobilization and new media. Dionne’s point of comparison for Kos is Rush Limbaugh, and while it’s easy to blanch at that comparison on its face, I think it’s also a very apt one when you judge it in functional terms.
The average age of TPM Readers is actually a bit older than most people think. At 38, I’m probably pretty close to our average reader in age terms. Still, there are a lot of you who don’t have a clear recollection of the political mood of the late 80s and early 90s. And even if you were old enough, perhaps you just weren’t interested in politics back then.
But all the other differences and parallels aside, the two eras seem very similar to me at the intersection of political mobilization and new media.
Nowadays, of course, ‘new media’ is the web or even Web 2.0, as it’s called. But twenty years ago talk radio was definitely ‘new media’. Not a new technology. But very much new media. There was a similar mix of bizarreness and uncanny novelty that a guy with a radio show could be standing toe-to-toe on the national stage with the biggest political players in Washington.
It’s important to separate out whatever we think of Limbaugh himself from, functionally, the role he played in the politics of the period, particularly from about 1990 through the middle of the decade. Back then the Democrats seemed pathetically wrong-footed or out of date on all these new ways of mobilizing and connecting with voters. And today the inversion seems pretty near complete. I wouldn’t want to compare Limbaugh to Kos or the rest of the progressive blogosphere on substance. But when you set aside Rush’s buffoonishness, racism and complete indifference to the truth, there is an important comparison on the level of novel ways of pulling in or at least energizing and empowering whole new political constituencies.
And the essential distinction — a very encouraing one for the progressive community and the Democratic party — is that what’s happening today is vastly more participatory and distributed, in the most concrete of terms, than anything happening back then.
The key to understanding all this, I think — and I’ll leave this to another post — is to get a proper handle on the interplay between the media technologies, the wave of organizational fervor that they are both helping to generate and also being sustained by, and the ideological shifts that seem to be sweeping over the body politic.
Like then, I think you can hear the rumbling over the horizon.