The Internet has settled in as an essential tool in political organizing. Citizens almost spontaneously now turn to the Internet as a way to express themselves and organize campaigns to advance or derail a cause or candidate on the national, state or local level.
Tax cuts, campaign finance reform, tuition tax credits for private school education, drilling for oil in Alaska, Medicare and Social Security reform, prescription drug benefit, a strategic defense initiative -- chances are, if it's on the national agenda, there's an Internet lobbying component as all sides try to mobilize the masses.
On tax cuts, the Republican National Committee has launched an impressive site, www.bushtaxrelief.com, which allows users to calculate their tax cut, read the President's address to Congress and reaction to it, and watch a video. It urges visitors to call into talk radio, write letters to the editor, forward e-mail to a friend, and contact their member of Congress in support of the legislation.
The Democratic National Committee has not created a site in opposition to the Bush tax plan, nor does it have as much interactivity or advanced functionality against the tax cut on its main site, www.democrats.org.
In opposition to the Bush tax cut, a coalition of 500 progressive groups has launched "Fair Taxes for All." It includes a letter making five major points against the Bush tax plan that readers can send to their member of Congress. Democrats.com, an independent online community of grassroots Democrats with 25,000 subscribers, appears to be one of the leaders of the opposition on the Internet.
But progressive groups are not always behind conservatives on using the Internet effectively. On Alaskan Oil Drilling, a campaign by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups opposing Alaskan oil drilling generated more than 600,000 e-mails to the White House and Congress in the first month of the Bush presidency.
In the dispute over John Ashcroft's nomination to be Attorney General both sides used the Internet to rally compatriots and put pressure on members of the Senate. People for the American Way set up an anti-Ashcroft web site that attracted one million visitors in two weeks, without any collateral advertising. About one in 10 of those visitors signed an online petition opposing the Ashcroft nomination. PFAW presented Senators with the signatures and addresses of more than 130,000 people who signed the petition. While the rapid-fire mobilization wasn't enough to defeat Ashcroft, it did focus attention on the intense expression of opposition among progressive activists and may have helped convince or reinforce some of the 43 Democratic Senators who voted to oppose the nomination.
Before the advent of online activism, to reach a million people could have easily cost one million dollars. PFAW did it for a fraction of that cost. And to do it in less than two weeks was "unthinkable just a short time ago," observed Ralph Neas of PFAW.
Ashcroft supporters also created web sites. Conservativehq.com, created by conservative direct mail guru Richard Viguerie, collected signatures in support of the Ashcroft nomination. But it didn't attract nearly the audience that sites opposing Ashcroft did. Perhaps this is because, on the Net as in real life, it's often far easier to mobilize people AGAINST something rather than for something.
Viguerie isn't discouraged. He has created a "60-Second Activist Club" -- a daily e-mail alert outlining an issue and urging readers to click on a link to take action to defeat a liberal proposal or pass a conservative bill. The idea is that "in just 60 seconds a day," conservatives can advance their cause over the Internet. Among the action items so far: sign petitions (1) protesting Bill Clinton's taxpayer-funded speaking engagement(s) at colleges; (2) demanding an investigation into Clinton's "pardons for cash" scheme; (3) supporting rapid deployment of a strategic defense initiative. Credit Viguerie for being faithful to red-meat, conservative causes, but one has to wonder if even the most true-blue conservative is going to tire of a request for action every single day.