A recent NY Times article outlining the cultural and/or generational (depending on your perspective) conflict that is happening in the Republican Party right now is causing quite a stir. After their drubbing at the polls last November, everyone recognizes that the GOP needs to make some big changes; the true challenge is determining exactly what those changes should be. A new candidate? Policy direction? Organizational focus and techniques? All of the above?
In a debate about the GOP’s future, the technology question quickly becomes a chicken and egg argument. Did the Obama campaign succeed because of their technological prowess, or did technology help mobilize those who support the message and/or the messenger? Unfortunately, it is decidedly easy to dismiss social media and online campaigns as just one of many (read: inconsequential) factors of a winning campaign, as top Romney strategist Stuart Stevens did in the Washington Post:
In this fourth decade of the Internet, one of the original truisms is still true: Content is king. The ugly, clunky Drudge Report site still harvests record numbers of eyeballs because it serves up a hearty meal at a good price: free. So it is in politics. A Republican renaissance will inevitably be driven by policy. Parties must constantly reinvent themselves and prove their relevance to voters.
Stevens is not wrong. As I mentioned recently, the message matters more than the medium. As Stevens correctly points out, “[Obama] didn’t win because he won the Facebook wars; he won the Facebook wars because he was winning.” But that isn’t the point of the (mostly) younger GOP activists advocating for technology to have a seat (or two or three) at the grown up table. Their concern is that a lack of innovation speak to a larger cultural issue: that conservatives are not innovative in their thinking in their approach to politics or governing.
It is a topic I feel every modern conservative organization must grapple with: the world has changed. The Internet is not just the stomping grounds of those “who favors gay marriage and free contraception”, as Stevens characterizes it. Here is Canada, 82% of residents are online. Of those, 65% are on Facebook. “Young people” aren’t on the Internet; voters are.
But the lesson from the 2012 campaign isn’t about who had the most “likes”. It’s about how the Obama campaign used technology to empower every aspect of their campaign, from canvass tools to fundraising to determining where to spend ad dollars. The Democrats do not merely user technology well, their culture is informed by it.
That same culture is then baked into policies that accurately reflect where the wider population sits on many issues. Being fluent in the same experiences and norms that voters hold isn’t a cute political tactic – it helps a Party and its representatives understand what is important to voters.
Being fluent in the same experiences and norms that voters hold online isn’t a cute political tactic.
The big fear amongst younger GOP operatives isn’t that the leadership doesn’t tweet enough. The big fear is that they don’t fundamentally recognize the importance or value Twitter has in current affairs. Or that no one picks up their phones any more. Or that volunteers won’t come in to a campaign office and pick up a clipboard when they could do it all from their smartphone.
This isn’t about posting memes to a social platform – it is about adopting to a shift in culture that has already happened. To become and remain relevant, the GOP – and their counterparts around the world – must be open to new ideas, new ways of thinking and new ways of doing. While this must be a cultural shift, areas of technology offers the most tangible examples.