“The other thing that might have made a difference is if you had held the Rally to Restore Sanity two years ago.” – Barack Obama to Jon Stewart, 10/27/10.
Notwithstanding the development of electronic social networking and fundraising tools, the practice of putting bodies and voices into physical public spaces remains a crucial way to garner media attention and create ongoing commitment among participants in a social or political movement. The active uses of the Web 1.0 and 2.0 by Tea Partiers and other conservatives have been channeled into creating spectacles to be reported on by FOX and other large media outlets, creating a sense of an emerging movement with an impact far beyond its actual numbers. Conservatives’ colorful and controversial street rallies and protests in town hall meetings provided the right with a momentum that could not have been achieved by the more individualized experience of virtual activism. Obama, wanting to put the 2008 campaign behind him, let his following stagnate. Only recently has the Administration tried to mobilize its 13-million member email list to do anything more than to email Congress and send money to Democratic campaign fundraisers. The Obama forces never launched protests against policy opponents, as Obama decided to seek bipartisan paths to legislation.
The Administration tried recently to answer the energy and ostentation of the Tea Party protests with Obama campaign appearances, but in the context of dwindling enthusiasm for his policies among progressives and exhaustion in responding to conservative attacks. It was left to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to call for a large gathering in the capital to stem the conservative momentum, though they demurred from admitting a partisan motive to their DC rally. Liberals embraced the rally as a chance to show public, visible support for progressive policies, positioning the Comedy Central late night line-up as the counter to FOX News’ active role in organizing Tea Party protests. If Beck, Hannity, and Limbaugh constitute the real leadership of the conservative movement today (along with behind-the-scenes organizers and funders), then Stewart, Colbert, and MSNBC’s line-up provide the organizing leadership for Democrats as much as the President does. Perhaps the left will finally catch up to the right in combining digital organizing, public spectacle, and coordination with large-scale media outlets in advancing its message.