New Media, Personalities and Permanent Campaigns

Much has been made about perpetual or permanent campaigns since Patrick Caddell first proposed the idea for the Carter administration in 1976; Sidney Blumenthal would coin the term and flesh out the concept in his 1980 book “The Permanent Campaign”, and the term would gradually come to be used against future incumbent Presidents, including current President Barack Obama.

The idea of the perpetual/permanent campaign is that, once a candidate is elected to office, the new president must continually maintain the confidence and attention of the public in his or her administration, must observe the popularity of the administration in the eyes of participants in political polls, and must continually canvas the public in order to build enough confidence to withstand a backlash by oppositional figures through media outlets.

This reliance upon media in order to build public confidence has been criticized as being reflective of desires by sitting incumbents for short-term gains rather than a long-term dedication to adopted policy.

However, can the idea of the permanent campaign also apply to the growing efforts of previously-failed candidates for the presidency?

Since 2008, the presidential campaign of Ron Paul and the vice-presidential campaign of Sarah Palin have both re-organized themselves in order to maintain active fan groupings and political action committees well into the 2012 presidential election season, and serve as critical examples of this .

Campaign for Liberty was the official name given by Paul to his former presidential campaign, turning it into a non-profit that would promote his libertarian principles, promote endorsed candidates and organize events for fans of the 12-term Texas congressman. In addition, a youth wing (Young Americans for Liberty) and multiple independently-maintained fan websites dedicated to Ron Paul have continued to publish during both on- and off-years. Multiple calls for Paul to run for office again in 2012 emanate mostly from this camp, a fact that is critiqued in some circles from an ethical perspective.

Likewise, Even after having lost the Republican presidential campaign alongside Sen. John McCain, Palin has refused to withdraw into obscurity as do many other former candidates for the office or party nominations. Instead, she maintained an active media presence by issuing periodic speeches both before audiences and directly to her viewers on YouTube, beginning the consolidation of her political base through the establishment of SarahPAC (ostensibly-described as an energy independence advocacy group) and endorsing candidates for other offices throughout the United States.

Both politicians have made direct-to-camera addresses which win regular plaudits from their fanbases and their endorsed candidates are heavily promoted in banner advertisements on fan websites such as Conservatives4Palin.com and DailyPaul.com. Such occurs even during election off-years.

Compare this to the continuous campaigns of individuals such as Lyndon LaRouche and Ralph Nader. Both aspirants continue to maintain (admittedly minimal or fringe) presences on the Web, with LaRouche’s presence being the more controversial and longer-existing of the two, and both have repeatedly ran for the same office. Even as their respective candidacies barely made a dent in the popular vote at every election, LaRouche and Nader may have pioneered the idea of a New Media-driven permanent campaign, with a growing number of candidates realizing in the 2000’s that such campaigns do not have to end on an election year and do not have to specifically exist for the aspirations of one candidate, either. In fact, they could come, as the participants in these campaigns often vocally accept, to circumvent the nominatory power of political parties.

So when conference appearances and fireside chats are syndicated to these fan websites, and such sites serve as the core of the reserve support base from whence these candidates hope to derive for themselves and others, what sort of electoral cycle – or perhaps government – are we formulating?

Comparable to this growth of fan websites as the emerging core of personality-driven political movements, political parties in party-list proportional-representational democracies such as the Netherlands, Belgium and Israel are both noteworthy and notorious for small political parties being formed by – and for – personalities rather than policies. The end result of such systems are often election cycles which see no single party gain a majority and ministerial cabinets which must be formed around coalitions of multiple, personality- or niche-driven political parties.

Even in presidential republics with plurality-based elections, personality-driven political movements have often had long-running effects upon the body politic; an outstanding, recent example is that of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who ran for the presidency of Mexico in 2006 but created a political coalition which disputed the results and created a “legitimate presidency” in opposition to the current incumbent. The movement continues to this day with various public events and López Obrador, who started his own television talk show in 2007, intends to run for office again in 2012.

Walter Dean Burnham, in his own analysis of Blumenthal’s work, cited the capability of these movements to exist against or outside the confines of political parties:

“Instead of being channeled through–and thus revitalizing–the political parties, this realignment involved the conclusive marginal displacement of these parties by the permanent campaign…. The older linkages between rulers and ruled become ever hazier, ever more problematic.”

This description of the permanent campaign by incumbent officials may also describe the linkages between candidates and their supporters, as such long-term presumptive candidates wield power through their media connections to their fans, with regular dissemination of commentary being useful to regularly rally the fans against incumbent politicians or existing laws.

The personality-driven permanent campaign through New and Old Media is a style that may very well make a mockery of existing political parties in presidential, plurality-based republics like our own and Mexico. But the accommodation of these increasingly-powerful and established aspirations – aspirations which are, at one, personality-driven, and at the same time, very ideologically-tinged – are likely to force us to rethink our ideas about politics and democracy.

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