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Election 2002's Exploded Myth

November 9, 2002

For years, the Democrats have followed the dictum of the late House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill, “All politics is local.” From that, it has followed that what’s most important is local organizing, not national media. Once again, on Nov. 5, the Democrats paid dearly for these misconceptions.


While the Republicans and conservatives continue to pour billions of dollars into building a national media infrastructure – from talk radio and Fox News to print publications and sophisticated Internet operations – the Democrats and liberals continue to do next to nothing.

After Election 2000, some Democratic strategists told us their hope for media was for the emergence of some pro-Democratic Web sites and some e-mail lists to distribute articles. They seemed to have no recognition of how inadequate this response was.

Indeed, some Web sites and e-mail lists have emerged, as under-funded part-time endeavors run by grassroots Democrats outraged by the pro-conservative media imbalance. But these well-meaning operations have only a tiny fraction of the reach of the well-funded professional organizations developed by conservatives in strong support of George W. Bush and other Republicans.

Now, finally, the Republican sweep in Election 2002 should explode O’Neill’s outdated slogan and the belief that local organizing is the answer to almost all political ills.

The Republicans proved again that their media infrastructure can let them nationalize even off-year congressional elections. They did it in 1994 with a combination of hate-Bill-and-Hillary messages and the “Contract with America.” Now, they have done it with George W. Bush’s calls for more allies in the Congress and attacks on the patriotism of Senate Democrats, whom Bush said aren't "interested in the security of the American people."

The Republicans were aided, too, by Democratic missteps, such as the political exhortations at the end of Paul Wellstone’s memorial service. Few Americans watched the actual service on C-SPAN, but Fox News, talk radio and other conservative media outlets used the event to create a national political firestorm over the supposed “outrage” of Wellstone’s friends and family calling for an electoral victory as a fitting tribute to the liberal senator who died along with his wife and daughter in a plane crash.

Whatever enthusiasm Wellstone’s grieving friends and relatives stirred among their supporters was far outweighed politically by the ability of the conservative media to use the event to rev up the angry Republican base. Merits aside, the conservatives again demonstrated that they can take “personalized” events, exaggerate them through their media prism and turn them into potent political messages.

The liberals simply have no comparable media apparatus. Indeed, the mainstream media and its well-paid talking heads will almost always side with the conservative message because that positioning protects them from the career-threatening charge of “liberal bias.”

So now, a key question facing Democrats and liberals is this: Will the debacle of 2002 finally convince them that serious effort must be made to build a professional national media infrastructure to address the interests of those 50 million Americans who cast their votes for Al Gore in 2000 – and for millions of others who find the conservative media grotesque and the mainstream media vapid.

Though much of the post-election criticism has been centered on the Democrats’ supposed lack of a message or effective messengers, a more important realization is that what the Democrats most lack is a media infrastructure for getting out a message and protecting their messengers from the ugly attacks that the conservative media is able to generate.

Unless that recognition becomes a chief lesson learned from Nov. 5, the Democrats and the liberals can expect a continued erosion of their political influence in a United States that is connected more than ever through national media.

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