On the night of Aug. 8, 2006, I stood in a crowded hotel lobby, crammed in with reporters, bloggers, and supporters to watch Sen. Joe Lieberman concede the Democratic U.S. Senate primary to Ned Lamont. Miles away in Meriden, Lamont and his supporters celebrated. It was an astonishing moment. The attention of the world was focused on Connecticut’s battle; national and world media tuned in. It was a rare moment in American politics where amateurs, liberal activists, and other members of the public managed to have a huge effect on a major political race by using new media to get their opinions heard.
I’ve been reflecting on that race this week. What are some of the lessons learned, five years after Lieberman-Lamont?
Lesson #1: Change is a constant
A lot of the people who celebrated Lamont’s win must look back on that time as if it was part of a completely different age. Our troops are still in Iraq and Afghanistan, but political discourse now is dominated by a right wing that has been resurgent ever since they figured out how to use computers in 2007. Republicans won back the House that Democrats fought to hard to capture in 2006; while here in Connecticut our new Democratic governor has pushed for union concessions while letting off the wealthy relatively easily. Worst of all, one of the most popular and influential political websites in the state is . . . a right-wing flavored Drudge Report clone? Really? What happened?
Everything changes. Blogs seemed like a new and exciting format in 2006, but now they seem rather quaint. The action is shifting to Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and so on. And as formats change, debate is subtly altered by its containers. Blog comments and tweets aren’t quite the same thing, and can have very different effects.
Ever more immediate ways to register political opinion means that the political world can shift in the blink of an eye, and advances made by one side can so easily be undone by the next round of populism. This leads directly to . . .
Lesson #2: Grassroots momentum is very difficult to sustain after a win
Lamont’s primary victory seemed like a turning point for liberal, citizen-powered media and the anti-war Left in Connecticut. In a lot of ways, it was. But it also turned out to be a peak. After 2006, Connecticut’s progressive blogs and other independent online media stopped growing, while conservative sites began to gather steam. In 2005 and 2006, it seemed like someone was inspired to start a blog to rant against the Iraq War and the Republicans every few minutes; by 2007 all of that had changed, and new blogs tended to rant against liberals instead. The big change was that Republicans had lost the House and Senate, and Connecticut Democrats picked up two Congressional seats and made gains in the state legislature.
That’s the thing about a lot of interactive media: it’s great if you’re in opposition, not so much if you’re in power. Ask the Tea Party about that. Speaking of that crowd…
Lesson #3: Political parties are increasingly ineffective as organizations
We kind of knew this one already, but the point is worth making again. What does it actually mean to be a Republican or a Democrat in Connecticut today? Are there a set of clear principles that really divide the two? The distinction became more murky this year when the Democrats in the legislature found themselves in opposition to organized labor, instead of supporting it.
Lieberman-Lamont divided Democrats in ways that are still festering, and showed how fractious Connecticut’s majority party really is. That election also demonstrated how useless top-down party organizations are at protecting incumbents from popular tides. Four years later, the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party made this point again and again.
Lesson #4: Doing anything and everything to win rarely works out well in the long run
Sen. Joe Lieberman pulled out all the stops to get back into the U.S. Senate for another term, and then proceeded to have his revenge on Democrats by infuriating them at every turn. He even went as far as to speak at the Republican National Convention in 2008. The end result was that he became a man without a constituency. He wasn’t quite a Republican, and definitely not welcome as a Democrat any longer. As an independent he might have had a shot; in fact, his election in 2006 owed a lot to his image as a nonpartisan consensus-builder. However, in his fourth term he did very little to try and build bridges between parties, much preferring to set those behind him on fire. He has spent the Obama years lost in the wilderness.
This is a smart lesson for the right-wingers in Congress: wins like the one you just scored over the debt ceiling may feel like victories now, but they almost always come back to bite you later.
There are many other lessons to be learned about organizing, communication, activism, and the isolation and general cluelessness of the political establishment. But maybe the biggest and most important lesson is the first one: everything changes, and if you take your eye off the ball even for a moment you’ll be blindsided by whatever is coming next.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.