By the time Election Day arrives, millions of Americans will have contributed to a presidential candidate this year. Hundreds of political organizations -- from the Sierra Club to the NRA, from MoveOn.org to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth -- will have taken an active part in the campaign, supported by Americans from every part of the political spectrum. All of this is democracy in action, and it is so commonplace that we take it for granted. Yet this kind of mass citizen involvement in the political process is a relatively recent phenomenon, spanning less than a half-century of our nation's history.
How did it happen? And what does it suggest for this election, and for presidential elections to come?
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The answers can be found in the rise of what we conservatives call the "alternative" media -- beginning with the conservative movement's development of political direct mail in the 1960s, followed by the growth of talk radio and cable TV news in the 1990s and, since then, by the remarkable role of the Internet in the political process. In this year's presidential election, it is the alternative media that are largely framing the issues, engaging the public, raising money and getting out the vote.
Whatever the outcome on Nov. 2, this election will be remembered as the year when these alternative media all came together to change how politics in America is practiced.
One question remains: Will the prime beneficiary be conservatives, who pioneered the use of political direct mail as a response to the liberal hegemony of the 1960s, or liberals, who were the first to recognize the Internet's fundraising potential?
A bit of history helps in explaining the rise of alternative media. The 1950s through the 1970s were the "good old days" for liberals. Both major parties were under the control of their liberal wings, except for a few months in 1964 when conservatives managed to seize the GOP nomination for Arizona's Barry Goldwater, with disastrous results at the polls. The conservatives of 1964 learned firsthand that they couldn't expect to get their message across to voters as long as the liberal media decided what issues would be discussed. After Goldwater's defeat, we conservatives realized that we had to find ways around the "gatekeepers" in the liberal media.
And that's what we did. After the 1964 race, we began using political direct mail to communicate with each other and build a sustained movement. All of this was done under the radar of the liberal establishment, which didn't take seriously a vehicle they denigrated as "junk mail." Thanks to their myopic negligence, conservatives had a 15-year head start in learning how to use direct mail to achieve political power.
Two revolutions have transformed America in the past 25 years -- the conservative political revolution and the alternative media revolution that gave conservatives their public voice. The first could not have succeeded without the second.
The exact moment when liberals were jolted awake was the night of Nov. 4, 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected president and the GOP captured the Senate. "Aha!" they said, "so that's what Viguerie and friends have been up to."
Following that election, the liberals pursued direct mail with dedication and marketing smarts to build up their powerful environmental, consumer, watchdog, civil rights and other groups. Only the Democratic Party failed to use direct mail in any meaningful way, largely because of its longstanding dependence on labor unions and special interest donors. The GOP, on the other hand, learned from the conservatives and used direct mail to steadily assume control in Washington and in many of the nation's statehouses.
The second of the alternative media -- talk radio -- emerged after the Federal Communication Commission's repeal of the so-called Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Radio stations now could air opinion shows without worrying about giving equal time to every viewpoint in Babylon. Talk radio was not foreordained to be a conservative medium, but a mature conservative movement had created the mass grass-roots audience that made Rush Limbaugh and others profit centers for bottom-line-oriented station managers.
Talk radio gave conservatism something vital: Contact with individual Americans that was more intimate and engaging than print could be. The new medium had an unprecedented impact in helping the Republicans take control of the House of Representatives in 1994, for the first time in more than four decades.
Two years later, conservatives turned their attention to making cable TV news their third big alternative medium. Conservatives owe a great debt of gratitude to Ted Turner -- yes, the same Ted Turner who once called Christianity "a religion for losers." It was Turner who took the financial risk in 1980 to prove that 24-hour cable news was the wave of the future. Turner created the Cable News Network in his liberal image, but he also opened the way for another entrepreneur, Rupert Murdoch, to beat him at his own game.
Murdoch's Fox News "branded" itself as the first network to give conservatives an even break, and in marketing, there's nothing more important than being the first to lock in a brand identification. No matter how much CNN and MSNBC try to imitate Fox, Fox continues to pull ahead of them.