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This piece, which I wanted to call “The Digitally Driven Rise of the Tea Party,” was originally about how the right was using new media to oppose climate protection regulations. The idea for the piece grew out of earlier conversations I’d had with climate activists about what made their organizations different from right wing groups. But when I handed it in, my editor asked me to chop it down by taking out the climate angle.

I’m happy with the end result. My boss was invited onto New Hampshire Public Radio to talk about my reporting and the rest of PoliticalShift 2010, the series of stories about politics and social media we published in the run up to the midterm elections.

The biggest story of the U.S. midterm election has been the growing influence of the Tea Party movement. Since their first rallies in early 2009, these vocal, visible conservatives have succeeded in shifting the center of American political discourse to the right. This election cycle, Tea Partiers have gone a step further, successfully backing primary challengers against moderate Republicans like Delaware’s Mike Castle. So how has this confederation of online, conservative activists used new media to build their growing political base?

Think locally, organize nationally

First and foremost, the Tea Party movement has succeeded by connecting local groups to the national conversation.

“I didn’t really start using Facebook and Twitter until I got involved with the Tea Party movement,” said Ana Puig, the 38-year-old leader of Pennsylvania’s Kitchen Table Patriots (KTP).

Puig said much of KTP’s online organizing would not have been possible without the help of two prominent, national conservative organizations: FreedomWorks and American Majority. These well-financed operations provide local Tea Party groups with the new media training and focus group-tested political messaging needed to get results.

Using what she learned from these national organizations, Puig and co-founder Anastasia Przybylski set up the KTP’s rudimentary website, which has proved effective in establishing the group’s digital presence and in attracting new members. Puig said KTP has an email list of a couple thousand people and has attracted over 400 fans to its Facebook page since she created it a month ago.

These personalized digital resources have enabled KTP to stage dozens of rallies since it was founded in February 2009. They’ve also organized an online boycott of Dawn after it advertised during a MSNBC Tea Party documentary and are currently running get-out-the-vote operations for conservative candidates across the state.

Digital tools

Brendan Steinhauser, FreedomWorks’ director for federal and state campaigns, hinted at another way the Tea Party has grown its online political clout: By sharing digital tools.

“We see our new model at FreedomWorks as a service center for the grassroots,” he explains.

This approach is based in part on the success Steinhauser had using Yahoo Groups and viral videos to revive the University of Texas chapter of the state’s Young Conservatives organization in the years before YouTube was launched or Facebook became an open network. After his graduation in 2005, Steinhauser used the same tools to help found the Young Conservatives of California. He also published a book about his campus organizing experiences, The Conservative Revolution, and launched a blog with the same name.

Steinhauser was one of a handful of FreedomWorks staffers who have shown Puig, and many others like her, the digital ropes.

“A lot of it is training,” Steinhauser explained. “Most of these people are new to politics.”

In addition to seminars on the background and basics of political campaigning — from the tactics of the American civil rights movement to tips on how to stage an interesting meeting — FreedomWorks has sessions on social media.

“It’s very basic stuff, but it goes a long way toward making an impact” with the older members of the Tea Party movement, he said.

FreedomWorks also offers more sophisticated digital resources to its network of 650,000 online conservative activists. Puig initially contacted the organization to have one of the KTP’s rallies listed on a national Google Map that FreedomWorks created to share information about local Tea Party events. Steinhauser’s group also helped fire-charge the Congressional town halls in summer of 2009 by featuring on their website an “August Recess Action Kit” to aid supporters in exposing “the real intentions and the economic ramifications of the of the Cap and Tax and health care reform legislation on the table,” as Mother Jones reported at the time.

Click here to read more about FreedomWorks’ digital arsenal and the “guerrilla tactics” of American Majority’s online activist training sessions or to comment on the PBS MediaShift story.

Photo credit: (Astro)Turf Wars

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This was a self-selected Prospect article critique for my application to their fellowship program. See this post for more information.

They probably won’t vote for it. But by including GOP ideas in the finance bill, Democrats can make it difficult for Republicans to effectively campaign against it.

Tim Fernholz believes the best strategy for Democrats to win the fight over re-regulating Wall Street is to learn from the lessons of the health care reform. The question is, what exactly are the takeaways from that successful legislative battle?

The first lesson, Fernholz says, is to be assertive. In the wake of Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown’s election to the Senate, congressional Democrats realized they would have to take a strong, cohesive stance to enact health care reform. And with that decision made, they rallied together and passed a controversial bill. Fernholz notes that their assertiveness has boosted both the popularity of their health care reform overhaul and, if the breathless reporting of POLITICO is to be believed, the party’s midterm reelection chances.

Fernholz’s other lesson is that Republicans cannot be counted on to cooperate. “If Democrats want to replicate their health-care success,” Fernholz suggests, “the best strategy for strong reform is to bring a tough bill to the floor and dare Republicans to filibuster it.” But Republicans don’t need too much taunting to call a filibuster. Indeed, with little substantive provocation, the minority party has set a new record for obstinacy this congressional session. And, as Fernholz notes, this is a strategy Republicans have doubled down on in the wake of their crushing health care defeat.

By focusing primarily on the assertiveness Democrats showed at the last moment and the stonewalling of the GOP, Fernholz overlooks perhaps the most important lesson from the battle for health care: the importance of co-opting the best Republican ideas. (more…)

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For The American Prospect‘s excellent (and highly competitive) fellowship program I had to submit two article critiques and a critique of their group blog TAPPED, among much else. This article critique was assigned, the second critique is of an article I selected for myself. I’m still waiting–with fingers crossed–to hear back from the Prospect.

To improve the lot of the lowest, we must increase the taxes on those at the top.

Little more than a year after Wall Street’s bad bets brought the world economy crashing down, NYU Professor Dalton Conley told American Prospect readers, “don’t blame the billionaires.” This might have struck some as audacious after the implosion of the global economy, the cleaning up of which has disproportionately benefited the very same billionaire bankers who played such a central role in engineering the collapse.

Yet Conley was merely reiterating what was then and now conventional wisdom about the growing gap between the rich and everyone else. In a June 2006 issue featuring a special report on American income inequality, The Economist editorialized, “government should not be looking for ways to haul the rich down. Rather, it should help others, especially the extremely poor, to climb up.”  Two Brookings Institution scholars echoed this sentiment in a recent Huffington Post column, “America Needs More Economic Mobility.” This viewpoint overlooks one key question: Is it possible for the inequality of wealth and income to reach such a level that it inherently limits the economic opportunity open to those at the bottom?
(more…)

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Yup, that's me

Just add snow—the more, the messier. A few wet, white flakes in the Washington metro area are all it takes to wash away the veneer of efficiency local politicians try to maintain. When faced with nearly 30 inches of snow, as it was last weekend, America’s seat of government freezes up.

As the virulent debate over health care has made clear, America’s legislative process already moves at a glacial pace. The near record-setting snowstorm has not only suspended the city’s semi-reliable buses and commuter trains, but has halted all congressional momentum (such as it was) for two days straight. Only the centre lanes of most important thoroughfares have been ploughed, leaving Congressmen, lobbyists and well-paid bureaucrats stranded in the suburbs. Cars that ventured out on unploughed roads packed the snow between the wheel ruts into block-long medians. Wet snow snapped branches off magnolia trees and stately pines; broken boughs still clutter the sidewalks in many neighbourhoods.

In defence of Adrian Fenty, the city’s mayor, administrators everywhere struggle to cope with extreme weather. In Britain any break from the despairing rain causes officials to panic. Closer to the DC, the governments of Maryland and Virginia exhausted their snow-removal budgets even before this latest storm had hit. They could take a page from the government of New York City, which stretches its municipal dollars by hooking ploughs to the front of its biodiesel garbage trucks.

The threat of the coming snowstorm caused a run on area supermarkets. In its aftermath, some fashionable shops dug themselves out and lured discharged workers with snow-day sales. Most bus stops still sit behind a fortress of thigh-high snow, but entrances to smart shops soon sparkled in the afternoon sun with puddles and salt crystals. I noticed the Banana Republic near my office was mobbed with shoppers yesterday when I attempted to buy lunch at the closed food court across the street.

Washingtonians seem to be making the best of the snow, despite the municipal ineptitude. Massive organised snowball fights have been staged across multiple neighbourhoods. Even the president, who spent many winters in America’s snowy Midwest before moving into the White House, took a moment to poke fun at his adopted city’s inability to process precipitation. At an event over the weekend, he thanked his party faithful for being “willing to brave a blizzard—Snowmaggedon right here in DC”.

But the collective amusement may wear off soon: an additional six to 16 inches are expected in the area later today.

Click here to see the original MIL blog post or to make a comment.

Photo credit: The Pumpernickel (via Tumblr)

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Below is a quick Blue Marble blog post on swine flu that was assigned by the bureau chief. Click here to see the original or to make a comment.

One component of comprehensive health care reform that has been notably lacking from the drawn out legislative discussions is access to paid sick leave. In the US—the only industrial nation where workers are not guaranteed paid sick leave for short-term or long-term illnesses—39 percent of workers do not recieve paid sick days. A new briefing paper released today by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), which links the spread of the virulent H1N1 flu to a lack of paid sick days, makes a compelling case for why that should be changed.

“Employees who attended work while infected with H1N1 are estimated to have caused the infection of as many as 7 million coworkers,” said Pennsylvania State University Professor Robert Drago, one of the authors of Sick at Work: Infected Employees in the Workplace During the H1N1 Pandemic [PDF], in a statement accompanying its publication. Combing through data on rates of illness and work attendance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Drago and his coauthor Kevin Miller found that, of the 26 million working Americans who may have been inflected with swine flu in 2009, nearly 8 million continued to work while they were infected. Although most government employees receive paid sick days, the majority of Americans work in the private sector where only three out of five workers have access to any paid time off when they are sick. “Workers without paid sick days must choose whether to go to work sick or lose pay, a choice that many can’t afford to make,” Miller noted.

Presenteeism, attending work while ill, is an especially troubling phenomena in a time when climate change is likely to increase global outbreaks of infectious diseases. While passing a comprehensive climate bill is still the most important step Congress can take to prepare the US for climate change’s effects, the IWPR report also makes clear the need to make paid sick leave universal. One bill to do just that—the Healthy Families Act—was introduced by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) last May. Like the prospect of universal health care, which Kennedy championed his entire career, the paid sick leave bill is also languishing in congressional limbo.

Photo credit: mugley (via Flickr)

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This is a little “best of the blogosphere” piece I wrote to fill up MoJo blog while most of the DC bureau was off for Yom Kippur.

With so much ink already spilled in the political war over health care reform, it is the rare piece that can successfully redraw the battle lines in amusing and insightful ways. But two such examples have recently fought through the cacophony of the blogosphere to aid the ailing debate.

On Saturday Jonathan Rauch (h/t Lexington) used a hilarious extended metaphor to expose the unconvincing arguments often offered in defense of the existing health care system. In a fictional dialogue with the booking agent for Air Health Care, Rauch imagines what the US travel system would be like if it was run like the health insurance industry. Exasperated, he explains to the agent that, “in a sane, modern system…I would be able to arrange a whole trip with a single phone call!”

The Air Health Care employee responds using some very familiar excuses:

Sir. Please. Calm down and be realistic. I’m sure the system can be frustrating, but consumers don’t understand flight plans and landing slots. Even if they did, there are thousands of separate providers involved in moving travelers around, and hundreds of airports, and millions of trips. Getting everyone to coordinate services and exchange information just isn’t realistic in a business as complicated as travel.

And this morning, the normally libertarian-leaning Economist posted a similarly spirited critique of the protests against centralizing health care—via a discussion of the merits of Macs vs. Microsoft.

Click here to read the rest of the MoJo blog post or to make a comment.

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Singer/songwritter Paul Hipp has put out a little YouTube ditty in mock-celebration of the US’ thirty-seventh place ranking in the World Health Organization’s most recent ranking of health care systems around the world. Like the best Dylan tracks, this one is more about the message than the music (i.e., Hipp’s got a terrible voice). Give it a listen anyway and remember what’s at stake in the health care debate.

Click here to watch the MoJo blog music video or make a comment.

 

(Hat tip to my father for forwarding this video to me.)

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