Democrats online and democracy on the ground

By: Sandford BorinsThis week it's on to the Web sites of the two front-running Democrats: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Accustomed to think of blue as the Conservative Party of Canada's property, I was surprised by the dominance of blue on these sites until I remembered that the Democrats are the party of the blue states.Like the Republicans, the Democrats' pages are chock full of content, in particular video of and about the candidates, blogs, ways to take action, policy positions, and links to social networking sites. The sites are deep and rich, and after navigating through them for a while, some narrative themes emerge.Hillary Clinton's home page is very well-organized, a tight block of text and images that fits on one computer screen. On any given day there is one focal photo and message. A few days ago it was “we're gaining momentum” and today it's “solutions for the American economy.”In a number of ways the site is presenting defensive narratives. Hillary's biography, which is the first link on the top bar, attempts to justify her claim of 35 years of experience by going into great detail about her achievements as first lady in Arkansas and then in the White House, as well as during the last seven years in the Senate.There are 41 endorsement videos, most by plain folk rather than celebrities, intended to counter the establishment candidate image. There is a fact hub that has pages of claims and counter-claims in the he said-she said disputes with Barack Obama.The most striking video I found is entitled “stakes.” It consists of iconic images and matching text “America at a crossroads…demands a leader…with a steady hand…who will weather the storms…and rebuild our greatness…Hillary Clinton.” No words are spoken, but the inspirational music is almost identical to that accompanying the opening credits of The West Wing. Life imitates art.Barack Obama's site has strong thematic unity, built around the “change we can believe slogan” and a frequently-used rising sun icon. Unlike Hillary Clinton's site, there are rotating main messages, that include his win in Iowa, his aspirations for the Nevada caucuses, his surge in the public opinion polls, and his goal of obtaining 125,000 donations so far this year.The site unfolds down a much longer page than Hillary Clinton's, and is not as tightly organized. It has the feel of a grassroots movement. Obama is campaigning in Nevada today and tomorrow, holding open town halls in Las Vegas, Reno, and Elko, and you can sign up online.The blog section links to a variety of supportive bloggers. The people section lists thirteen interest groups (women, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, etc.). There are links to his organization in all 50 states, rather than just the primary battles of the week, as is the case on Hillary Clinton's site.Finally, Obama too is playing defence, and under the “learn” heading on the top bar there is a “know the facts” page that presents his side of the he said-she said disputes with Hillary.To conclude: the Clinton and Obama sites – while somewhat different in focus – are impressive, telling the candidate's story and parrying their critics, and offering lots of routes for citizen engagement. Concerning citizen engagement, I've recently heard from two college friends, both empty-nest boomers.One, living in California, was in New Hampshire working for Obama, and the other, based in New Jersey, is in Nevada, also working for Obama. The primaries aren't just a college student thing.Next week I'll look at the primaries as a (small d) democratic phenomenon. I will explain for possibly mystified Canadian readers something about how the primaries work and make the case that they are the best instance we know of retail politics in action.

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