Seth Godin inspires my upmost respect as a marketing thinker. So it’s been interesting to watch him turn his attention to politics lately. But when he tried to refute legendary former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, I had to take another look.
In a recent post about an intensive online grassroots lobbying effort in Canada, Godin included this line: “Because as readership grows and issues start attracting loyal readers, what this proves is that Tip O’Neill was wrong. All politics isn’t local. All politics is about permission.”
While that may be a complementary statement to O’Neill’s timeless observation, it certainly doens’t refute the former Speaker.
Online political activism has not replaced local politics, but merely redefined what is local. On Facebook, you can have friends all over the world, but you can reach them quickly through one message, wall post, or group invite. Likewise, you can walk across the street and ask your neighbor to sign a petition or discuss your favorite candidates with a fellow church-goer.
Both sets of friends are your “local.”
O’Neill’s lasting legacy is the recognition that we learn, communicate, and act in a political context with that which is familiar. Godin’s attempt to replace this veritable law of political activism with the new media jargon of “permission” is inaccurate.
Do we give permission to candidates to communicate with us the minute we turn on our TV in the instance we might see a political ad? Except for a very few political junkies most people do not turn on their TV to watch political or any other sorts of ads. They tune in to watch the programs which those ads support.
Reading a blog or joining a Facebook group carries that same sort of coincidental permission. I’m on Facebook, and I’m friends with Jim. So when Jim sends me a Causes invite, I’m likely to join even if I don’t necessarily care about the Cause. Jim may also knock on my door and ask me to sign a petition or donate to his favorite candidate. I am influenced by Jim not because I gave him permission but because he is part of my “local.”
And a word of caution to those who think online activism is the new political silver bullet: just ask former presidential candidate Howard Dean how he fared in Iowa without a traditional, local ground game. It was a disaster.
So while Mr. Godin may think he sees “the new politics” the reality is that new technologies have not altered the fundamental way we react to political influencers, even if they have exploded the potential size of our sphere of influence. I hope that as he continues to look at politics through his marketing lens, he’ll try harder to bring the same thoughtful, eye-opening ideas to this industry as he has to so many others.