Politics on the Web: Marginalised players find spotlight

The major political parties are not the only ones savvy to the political payoff of maintaining a Web site. Political sites abound on the Internet, from the Unabomber for US president home page at http://www.paranoia.com/unapak to the tantalisingly named but staidly left-of-centre Pansexual Peace Party at http://www.neosoft.com/.eris/pppp.

The major political parties are not the only ones savvy to the political payoff of maintaining a Web site. Political sites abound on the Internet, from the Unabomber for US president home page at http://www.paranoia.com/unapak to the tantalisingly named but staidly left-of-centre Pansexual Peace Party at http://www.neosoft.com/.eris/pppp. Even as the US braces itself for its upcoming presidential election, additional contenders are flocking to the race, bolstered by the ease and comparative low cost of setting up a Web site.

"The Web is a godsend for grassroots third parties," says Bob Roth, director of communications and policy development for the Natural Law Party, which espouses the rehabilitative benefits of trancendental meditation in prisons and has had a Web presence for just under a year, at http://www.natural-law.org/nlpusa/.

"If it wasn't for the Internet and radio talk shows we would be invisible," agrees Perry Willis, national director of the Libertarian Party, whose slogan is "That government is best which governs least" and whose Web site can be found at http://www.lp.org/lp/.

The issue is largely one of cost. Unlike US television network airtime, which only the two major US parties or billionaires like Ross Perot can afford, the Web is free, Roth says. On the Internet, "We're on equal footing," he says.

Others agree that the Internet is a valuable alternative to traditional methods of stumping. "Usenet and the Web are mass-media outlets that are available to people who don't have a lot of money," says Cameron Spitzer, Web author of the Greens/Green Party USA Web site at http://www.greens.org/usa/. The Greens are an international group which in the US is backing consumer advocate Ralph Nader for president. "Most mass media is fairly well controlled by rich people," but the Web gives others a publishing medium, Spitzer says.

The ability to transcend the money and media monopoly hurdle has been enormously beneficial, participants say. The Web site functions as a kind of screen, giving enough basic information about a party so that those who make contact via mail or telephone are generally more interested in and likely to participate in the party's activities, says Betty Wood, clearinghouse co-ordinator for the Green Party USA. Wood handles phone, mail and email inquiries for the Green Party USA, and has seen email generated from the party's Web site grow to 50% of communications since its inauguration in February 1995.

"I can't keep up" with all the requests for information, Wood says. "It certainly raised the level of awareness" of the Greens, she says.

Another party used its Web site to call for volunteers in states where signatures were needed to get the party on the ballot. "We used the Web to make known our ballot access needs," says Mark Weaver, executive committee member of the US Taxpayers Party, which says it seeks to restore American jurisprudence to its biblical origins and constitutional boundaries and can be reached at http://www.ustaxpayers.org/.

In addition to trolling for volunteers, the US Taxpayers Party uses its site to ensure those volunteers stay engaged. "It's good for staying in communication with the people who are already involved," in the party, Weaver says. "Since they're still talking politics, being politically active doesn't really slip off their radar screen," Weaver says.

Links from other, mainstream sites can be valuable as well, akin to getting advertising for free. "It's a way of getting more exposure," says Rafael David, Natural Law Party webmaster, who estimates there are around 200 links to the party's site.

Libertarian Party member Willis agrees. "Those links with those other pages are having a major benefit for us," Willis says, who estimates he gets around 11 emails a day coming to his personal email box from links from other sites.

In the end, the Internet may help ease the visibility problem which confronts all organisations, political or otherwise, seeking to publicise their points of view. "I think we've got the best dogfood in town but that doesn't help if the dogs don't know it's on the shelf," US Taxpayers Party Weaver says.

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