THE INTERNET: NO SAVIOR OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY
THE INTERNET: NO SAVIOR OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY
The Internet is like a political prism. A prism splits light into its component colors. The Internet is splitting, or polarizing the American electorate. Not so long ago, in the home of the oldest constitutional democracy in the world, there arose a fond hope; indeed, an expectation, that the new electronic technology would finally perfect the democratic politics of our imperfect but democratic republic. As Steven Clift, a leading advocate of e-democracy wrote in OnTheInternet magazine back in the spring of 1998: "The Internet will save democracy. Or so the early 1990’s technohype led many to believe. With each new communications medium comes a wide-eyed view of its potential. I’d like to suggest that, just as television saved democracy, so will the Internet." Do you catch the sarcasm in the final line? If you did, good for you. Perhaps you already recognize that the influence of TV on our politics and public life has been more detrimental than any other medium, as Bob Putnam [in Bowling Alone], this author [in We the People] and many others reveal ad naseum. So,"just as television saved democracy, so will the Internet."
The early, euphoric view of the new, Internet technology as heralding a new "digital democracy" was typified by Jon Katz in his glowing 1997 presentation of a WIRED magazine survey. Jon thought the survey responses signalled the emergence of a "new political sensibility" in cyberspace. The bearers of this sensibility were called "netizens." The December, 1997, issue featuring the survey results showed Norman Rockwell’s painting "Freedom of Speech" on the cover. The central figure in the painting is that of an American workman standing up to speak his piece at a town meeting. If there is a single motif for American democracy this is it. But does the figure of then bear any resemblance to the figure of a "netizen"? The answer to the above question is NO. The American workingman is highly unlikely to be seen in the foreground of such a scene today. The typical "netizen" is not a workingman but a "super-connected" or well-"connected" upper middle class professional.
One could leap from here to another major issue, the growing economic inequality that increasingly undercuts American democracy, but let us leave this for another time. The point of the growing political polarization enabled by the Internet is that it is turning America into a political archipelago with more separated islands of discourse than Indonesia’s geography, a far cry from the town meeting that puts workingmen side by side with professionals and executives in the same political community. We are reminded of the lines of an old Kingston Trio song: "Oh, the English hate the Irish and the Irish hate the Dutch and I don’t like anybody very much."
Cass Sunstein’s book Republic.com had tried to alert us to the danger. Sunstein saw the Internet helping people to create their own personal "echo chambers," aggravating the ancient problem of people with closed minds. As Merle Rubin stated in her March 15, 2001, review of Republic.com in the Christian Science Monitor: "Create your own world on the Internet – and democracy crumbles." The problem of political polarisation via the Internet has only gotten worse since. Other warnings were apparent in the political/cultural divide mapped by the results of the last, 2000 presidential election, "red" states for Bush vs. "blue" states for Gore. Pundits now predict a repeat divide in November, only sharper, with more fragmentation shown in high relief. Both political parties and reputedly "progressive" non-party organizations have become part of the problem rather than contributors to its solution. As each major party prepares for what is already being billed as the greatest "ground war" in political history, their consultants are pushing use of a commercial marketing model in political campaigns, including "customer relations" and "data mining’ techniques. By employing the new electronic technologies to download and combine data from political canvassing with data from credit card companies, consumer goods companies and other business data banks, they can slice and dice the electorate into umpteen different groups, practically down to an interest group of one – you, yourself. Contrast this with the traditional and necessary role of parties in a democracy – to bring people of different backgrounds and interests together to aggregate "interests" into a shared vision and party platform.
One example does not make a case, but this author’s recent experience with MoveOn.org may be worth noting. As a result of the Dean campaign and Dean’s Internet-savvy campaign manager, Joe Trippi, MoveOn came to be recognized as the foremost leader of using the Internet to transform conventional politics. Recently, MoveOn mounted a nationwide voter canvass in concert with America Coming Together (ACT), the organization dedicated to defeating George Bush. One would think that progressive organizations wanting to change politics-as-usual would try to bring broad, diverse cross sections of people together who, in turn, would reach out to mobilize broad, diverse cross sections of others. At least in Manchester, NH, recently, this was not the case. A good crowd showed up to listen to Howard Dean and then proceed to canvass Manchester neighbourhoods. The crowd’s composition appeared to this observer, however, to be dominated by a combination of old and young left-liberals. During a follow-up phone conversation with a staffer of ACT, I remarked that I appeared to be the only Republican involved. The staffer agreed. The kicker for me, however, was the "politics-as-usual" targeting of the day’s effort: We were instructed to knock on the doors only of those already registered as voters; specifically, those considered "independent;" that is, "unenrolled" in a party. Yet, advance notice of the canvass had emphasized the need to register the unregistered and appeal to "the 50% who do not vote." MoveOn? – with more targeting and less outreach across dividing lines?
You want further evidence? Go online. Write email@example.com and you’ll receive a comprehensive Directory of Internet Political sites of all stripes – right, left, in-between, Democratic, Republican, Green, conservative, liberal, you name it. Perform your own experiment or pick your own sample. Flip from the conservative Free Republic website, for example, over to the liberal site of The American Prospect. Do you see any interaction? Do you "hear" any crosstalk? Pick any two websites representing significantly different political points of view. Ask the same questions. What do you find? – polarization. We might as well be "English" and "Irish" or "Dutch" as in the old song, instead of Americans. Those frequenting political websites are like co-religionists, taking communion with each other. What percent of "crosstalk" is there? Casual observation suggests that this arises from a small minority of Internet users, even though there are a few fine sites like e-thepeople.org that enable mixed use. It would take a comprehensive study to answer the question, crucial for the future of American democracy.
Political polarization is a serious problem. Only idealistic advocates of a more deliberative politics or rebuilding civil society still use the phrase "public interest" as if it had some content and meaning. The Internet enables interest groups that are singular, each one of us a distinguishable, distinctive interest. As Janet Bruno, who just stepped down as Chair of the Board of Selectmen of Merrimac, Massachusetts recently remarked in conversation: "All the Internet does is put people within four walls, the four they construct for themselves. It accents their tendency to atrophy as sedentary, political couch potatoes. It is worse than TV ever was." This tendency threatens to yield an electorate fragmented into over 75 million pieces. The political marketing mavens aim to refine the targeting of their advertising with just such atomic precision, to direct candidates’ messages so they hit the hot buttons that would particularly excite each political atom, a ‘you’ or a ‘me.’ The "public"? What’s that? The "public interest"? – another American myth, like political participation, local democracy, and Internet technology as democracy’s savior.
PETER BEARSE, author of WE, THE PEOPLE: TIME for us to take our politics back from the political/media class that has taken it over: A Conservative Populism (a complement and/or antidote to MoveOn.org’s so-called "populist" track and tract).