The Internet and Political Dis-Integration

Peter J. Bearse & David C. King

August 18, 2004

Ten years ago this summer we began reading colorful predictions about what the Internet would do for public life. We were caught up in the promise of the “new political machine,” which promised to democratize information and empower a younger generation of the keyboard cognoscenti. Those were days when many imagined the bearers of a new political sensibility interacting over the Internet, transforming democracy along the way.

In the world of “netizens,” as Jon Katz famously called them in 1997, common folk would become the Internet counterparts of the central figure in Norman Rockwell’s painting “Freedom of Speech.” There, Rockwell depicted an American workman standing up to speak his piece at a town meeting while bankers and businessmen listen. Internet technology was going to save American democracy: costs of campaigning would drop near zero, hitherto unreached voters would be mobilized by timely and compelling messages, and the masses would be better able to participate in the political process. Fast forward to today. Does democratic deliberation among modern netizens look anything like Rockwell’s town meeting ? Certainly not. As email has replaced direct mail, the Internet has been a boon to fundraisers, but there has been no grand mobilization of voters. Troublesome political divides are multiplying in cyberspace because the way people use the Internet has created a universe of echo chambers. Like-minded ideologues have staked out their own corners online. The Internet has acted like a political prism, dividing Americans by their political stripes.

Netizens tend to consume political information that is in line with what they already believe at the same time that campaigns and interest groups narrow their electronic messages to target true believers. Internet chat rooms are forums for diatribes, not dialogues. Furthermore, the Internet has made it easy for political groups to find, cite, and distribute information that supports their agendas.

Ideally, political parties would strive to bridge the ideological gaps that have been reinforced on the Internet. But parties and interest groups alike have become part of the problem. As each major party prepares for the 2004 Presidential Election, already being billed as the greatest “ground war” in political history, their consultants are widely pushing the use of commercial marketing techniques by political campaigns, including “customer relations” and “data mining.” By employing the new electronic technologies to combine political data with information from credit card companies, banks and businesses, campaign managers can dice and slice the electorate into umpteen different groups, practically down to an interest group of one: you. Candidates’ messages are customized to hit the particular hot buttons that would excite each political atom, a ‘you’ or a ‘me.’ 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 shared visions and party platforms.

Now look to the non-party side of politics, represented by those, especially and Americans Coming Together (ACT). They, too, are part of the problem. One would think that progressive organizations wanting to reform political practice 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. Not so at a recent rally in New Hampshire. A good crowd showed up to listen to Howard Dean and then proceed to canvass Manchester neighborhoods. Advance notice of the canvass had emphasized the need to register the unregistered and appeal to “the 50% who do not vote.” However, canvassers were actually instructed to knock only on the doors of already registered voters. The would-be reformers were playing the same game played by party pols: mobilize the proven vote.

Need more proof? Go online to You will find a comprehensive Directory of Internet Political sites. Do your own experiment. 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?

This problem carries over into the media. According to a poll just released by Pew Trusts, “political polarization is increasingly reflected in the public’s viewing habits,” accounting for the rise of Fox News (gains greatest among conservatives and Republicans) relative to CNN (which now “has a more democratic-leaning audience than in the past”). “The public’s evaluations of media credibility are also more divided along ideological and partisan lines.”

What is to be done? Technology is a tool, not an answer. One answer is as old as learning. Seek diverse opinions. Challenge your assumptions. Debate with others, and with yourself, about the issues of the day. Try – really try – to understand opposing views. The job of making democracy better belongs to each of us. As citizens looking to make a difference for the good of a larger public, we can and should do more. Perhaps we could have a public Internet, not unlike public radio and public TV. Let us begin, however, by asking more from our candidates and from the political parties. With the Internet as a tool, let’s hope they can return to their traditional roles of registering the unregistered, mobilizing the grassroots, and bringing people together around issues.

Peter Bearse, an economics consultant from Merrimac, Massachusetts, is the author of We the People, a new book about political participation. David King is Associate Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.