I’m going to break something of a cardinal rule for me (and doubtless will rue it later) … I’ve tried in general to keep this particular blog as apolitical as possible. I think that this is important - as I’ve become older I’ve realized that it is difficult to persuade people about the rightness or wrongness of their political beliefs, and that, especially in such a technical venue as this it is unwise to try.
However, I recently read a fascinating article, The Revolution Is Not Being Televised, by Stirling Newberry, a columnist and political consultant who has been fairly heavily enmeshed in the political uses of the Internet. Given the source (Truthout), I do not doubt that there are those readers who will sigh or even turn apoplectic at the political messages, but I wanted to comment not on the politics so much as at the message he himself presents.
I am, politically, something of a centrist, with perhaps a slight leftward leaning. However, what I am more concerned about more than anything is balance - the precarious act of assuring that the political process, whether in the US or Canada, does not so concentrate political power so completely in any one camp that there aren’t checks on the corruption from that power.
American politics is more unbalanced at the present time than it has been since before I was born in the early 1960s. One political party effectively controls the entirety of the government, with perhaps the marginal exception being a badly divided Supreme Court. This has resulted in a situation where the executive branch can effectively govern without any restraints, meaning that in essence it is only their own sense of ethics that can prevent them from doing actions which may be unwise. I have seen both Republicans and Democrats (and independents) faced with similar levels of ethical challenge - the ones with perhaps the highest ethical standards find themselves paralyzed with indecision. The ones for whom ethics is not a big issue take on as much power as they possibly can and then some, and I can think of no political leaders from either party that has convincingly demonstrated that they are immune to that level of unalloyed power for long.
This has always been the allure of the outsider politician, the one untainted by beltway politics, but in general such politicians aren’t necessarily any better about keeping clear of the flame - they are just more naive about political realities and occasionally come in with differing perspectives and less political strings than incumbants - and typically aren’t as tied into the political machinery as those same incumbants.
It’s why its worth noting Sterling’s article. His basic contention is that the Internet is continuing to change the dynamic of the political process in ways both subtle and profound, and may very well end up proving to be a major factor in the 2006 races. Of course, the Internet has impacted political campaigns since the early 1990s, but what seems to be changing is increasingly the degree to which the Internet is replacing the more traditional televised media as the vehicle by which campaigns are being decided.
Most telling right now is the campaign between Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont for the Democratic primary. Lieberman is perhaps one of the consumate Democratic insiders, though he’s both quite hawkish and has sided with George Bush on a number of issues. However, few people seriously expected even as late as March that Lieberman would find himself running significantly behind in a Democratic primary. His opponent, Ned Lamont, is somewhat more liberal, though not dramatically so, and he’s been opposed to the Iraq war for some time. However, it is likely that while this is a factor in his increasing success, it may not be the major one. Instead, the difference appears to be the Internet.
I worked for a while on the Howard Dean campaign’s DeanSpace (which eventually morphed into Civicspace) in 2004, and was actually quite impressed with the degree to which it took a fairly unknown candidate for president and made him a serious contender (and in the end giving him the ability to take over the DNC). I was also impressed (and dismayed) at the degree to which the traditional media was used to squelch his candidacy (this isn’t sour grapes or partisan politics … both the Republican and the Democratic establishment had a lot to fear with a Dean candidacy for president, and I suspect that there were more than a few candidates on both sides who breathed a sigh of relief when Dean ended up out of the race).
So has anything changed in the last two years? Actually, a great deal has happened, though it’s likely you haven’t heard about it through TV or radio channels. Candidates have discovered that the Internet is an indispensible means of reaching out to their core constituents, not in glossy websites, but as a means of organizing and coordinating, lessons which have been passed down from many of “survivors” of 2004. In essence, the Internet is filling the vacuum once held by precinct caucuses - which have been fading in power as the old political machinery has decayed. Candidates are taking advantage of a whole raft of “political software” that emerged after 2004, and because of the two way nature of the web, increasingly the candidates are able to more effectively communicate with his or her potential constiutency, which in turn lessens the impact that both special interest groups and “professional consultants” have on the candidate.
Of course, this has also meant that the candidates that are most effective at taking advantage of this technology are also more likely to be technologically savvy themselves, which, in turn, translates into being increasingly in tune (and representative of) the more wired of their constituents. This can be a double-edged sword, of course - on the one hand, such people are usually more systems oriented, capable of thinking of things in an inter-connected fashion, which has been until comparatively recently a fairly rare trait among politicians. On the other hand, however, such people tend to be perceived as being both somewhat elitist and unempathetic, which can be offputting (and thus off-voting) for people who are themselves more emotive.
However, one of the other effects of such campaigns is the degree to which it is able to mobilize the technorati, which increasingly includes not only the programming and engineering communities but most creatives, the management that is increasingly dependent upon those creatives, those involved in information disciplines (including lawyers, the medical profession) and those who are in the frontlines of providing information even in the more traditional media
Note that I think this is increasingly true on both sides of the political fence, and this fact is changing the political landscape in profound ways. Much has been made of the Great Cultural Divide, the Reds and Blues, and how one is conservative and the other is liberal. I think this is hogwash. I think increasingly what we’re seeing is a divide that exists primarily between those who get their “worldview” from television vs. those who “live” on the Internet.
AOL announced yesterday that it was shuttering its commercial service and laying off 5000 people. It’s main problem has not in general been quality of service, though that’s usually the reason most often cited. I personally believe that AOL has reached a point where its audience in general has either “graduated” to the Internet or largely retreated from it completely, the latter largely shutting themselves off of the net. Those people in the AOL pool for the most part were the fence sitters, the ones that were unsure about the technology but had heard from their kids (or grandkids) how powerful it is. I’d be willing to bet, however, that for every one person that decided that the Internet was too complicated and turned the computer off, there were five or more who wanted out of the AOL box so they could play in the bigger sandbox of the Internet.
One interesting statistic, of which I remember only the gist, indicated that people over the age of 60 actually made up the fastest growing segment of users on the Internet. Yet another study recently, from Statistics Canada, points out that people who use the Internet socialize less in person and often tend to withdraw from their families. I don’t see these trends as at all mutually exclusive. The Internet provides a vehicle for communication with other people outside of one’s immediate physical neighbors. Chances are pretty good that you and your neighbors share only one thing - physical proximity. Your circle of connections on the Internet, on the other hand, are far more likely to share interests and beliefs with you.
While both are important, I suspect that it is the latter that tends to be the stronger social glue. Retirees in particular often find themselves having retired from the one place where they dealt with people who at least shared a common goal, their workplace, and are forced instead to building a new network of social connections among other retirees who likely share only very peripheral interests. If, on the other hand, you can get online and discourse about birds or quantum mechanics or realpolitik with like-minded people the world over, two things happen. Three first is that these people increasingly “disappear” from their physical neighborhoods into their computers. The second is that you have rising levels of communication (and hence coordination) between places that are not geographically connected The final is that the other portal to the outside world, the television, becomes forgotten.
If you call the Blues the ones that are communicating over the Internet and the Reds that are largely getting their media and information in general from centralized sources such as their churches or their TV news station of choice, then many of the seeming discrepancies in the model otherwise disappear. Geographically the reds make up a larger portion of the country, but in terms of people they are actually in the minority by a considerable amount. However, the US political system was set up along geographical lines (as was the Electoral College) such that in many states, rural inhabitants (and those most likely to be least serviced by internet service providers) have perhaps five votes for every one urban inhabitant in terms of political power.
My suspicion, borne out in repeated observation, is that the “liberal vs. conservative” labels of the 1960s are to a great extent obsolete. There are a large number of Democrats with strong religious beliefs and convictions who still tune in on the TV or radio every day to hear what the “official” news is, just as there are a large number of Republicans who are technologically sophisticated and get Google alerts in their e-mail every morning when they log on. However, my guess would be that those Republicans are far more likely to have “blue” values than those Democrats are (and vice versa on the Reds).
Our view of the world is shaped, to a great extent, by the inputs that we receive. The traditional media, by and large, are mouthpieces for a fairly uniform viewpoint driven in great part by the power of advertisers representing company executives who by and large are perfectly happy with imbalance, since it gives them incredible leverage to game the system. They like TV because it is a privileged platform from which to sell products, unduly handicaps local interests in favor of larger, more moneyed concerns, and, because it is visual, provides an incredible vehicle for the manipulation of people’s symbols at a fairly subconscious level.
However, population dynamics and the above trends of the “Media Reds” and “Media Blues” also means that many such advertisers (and their clients) are having to pursue their audience as it heads to the Internet, which in turn means that they are now having to deal with a medium which has very different rules, different control points, and what’s worse from their standpoint, an infinite number of potential channels. Politics is, at its core, advertising and marketing - the marketing of the fitness of a given individual for political office. The smart candidates, the ones who understand their constituency, will be able to ride those respective ways - but in the great horserace the TV horse is looking a little long in the tooth, and may find itself increasingly unable to deliver the votes the way it once could.
If my surmise is right, I suspect that the imbalance in the government is likely to start righting itself (or lefting itself, as the case may be) over the next few years, starting potentially this year, and far more likely by 2008. Yes, the issues will be important, and already you can project what the planks will be - “Defense” (or “Defence” for my Canadian neighbors) vs. “Global Warming” - but in the end I think it will be the degree to which the “Internet Generation” is able to coalesce as a political force that will determine the course of the election.
Kurt Cagle is a writer and web consultant living in Victoria, British Columbia.