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PdF: Can the Internet Fix Politics?

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Can the Internet fix politics?

The question, of course, presumes that politics is broken which, in my view, it isn't. I think that politics -- meaning a two party representative democracy built upon a separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government -- actually works relatively well in this country. America just elected an unusually talented and charismatic young President who, in my opinion, has done an extremely credible job appointing and managing our best and brightest to confront deeply rooted economic, environmental, educational, foreign policy and healthcare problems. The American electoral system -- give or take perhaps the odd Supreme Court decision on hanging chads -- is uncorrupt. The military mercifully keeps well out of politics. The lobbying system, much as it offends purists who believe politics should be free of financial influence, works. The press is free and healthily irreverent, particularly on the Internet. Powerful corporations -- like BP, Google or Goldman Sachs -- are generally willing to abide by law, even when that law undermines not only their profitability but sometimes even their viability. And the American political system remains a relatively open meritocracy in which an entirely self-made man of African ancestory who grew up in Hawaii can -- via Harvard Law School, the Illinois Senate and the U.S. Congress -- negotiate the rapids of the conventional political system to rise up to become President.

But what is broken in America is our respect for politicians, political parties and political institutions. Each new poll on public trust in the Congress seems to reach a new nadir and America is caught in a vicious cycle of blaming incumbents for the economic and social consequences of the structural shift from an national-industrial to an global-information economy. And what is compounding this distrust of traditional representative democracy is the new orthodoxy of an angry libertarianism on both the left and right -- from Sarah Palin to Glenn Beck to Lou Dobbs -- which distrusts the very notion of legitimate political power. What is broken in America is a faith in the general goodness and credibility of elected officials. What is broken is a social contract predicated upon the rights and responsibilities of not only the rulers but also the ruled.

This is where the Internet comes in. Rather than a solution to a broken political system, the Internet is part of the problem. The decentralized, flat architecture of the Internet --with its cult of questioning all forms of authority, its neo-anarchic orthodoxies of transparency and accountability, and its replacement of the responsibilities of citizenship with the rights of the consumer -- is compounding the crisis of conventional political power. Sure, the Internet is a great medium for democratizing authoritarian regimes in Iran, China and Egypt. But in America, we already have a pretty decent democracy. Unfortunately, the unmediated Internet, with its tendency toward mob rule, is undermining the legitimacy of representative democracy and replacing it with the dangerous pipedream of a pure democracy. It's the Anti Federalists 2.0. And in today's vertiginous economic and cultural environment, I'm afraid, these new Anti-Feds might win.

I dearly hope that politics won't have to fix the Internet. But the online world is too precious to the 21st century to become purely a festering source of perpetual subversion for the discontented. If we can balance the demand for individual rights with the need for personal responsibility -- in everything from intellectual property theft to the vitriol of anonymous online posting to an intuitive disrespect for other people's opinions and beliefs -- then the Internet can become a politically positive force in our nascent digital century. But this won't happen if we turn the Internet into a religion and regard its technology as eschatology. Rather than being about peddling conspiracy theories or swapping stolen songs or posting videos of your skateboarding cat on YouTube, citizenship is about recognizing the moral consequences of one's own actions. That's how the Internet can fix politics. That's how it can be a force for the public good.
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