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Another Point of View: The Internet is Neither Friend nor Foe of Participatory Democracy

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Too Soon for Self Congratulations

In the heady days immediately following Obama's victory it is easy for liberals to feel not only self-congratulatory, but to be filled with an enthusiasm for the internet and its prospects for creating an informed and empowered democracy. The facts are strung together in a tenuous web of argumentation. Obama won. Obama was internet savvy. Therefore Obama's victory was a triumph for empowered citizen democracy and the internet will ensure triumph for empowered citizen democracies everywhere. Connect the dots and draw the desired inferences. Thanks to the internet we have no more Bush. No more conservative-dominated Washington politics. No more powerful, financially well-endowed special interests dominating elections. The internet gives us participatory democracy and we have a return to the Golden Age of Athens and of Pericles.

Would that things were ever that simple, even in Athens. The Golden Age lasted less than a quarter of a century. After Pericles came economic disaster, due to the plague and the Spartan invasion. Athenian democracy was hijacked by Alcibiades. Athens fell.

The Internet Did Not Elect Obama

So what really happened in the 2008 election and what do I fear might happen next? Didn't the internet enable an informed electorate to select and fund Obama?

What happened? A brilliant and charismatic candidate promised change, change we could believe in, and told us that we could, yes, we could. Frankly, after 8 years of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, after the greatest redistribution of wealth since the Normans stole England from the Saxons, and after the US was mired in the worst foreign wars since Viet Nam, almost any change seemed like a good thing. Likewise, after years of a White House that understood only half of Adam Smith's early analysis of capitalism, the self-interest part and not the rules part, the wheels finally came off the American economy. Almost any Democratic candidate could have won. Against the increasingly tired old man and the inarticulate, anti-intellectual and superficial self-styled Russian affairs expert, the Democrats won in an electoral college landslide. Combine the Republican Party's candidates, the economic environment, and their failure to harness the web either for communications or fund raising, and they simply had no chance.

The Internet is Not Inherently Liberal -- The Republicans Can Use it Too

But what happens next? Can the internet also undercut populist candidates and return control to big money donors? Can the internet actually limit informed debate?

First, on fund raising. Republicans tend to have more money. They tend to do a better job of getting political contributions, probably because they have more money. Under the guidance of Karl Rove they certainly mastered direct mail fundraising. And there is no reason to believe that they will be run over by the power of internet fundraising ever again. When the Obama campaign team refused federal funding and undercut Senator McCain's efforts to establish a precedent for a campaign run only with federal funds and without funding from special interests, it was a short-term triumph for the Democrats. After all, they appear to have mastered the net first. Over the longer term, however, this may come back to haunt Democrats and populists more broadly. In particular, it appears that McCain was the first to harness the internet for presidential campaign fundraising, back in 2000; the fact that he chose to run in 2008 using only federal funds cannot be interpreted to mean Republicans cannot effectively harness the net once again and reconstruct an environment of money and power in presidential politics.

But a broadly based truly informed small-d democratic campaign almost does not need funding, right? If we all know all the issues, and all the candidates' positions on all the issues, then TV advertising is irrelevant. If we all intend to vote, consistent with our true beliefs, then get-out-the-vote grass roots activism is irrelevant as well. We're informed, we reflect, and we vote. Why do campaigns need financing? What difference does a Republican financial edge make, really?

Unfortunately, the internet for most of us is not a place of careful introspection. If, "On the internet, nobody knows that you're a dog," then likewise no one knows that you're a crank masquerading as a journalist, or a misrepresentation masquerading as a fact. Worse yet, simple, angry, rejectionist positions are easy to state. Careful refutation is more difficult, more lengthy, and more time-consuming for the reader.

The Internet May Not Support Introspection and Informed Debate? Really?

To take a single, simple example, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin rejected abortion, for any reason, even to save the life of the mother. When asked to explain the difference between her position and that of her presidential candidate at the head of her ticket, she simply restated her position. When asked again for an explanation, she offered simply that these were her beliefs. Implicitly, in matters of faith, no explanation is required. And increasingly this simple direct statement of beliefs is resonating with the American people. It is possible to explain the origin of Sarah Palin's position, solidly rooted in medieval Catholic Church teachings, which is still reflected in the British and American legal tradition. One does not execute a condemned prisoner while he was insane but waited for him to regain sanity. You simply did not execute a man who did not understand that he was being killed. This was not, as it might appear, spiteful, but actually was intended to be quite generous. By giving the condemned a chance to confess, and to make his peace with God, you were allowing God to judge his soul and to determine his afterlife in the best possible light. This of course is the reason that Hamlet does not kill his uncle Claudius when he first has a chance to do so, as his uncle is completing his confession of his sins; killing his uncle was not enough, and for true revenge Hamlet needed also to damn his soul. Candidate Palin, of course, did not wish to damn any innocent fetus. If, by killing the fetus to save the mother, you damn the soul of fetus, not yet able to confess, then the choice is clear; you save the fetus and allow the mother to live long enough to confess.

If you like this argument then you accept candidate Palin. If this argument strikes you as medieval nonsense, and if Sarah Palin cannot provide a better argument, then you reject candidate Palin and her views. But notice how simple it is for a candidate to express an opinion forcefully, no matter how superficial his or her analysis. And notice how much more cumbersome it is to address it, put it in context, refute it, and force the candidate to explain or defend it.

Does anyone truly believe that the internet has improved political debate? Over a century after the great Congressional campaigns of 1858 we still teach Lincoln-Douglas Debate and continue it as a form of debate competition. Does anyone anticipate that Bush-Kerry Debate will become a long-term competitive style? Worse yet, does anyone anticipate Palin-Biden debate will emerge as a form of competitive debate, with one candidate announcing in advance that she will speak about whatever she wants and ignore the questions, and the other candidate rambling until time is called by the moderator? Debate has been reduced to trivial posturing and we accept this.

Digg, Del.icio.us, and the internet more broadly all reward simplicity and the powerfully delivered sound bite. It is easy to say "The Obama relief package is socialist, taking your money and giving it to someone else." It's harder to say, "Well, no. The stimulus package is designed to create consumer spending and thus restart the economy, leading to rehiring and reduced unemployment, which of course leads to more spending and more hiring through the well-known multiplier effect. Government jobs are of course jobs, and have a great multiplier effect ... just see what happens to a community in the US or abroad when a military base is shut down ... the multiplier effect explains why civilians lose their jobs as soon as the military leaves, and why we really, really want the multiplier effect now. We don't accomplish that by taxing you or taking your money ... we printed a whole bunch of new money. That's likely to be very inflationary and a bad thing for people to whom we owe American dollars. The real losers, unfortunately, are likely to be Chinese holders of American Treasuries. Yes, social security recipients could be hurt, but, actually, with automatic COLA adjustments protecting them, the biggest losers are going to be foreign creditors." The first is 15 words and easily understood. The second is 170 words, almost a dozen times as long, and is probably mostly incomprehensible except to someone with at least one course in macroeconomics.

So, Now What? If Not Empowered Democracies, Then What?

So, what's my take on the internet and the inevitable creation of newly empowered democracies? I love the idea of an empowered and informed electorate, a return to the government of the polis, and a return to the popular democracy of classical Greece. Who would not? And if the internet gets us there, well, as we used to say in the 60s, "Power to the People." But if the internet is just another way to raise money, then money, not people, will have power. And if the internet is just another way to promulgate the simplest and the most popular sound bites, without any prospect of responsible journalistic vetting, this does not bode well for liberal agendas. I'm not suggesting that liberals panic, but it's certainly too soon for self-congratulations or over-confidence. Obama was the right candidate at the right time with the right message and the right technology; McCain did not understand the new media, but, frankly, nothing he did could match Obama's charisma, and no one could have run chained to the Bush legacy after the economy tanked.

The internet has its uses. Lies can be quickly refuted as lies, and lies and innuendo play a crucial role in tight elections -- Congressman Richard Nixon attacked his opponent for the Senate, claiming Helen Gahagan Douglas is a communist, "pink down to her underwear"; Swift Boat Veterans for Trust attacked presidential candidate John Kerry, claiming he had not served with distinction, and nameless, faceless sources claimed that Presidential candidate Barack Hussein Obama was a Muslim. But the internet is still an easier place to communicate lies and half truths to the faithful, even if it can also be used to set the record straight to those willing to listen.

2012 will be an entirely new story. The internet is a new medium and its political impacts need to be understood. Claiming that it makes things easy for the people and that the success of democratic ideals is now inevitable is dangerously simplistic. The internet simply moves the war of the parties and their funding machines, not just the battle of ideas, to a new domain.