03/25/2014 11:33 am ET Updated May 25, 2014

Digital Democracy: Bipartisanship in the Obama Era

I was recently reading a fascinating piece right here on the Huffington Post, in which Sam Stein caught up with Gene Sperling, Barack Obama's (and previously, Bill Clinton's) go-to guy on economic policy. I highly recommend it; it's a great glimpse into the high-octane work, defined by fighting tooth and nail for changes that could result in billions of dollars moving one way or another, that Sperling left behind.

But one piece of the interview got me thinking, and it's quoted verbatim below because it's really important.

Let me ask you a different way. Did you find it harder to be part of a team that's trying to govern during the Clinton era or during the Obama era?

Despite the recent state of Republican nostalgia that they loved Bill Clinton, it was always rough and tumble from the shutdown to impeachment. The thing that was easier in the nineties was that when there was a sense of mutual self-interest in getting something done, our adversaries could work with us to make it happen.

Right, so let's start with a disclaimer (I do a lot of these): I didn't live in this country when Bill Clinton led it. I arrived during the Bush administration, and not only do I not remember the Clinton impeachment crisis, but I was all of seven years old when it happened, which is to say that at the time I was rather more concerned with playing Pokémon than with whether or not President Clinton had relations with Ms. Lewinsky. This is all to say that I'm once again speaking as an outsider and as an observer.

It's certainly seemed to me that Washington, under President Obama, has seemed to splinter. I have no long experience on which to base this conclusion, but the budget confrontation that led to a partial government shutdown certainly set the bar as far as my personal experience in government clash. When Congressman Boehner opened up to Jay Leno on the Tonight Show and called the shutdown "a predictable disaster," I wasn't exactly surprised. But throughout it all, I wasn't sure if it really was any worse under Obama than it was under Clinton.

And, frankly, part of the reason I wasn't sure if I was just being oversensitive and shortsighted is that it's very, very difficult to know who to trust. Everyone who reports the news has an agenda whether it's subconscious or not -- whether it's spreading political ideas or not, whether it's garnering viewers or not. Just as I can't forget that the Wall Street Journal and Fox News are wholly owned parts of Rupert Murdoch's media empire, I can't deny the multitude and weight of allegations that MSNBC and CNN have liberalized. And, of course, people wouldn't hop on the Internet and make a blog about this if they didn't have an agenda.

But now someone who worked at the top in both White Houses has stated, unequivocally, that it is worse today. He has directly stated that cooperation was simply easier to come by in those bygone days.


I think one dimension of the answer that may get neglected sometimes is the nature of communication in the 1990s versus today, and how that interacts with the way that the government (particularly the House of Representatives) is structured.

Boehner, on Leno, referred repeatedly to some of his colleagues opting for a course of action from which they could not be swayed, and having to stand with them against his reservations for the sake of his party. He also vocally decried the hyper-conservative outsiders that prodded some of his members to launch the shutdown. I'm not an expert, but the idea of the House Majority Leader having to bow to the wishes of a minority, especially when he is convinced it will lead nowhere, is something entirely new.

That's the paradigm shift: the expectation of representation has morphed from a law of averages to a demand for gratification. The same public the founding fathers deliberately insulated from directly electing any government official except their local Congressman can launch blogs and meet on message boards and create Facebook groups that supersede the traditional, mass market methods of news delivery and communication, both to send likeminded people to Congress and make their particular displeasure heard.

And when it comes time to vote, the way the House is structured has made it uniquely possible for pockets of ideology to dominate an electoral district and thereby send delegates to Congress that would likely not carry a state like a Senator must. Minority ideologies like that of the Tea Party that Boehner blames for the shutdown, the ones that would not have gotten airplay on the major news networks and newspapers of Clinton's day, are thriving as their subscribers find one another. The conspiracy theorist no longer mumbles to himself in the shower; he blogs and tweets and messages his fellows.

The Internet has made it easier to find people who share views outside the moderate zone, has made it easier for those ideologies to be shared and repeated and spread without ever needing to place an ad on TV. And while I don't think we'll ever see the Tea Party in the White House, we will see -- and have seen -- representatives that adhere to an ideology more extreme than the larger party's, who will not back down where once they may have folded to the larger party's needs. The Tea Party isn't centralized, isn't led from a core. It's not really a party; it's a web. And this is just one example. It can happen in any corner of the political spectrum, with any group throwing its collective hat in the ring.

That's why Sperling found cooperation harder to come by. In the digital age, videos of cars flipping and pictures of cats demanding cheeseburgers aren't the only things that can go viral.

Ideologies can, too.