Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Internet: The Cause of Polar Politics?

At a National Press Club event a couple of weeks ago, NBC White House correspondent David Gregory argued that blogs and the internet were to blame for the polarization of today’s political arena. He specifically pointed to the phenomenon of "people try[ing] to divine or assign [the press's] motives" for asking certain questions at White House press briefings.

First, let me make it clear that I don’t believe that there’s anything wrong with the press being subjected to high levels of public scrutiny. Just as political institutions within a democracy ought be transparent, so too should the media that reports on them. While I agree that a journalist's job, first and foremost, is to obtain and disseminate news rather than pursue a private agenda, I am aware that any substantive report will reveal something of the reporter's predisposition. Whether it is a blatant indication of prejudice or a subtle nuance indicated by who the reporter chooses to interview or the use or omission of certain adjectives, there is almost always something to be divined.

Secondly, I would like to address the claim that blogs and the internet are to be blamed for political polarization.

In his book, Marketing to the Social Web, Larry Weber writes that, "You might have noticed that consumer opinion on the Web tends to split widely over books, movies, music, indeed, most products. Look at the Amazon book reviews; they tend be written by people who either absolutely loved the book or loathed it. Someone who is simply indifferent won’t bother to say anything. It's people who have an interest one way or the other who are going to take the time and energy to voice their opinions -- that’s evidence of community." The expression of political opinion mirrors that of consumer opinion.

To modify the old adage: if you don’t have anything nice or naughty to say, you're unlikely to say anything at all. As a result, people who take the time to participate in blogs, forums and other forms of social media are by and large people who possess strong opinions.

Rather than ask why the internet and blogosphere are polarized, a more fundamental question is to ask why the polarization of politics has been blamed on the internet and blogs.

Politics – especially during an election year (and really, what year isn’t an election year these days?) – is inherently polar. Each party is trying to distinguish itself from its rivals, as is each candidate. Even after the voters on both ends of the political spectrum have made up their minds to vote for whichever candidate wins their party’s nomination, politics becomes a game of those nominees subsequently picking wedge issues and positions. These positions slowly but inexorably chip voters off of the block of undecided voters in the middle, and add them to each candidate's flock. Ultimately - one side wins and the other side loses.

People’s views are forced into this binary function in part because they must vote one way or the other. It should not come as a surprise that this electoral dichotomy is reflected in the political discourse that addresses it.

Unlike the internet, this is hardly a modern development. Political polarization and factionalism were identified by our founding fathers more than 200 years ago. In Federalist 10, James Madison –as Publius – wrote "…a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."

This is a fair description of practically any established online community. Looking back, the debate between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists was just as polar a debate as can be found on any modern political message board or blog. While the debate between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists was waged between elite members of American colonial society with quills, parchment and printing presses – the modern debate is far more egalitarian, accessible to anyone with a keyboard and an opinion. Although the medium for the debate and the debaters themselves have changed, the underlying sentiment has not.

It is true that far more consideration went into the writings of Publius and Brutus than a typical blog post. The ease and speed with which anyone can become a pundit is both a boon and a bane because it allows for vehement expression without one of the quill era's crucial hurdles: forced deliberation prior to distribution. Two-hundred years ago, the very labor-intensity of writing and disseminating a message necessitated that the content be thoroughly vetted for worth before it was published.

This is an inescapable byproduct of technological advancement. The printing press allowed things to be widely published far more easily than they could as hand-copied documents. The advent of television decreased journalistic deliberation even further. The internet’s enabling of nearly real-time discussion of events is simply the next step in the evolution of media.

Just as faction was both loathed and lauded within The Federalist Papers, so too does it play a positive and a negative role in the modern political process. By allowing freedom so that faction can be made to combat faction, the universal accessibility of the internet can facilitate the balance of these seemingly diametric views. These opinions exist whether or not they are expressed and cannot fairly be attributed to any particular medium.

Simply because the internet and blogs are the battlefield doesn't mean that they are to blame for the battle.

While it is easy to focus on the harshest and most extreme comments on any issue, the internet provides a forum for airing and discussing these difference in order to find common ground. In this sense, the internet is a far more powerful uniter than it is a divider.

Ultimately, the polarization of politics predates the internet by eons. While the internet – like all new technology - adds new dimensions to existing problems, it almost invariably provides new solutions as well. David Gregory’s comments focus myopically on the former element of the puzzle and attempt to scapegoat the internet for one of the most basic proclivities of mankind: having and desiring to share opinion.

David, don’t shoot the messenger.

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