Our colleague BVBL presented what appears to be about a fifteen minute speech on the political power of blogs and the internet in politics to the recent Manassas GOP Gala. He offers up the text here, and offers a stirring paean to the participative properties of the internet society. Speaking of those who foresaw the web-or something like it- as a means of energizing political discourse, BVBL said
“They were crafting a new means of human interaction which would fulfill a specific sociological function. These “geeks” deliberately tried to reinvent our society, to close the distance between us, to allow us to access more information and use that to solve ever more complex problems. One of those problems they intended to address was to improve the quality of our democracy by lowering the barriers to entry hindering citizens from participating in it. They didn’t specifically say they intended to create blogs, but they certainly foresaw that their creation would enable and encourage discourse and allow citizens to more easily obtain information.”
I am not a Luddite by any means. However, what strikes me here is that BVBL assumes too much. On line discussion of all types and internet presence may increase discourse and the flow of information, but I don’t think the internet lowered barriers to participation. Moreover, the low of discourse may be faster, but I don’t know that the quality has necessarily improved.
Blogs do give more opportunities to folks to have their say. How many out there would know my thoughts on any given subject were it not for a blog by which I can ruminate? We in Virginia saw the power of internet politics first hand last fall. Let’s consider George Allen’s Macaca Moment if it had happened twenty years ago. There was no widespread, easily had technology to get clear footage of him in the first place, there was no place to readily make the footage ready, and no means to keep the story alive. Twenty years ago it becomes one of those “wow, if folks only knew” stories that comprise local political lore…today it changes the course of state and perhaps national politics.
However, what barriers are being lowered? Are people any less able to vote, join a political party, or vote now than they were twenty years ago? If anything, participation has declined if only because it is now harder to vote the graveyards in West Virginia, SW Virginia, and other regions who have long lived by the credo “vote early, vote often”.
To paraphrase Michael Douglas as President Andrew Shepherd, American democracy is hard work. It always have been. You have got to want to make things work, to make things happen. Access to more information does not mean better information, and the easier it is to get swamped in the details. I suggest that the core information the voter needs to make a decision has always been there, but you have got to want to participate to parse through it…regardless of whether you are sifting through a hard copy of a position paper or on line.
Maybe it is the word participation. Maybe that is the hinge that causes our doors to swing in different directions…
You see, no matter how you get the information, you still have to have the fire to participate. I think participation is more than just getting educated on issues and voting. That is the bare minimum, and should amount to a duty. Participation goes far beyond that. To participate, you have to be willing to pick candidates and make your choices known. You have to be willing to work in the trenches, to get up before the dawn to do lit drops and work the polls, to stay out far past sundown to call voters and stuff envelopes. Participation is more than exercising the suffrage. Partiticipation is a desire to make things happen, to make things different-or keep them the same. Participation is not a matter of the mind-it is a matter of the heart and the gut, getting more information or having the ability to vent online is not the same.
Let’s not forget the costs to participation the Internet creates. The Internet is well named, as it allows everyone to interact less with other people. Want to watch a movie? No need to go out-order it online and watch at home. Need groceries or most any other retail item? No need to go out-order it online and it will come to you. Want to research a subject? No need to go to the library-work the web! I suggest that the diminished human interaction creates a diminished interest in community-and with that diminishment comes a lessened interest in the things that make a community work-things like politics and political involvement.
I think the heightened flow of information simply fires up those already interested…it supplements, it does not create the original fire. The less interaction we have, the less chance a spark will start a fire of interest.
Then there is the whole matter of anonymity. I have stated before why I blog under a pseudonym, but apparently the risks of putting oneself on the web grow greater and greater. The WaPo writes today of the challenges faced by woman bloggers, but note that while women face greater risk of intimidation and threat, male bloggers also face challenges (as the Letieq-Bouchillon quarrel of a year ago shows). As far as encouraging participation and lowering barriers, the WaPo took a different perspective:
“…women have censored themselves, turned to private forums or closed comments on blogs. Many use gender-neutral pseudonyms. Some just gut it out. But the effect of repeated harassment, bloggers and experts interviewed said, is to make women reluctant to participate online — undercutting the promise of the Internet as an egalitarian forum.”
Yes, the internet has made our methods of politics different-more information and more easily accessible. But there is a cost, and I don’t know that the resulting world, while different, is better