Bloggers at the Gate
The Internet hasn’t perfected democracy. But it might.
One of the most common clichés in Washington–up there with, say, now-nauseating references to “game-changers” and Barack Obama’s “team of rivals”–is that the Internet has suddenly transformed our politics. This isn’t really true. Rather, over the last decade, the Internet has transformed just about everything in American life. Ordinary Americans of all ages increasingly do their banking online, buy their cars online, shop for groceries and medications online, pay their taxes online, conduct meetings online, rent movies online, even meet their spouses online. And politics, which is always sluggish to adapt to larger cultural trends–we still wear ties to work in the Capitol, you know–is simply the last of our institutions to be slowly pulled along.
In 2000, in the days following the New Hampshire primary, John McCain raised more than $1 million online. Most of the respected consultants in Washington yawned and noted, correctly, that $1 million wasn’t really so much. Four years later, Howard Dean discovered Meetup and MoveOn, not to mention the fledgling blogger movement and tapped the “netroots” for $25 million, catapulting him from afterthought to front-runner. Okay, the sages said, that was all kind of impressive, but he lost every state but his own, proving that the Web was still just a haven for hippie kids in hemp pants. (Then again, so is Vermont.)
Then, of course, came 2008, when Barack Obama blew the lid off everything that came before, raising an ungodly $750 million–most of it online and in small chunks, from a pool of some four million contributors. Meanwhile, traditional TV ads seemed powerless, the product of a magic wand that had lost its charge, while enterprising citizens created YouTube ads and videos that became as iconic, in their own way, as Lyndon Johnson’s daisy spot was in 1964; 20 years from now, we’ll probably still be talking about “Obama Girl” and her lustful obsession. So-called mainstream media struggled to maintain their access and currency; meanwhile, a blogger for The Huffington Post’s Off the Bus project broke the story of Obama’s comments about “bitter” voters in rural Pennsylvania.
It’s getting harder now for anyone in politics to contend that the Web represents another small leap on the technological continuum, no more or less transformational than the advent of direct mail and toll-free telephone lines. In fact, the online revolution appears to be changing the nature of political influence and citizen participation.
Consider the case of Gina Cooper, who is probably one of the few hundred most influential progressives outside the capital, someone whose emergence wouldn’t have been possible at any other time in American history. Born in Memphis to a father whose identity she never knew and a mother who died of cancer thirteen years later, Gina grew up in her older sister’s conservative household, went to a small Catholic college, and became a high school science teacher. That’s what she was doing with her life in 2003, when George W. Bush’s military invaded Iraq, and when Gina, incensed by her government and feeling politically powerless, discovered the liberal blog knows as Daily Kos. At first she simply trolled around the site on her lunch breaks and after school; then she started posting biting and surprisingly funny commentaries.
When a few members of the Kos community wondered aloud about organizing an actual, in-person gathering of their virtual selves, Gina volunteered to take charge. Soon she and a cadre of volunteers–people with no formal political experience and no ties even to their local Democratic parties–were building the annual convention known first as Yearly Kos and now as Netroots Nation. In 2007, in the run-up to the Democratic primaries, the convention hosted a debate among all but one of the party’s potential nominees, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (I helped moderate it); at last year’s Netroots Nation, Gina herself conducted on-stage interviews with Al Gore and Nancy Pelosi. For one of the presidential debates last fall between Obama and McCain, CNN flew Gina to Washington so she could appear live on the set, clicking away on a computer while debating a Republican opponent across the table. She seemed a little nervous–and who wouldn’t be? Until a few years ago, after all, the only thing on which she had ever held forth for an audience was the periodic table of elements.
I have often cited Gina’s story and others like it as evidence of where politics–and progressive politics in particular–is headed. “Democratization” is the word we often use. Suddenly, it seems, power is being transferred away from concentrated centers in Washington and toward online activists whose only formal training in politics comes from reading MoveOn.org’s website or one of the many strident, partisan blogs that attract more readers, on a daily basis, than all but a handful of American newspapers and journals.
This has obvious and uplifting implications, the potential to draw more people and more passion into the public square, to create a genuine conversation where before there had been only a loudspeaker and a captive audience. But is also tilts us a little further from the republican model that has been America’s strength for 200-plus years and toward something approaching Athenian democracy. This means, perhaps, more calls for ballot initiatives rather than legislation, more demands to restructure the Senate to allot seats by population rather than by equal proxy for every state. Taken to its extreme, such a cultural revolution might well endanger the balance between monarchy and populism for which the Framers so brilliantly and successfully strived.
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