Bloggers at the Gate
The Internet hasn’t perfected democracy. But it might.
But hold on–skepticism remains, and it has a new champion. In The Myth of Digital Democracy, Matthew Hindman, a political science professor at Arizona State University, argues that the Internet hasn’t really broadened or decentralized the structure of politics at all; it’s just sort of rearranged the furniture. According to Hindman, American politics and media, far from being democratized in any way, are still controlled by a relative handful of activists and gatekeepers. Some of the names and faces may have changed, but the small club of people engaged and empowered is just as exclusive as ever–wealthier, whiter, more educated, and far more liberal than your average American. Sure, Hindman says, political activism and journalism are moving predominately online, but that doesn’t mean that hierarchies are being flattened and influence splintered. In fact, he says, there’s really no numerical evidence to suggest that the average American is any more involved politically than he was during the apex of the broadcast age–which is to say, not very involved at all.
In other words, Hindman is saying that the Gina Coopers of the world make for nice, inspiring stories, but they don’t represent any significant departure from the people who hung out in the last era’s smoke-filled political clubs, and they haven’t begun to redistribute the essential balance of power in the democracy from large institutions to individual voters. Meet the new elites, same as the old, except maybe for the laptops.
At this point, it’s only fair for me to say a word about political scientists and political journalists, who generally regard one another with the same low-grade disdain that probably characterizes the relationship between, say, legal scholars and urban prosecutors. Academics who study politics often consider those of us who write about the field to be superficial, simple-minded and–the greatest indictment of all–unscientific . We interview three people in an Iowa diner and act as if we have penetrated the very soul of America. (Such allegations are, sadly, true enough.) Hindman’s book is permeated by just this kind of mild contempt for political journalists, who, in his view, have mindlessly extolled the democratizing virtues of the Internet while not possessing the basic intellectual skills necessary to quantify their assertions. The Myth of Digital Democracy features no less than eight visual figures and 21 tables, along with detailed dissections of such metrics as the “Herfindahl-Hirschman Index,” which I can’t really explain to you beyond the fact that it seems to involve Greek symbols and some algebra.
Generally speaking, political writers don’t think so much of political scientists, either, mostly because anyone who has ever actually worked in or covered politics can tell you that, whatever else it may be, a science isn’t one of them. Politics is, after all, the business of humans attempting to triumph over their own disorder, insecurity, competitiveness, arrogance, and infidelity; make all the equations you want, but a lot of politics is simply tactile and visual, rather than empirical. My dinnertime conversation with three Iowans may not add up to a reliable portrait of the national consensus, but it’s often more illuminating than the dissertations of academics whose idea of seeing America is a trip to the local Bed, Bath & Beyond.
Now, having put that bias on the table, there is much in Hindman’s book that is persuasive, counterintuitive, and important to understanding the moment. Hindman’s data backs up what should be obvious about the political blogs, for instance–that they are populated by a small and fairly homogenous group of people who constitute their own kind of political elite. The founder of Daily Kos, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, is a law school graduate who lives in Berkeley; the lead blogger on FireDogLake, Jane Hamsher, used to be the Hollywood producer of such family films as “Natural Born Killers”; Chris Bowers, the signature voice of Open Left, is (or at least was when I first met him) a graduate student in sociology. To suggest that the voices of 100 or so prominent bloggers of similar pedigree represent some new, more inclusive voice of the American everyman–which is what the bloggers themselves like to profess–is just fantasy.
It’s true, too, as Hindman puts it, that “there is a difference between speaking and being heard.” Just because the Web is bursting with new media sites doesn’t necessarily mean that outsiders are exercising more influence over the process than they used to. “Most online content,” Hindman notes, “receives no links, attracts no eyeballs, and has minimal political relevance.” As Hindman writes, most of the traffic and influence online still belong to a few mammoth sites: MSN, Google, and AOL; the New York Times; and CNN. The formats have changed, but the relative market shares of large and alternative media have remained fairly stable. Despite the anti-corporate impulses of the Web, consumers still want to get their news and opinion from the familiar brands they know and at least partly trust.
The problem with statistical modeling, however, is that, like polling, it only reflects a particular moment in time. And the political impact of the Internet is spreading so quickly that it’s almost impossible to capture and quantify. Hindman’s study of Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign, for instance, leads him to conclude that while the Internet may be a useful tool for raising money from a certain segment of ideological voters, the wider population of less engaged voters isn’t really affected by what happens on the Web. This was probably true in 2004; Dean’s campaign attracted mostly the early adapters online, those hyper-contemporary types who were downloading music and printing out their own digital photos before the rest of us. But the success of Obama’s campaign suggests that it probably isn’t so anymore.
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