Sunday, February 07, 2010

It's Too Hard To Ignore Constituents?


Robert Wright reads more into President Obama's woes than an opposition party united in its desire to defeat his initiatives, and the general polarization of the electorate (something that may be more a matter of perception than reality). The people are using technology to peaceably unite, and to petition the government for redress of grievances. The horror! Wright writes,
Had technological change stopped in 1950, President Obama would be basking in the glow of victory. Insurance and pharmaceutical companies and labor unions posed challenges to health care reform, but their challenges were manageable, and as of a few weeks ago Obama had found a sausage recipe that these groups could stomach.
No, seriously, a single seat changes hands in the Senate bringing in a 41'st vote for The Party of "No", and it's the fault of the Internet? Months of wrangling over a healthcare bill, largely opposed by individual citizens based upon its handouts to those same special interest groups we had during Wright's "good old days", potentially defeated by the fact that the Senate can't reach a supermajority by one vote, and the problem is with the electorate at large? Seriously?

The special interests Wright seems to favor are presumably Special Interest 1.0, as Wright identifies "Special Interest 2.0" as the current "generation of political technology" - such as mass mail. He sees Tea Partiers as part of Special Interest 2.0, as they were supported by traditional special interest groups and corporations; but speaks of an emerging "Special Interest 3.0"
The Web’s many “cocoons” — ideologically homogenous blogs and Web sites — are in a sense interest groups; they’re clusters of people who share a political perspective and can convene only because of the nearly frictionless organizing technology that is the Internet. Some aren’t themselves activist, but most provide a kind of sustenance to activists who carry their banner.

All of this — a balkanized media landscape and the activist groups that spring from it — is Special Interest 3.0.
Big, scary bloggers? And political websites? Seriously?

I think Wright pretty much misses the boat here. First, sure, there are weblogs that cater to particular ideologies. But there are also print publications that do the same thing. Some of those ideological blogs are even owned by the companies that produce the print publications. Perhaps Wright is concerned that, as blogs can (generally) be read for free, more people read them? But that wouldn't of itself mean that there are more factions; just that some of the factions appear to have more members.

Frankly, even if you include blogs that have come from people outside of the traditional sphere of influence, or people inside the sphere who started blogging, you're really only talking about a small number of weblogs that have any significant influence. Most political blogs - just like most blogs on other subjects - don't get many readers and don't have anything that could be considered to be a politically influential set of followers, let alone a group of followers ready to mobilize at the author's command.

Within that context, it's perhaps no surprise that Wright fails to identify any of the problematic websites or weblogs, instead speaking in broad generalities.
The new information technology doesn’t just create generation-3.0 special interests; it arms them with precision-guided munitions. The division of readers and viewers into demographically and ideologically discrete micro-audiences makes it easy for interest groups to get scare stories (e.g. “death panels”) to the people most likely to be terrified by them. Then pollsters barrage legislators with the views of constituents who, having been barraged by these stories, have little idea what’s actually in the bills that outrage them.
The "death panel" lie was started by a known individual, Betsy McCaughey. She passed her lie along to Sarah Palin, who fed it to the masses. That's not "Special Interest 3.0" or even "2.0", and isn't something you can blame on the Internet. Perhaps Fox News and a mainstream media that is more interested in creating controversy than in educating the public, but those are factions Wright has told us are part of Special Interest 1.0. Some blogs and websites may have been happy to serve as an echo chamber for the McCaughey-Palin lies, but the mainstream media and numerous elected officials also happily repeated the lies. And we can again see how much of the fault for the possible demise of healthcare reform lies in the Senate.

Moreover, targeting small groups of people likely to be affected by a political message is far from a new phenomenon, and is far from web-based. I would argue that, contrary to Wright's thesis, most targeting still occurs under the "Special Interest 2.0" mass mailing (and mass phone call) model (at times backed up by good, old-fashioned pressing of the flesh). I am not aware of any broad effort on the part of special interest groups to contact and coopt bloggers and webmasters to serve as Svengalis to a mass of mindless followers, and I doubt that such an effort would succeed - first because it underestimates the resistance you're likely to encounter from the bloggers themselves, and second because it overestimates the bloggers' influence over their readers.

To the extent that a blogger picks something up from an echo chamber, repeats it, and inspires outrage among her readers, it's a product of self-selection - the bloggers readers are more likely to be outraged by the things that outrage the blogger, and are there because they share interests. When the outrage arises from misinformation or a lie, such as "death panels", that's a shame. But I suspect that politicians (and perhaps Wright) are more concerned when the outrage is based upon fact. People getting upset, for example, that during the opening moves of healthcare reform some very large concessions were made to "Special Interest 1.0" factions, and that as a result we were certain to have a less effective, more expensive bill. But you know what? Those "Special Interest 1.0" factions still won - they got what they wanted and, if a bill does pass, the concessions they obtained will be preserved in the final bill.

Wright is concerned about "the din of narrow interests and widespread but ephemeral passions", and fears that if politicians are exposed to what their constituents want they will become weak in the knees and our government will effectively be transformed to a direct democracy. Hardly. I do believe that we're seeing politicians cut their milk teeth in dealing with online mass communication - and that a lot of the current problems perceived by Wright have less to do with the so-called "Special Interest 3.0" than they do with politicians' contemptuousness for the voices of the people, individual and collective, as expressed through "new media". No doubt, websites and weblogs help even small groups unite and attempt to advance their goals, but there's absolutely no evidence that politicians care what they have to say any more than they have in the past. The problem, as I see it, is that many politicians (and pundits, and news personalities) are contemptuous of the notion that the people should be able to openly and visibly criticize the and "call them out" - unfairly or, perhaps especially, fairly. And they thus speak contemptuously and dismissively of "bloggers" - an ill-conceived response that can perpetuate or expand the sphere of unwanted criticism.

But it requires far more than a handful of people on an obscure website or weblog to catch anybody's eye, or even be deemed worthy of a dismissive comment. When a theme takes off online, you can be pretty confident that it would have taken off under "Special Interest 2.0" or even "1.0" days - but it's a lot harder to ignore. If we're talking death panels, then we're talking about a failure first on the part of the mainstream media to bluntly call a lie a "lie", and perhaps moreso their unwillingness to turn away a controversial speaker they know to be lying if they think it will generate readers or ratings. It's also a failure of our political leadership in both parties - the Democrats for being unable to get in front of the lie, and make the public aware of the facts; the Republicans for in many cases actively perpetuating the lie, and in most other cases for turning a blind eye to anything that they believed would hurt the Democratic Party and President. None of that can be blamed on "Special Interest 3.0" or some nascent form of "direct democracy".

Wright's first reaction to the problem of the people peacefully assembling via online means to petition the government for redress of grievances is that "It would be hard to restore much of the insulation [between constituents and their elected representatives] without tampering with the First Amendment." Well, yeah, but doesn't that undermine his notion that this is somehow incompatible with what the Founding Fathers wanted? Oh, sure, "information technology has stripped away the insulation that physical distance provided back when information couldn’t travel faster than a horse", but didn't that start with the electric telegraph in 1831?

As an alternative to repealing part or all of the First Amendment, Wright suggests that we could lengthen legislative terms so that
more people in Congress could spend more time worrying about something other than getting re-elected next year, and this could leave them productively indifferent to the most recently manufactured views of their constituents.
Well, we could expand the terms for Members of Congress to six years, because with six year terms surely an elected representative wouldn't be too concerned about... oh, yeah, the problem with healthcare reform lies in the Senate, which already has six year terms. Wright also suggests term limits, something that has had what I see as a pretty catastrophic effect on state legislatures - a lot more newbies in the state houses, politicians just getting up to speed when they're term limited out, politicians on their way out the door happy to pass the buck to the next group, politicians more concerned with positioning themselves for their next job than with doing a good job in their elected positions.... Wright thinks a Member of Congress, term limited out and hoping to grab the seat of a term limited Senator, is going to be deaf to the wishes of his constituents? Or maybe it's that he anticipates most of them going to work for the lobbying firms that serve "Special Interest 1.0", which would appear to be just fine with him.

Wright adds,
Absent such reform, it seems that the only time you can get big things done is amid a sense of national peril. Then you can pass stimulus bills and invade countries (the big résumé items of Obama and his predecessor). In more normal times, getting big things done means walking through a very large and dense minefield.
So... how does this differ from the rest of the nation's history? It took a civil war to end slavery. It took another century and a serious movement of civil disobedience to bring about the Civil Rights Era. It took a war and a depression to bring about the New Deal. Just when did we enjoy the glory days during which big things got done without a sense of national peril? I do agree that our government should be able to operate more responsibly, and that waiting for a crisis before acting can lead to suboptimal outcomes... such as a civil war... but that seems to be a structural problem not so much of our system of government as of the human psyche.

Healthcare reform failed under the Clinton Administration, something Wright can't reasonably attempt to pin on "Special Interest 3.0". But gosh - since he brought up Betsy McCaughey's death panels, perhaps it's worth remembering who was there, spreading lies that helped bring down the reform bill, much to the pleasure of Newt Gingrich? "Special Interest 3.0", nothing. This is déjà vu all over again.

Meanwhile, I think that if politicians would refrain from speaking dismissively of "bloggers" (or other means by which constituents make their wishes known), would focus on the issues and the formation of sound policy, and would have the backbone to call out people who are lying about major policy initiatives - even of those people are in their own party - Wright would quickly discover that many of the problems he perceives don't even exist. And seriously, does Wright think it's better that monied interests have unimpeded access to cut back room deals with politicians than it is for constituents at large to challenge that status quo? (What about Robert Reich's proposal to clean up "Special Interest 1.0", a major culprit in our nation's problems for generations?)

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