Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Missing the Forest for the Internet


Robert Wright has a very thoughtful post on how the ability to target audiences cheaply in the digital age to garner political opposition and spread (mis)information has made politics increasingly difficult. He argues that this makes our political system less republican (i.e. representative) and more like a dysfunctional form of direct democracy.

Wright argues:
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.
There's a lot to Wright's argument. Surely the Internet does facilitate new methods for demagoguery. It also allows groups to form more easily without traditional political intermediaries or traditional intermediaries for the formation and articulation of public opinion. Indeed digital technologies allow new kinds of intermediaries to replace older ones and thus create new centers of political power. (Thus, this is not so much a move toward direct democracy but rather a displacement of older forms of mediation and articulation of popular preferences and popular opinion by newer ones).

But the reason why Obama is not basking in the glow of a political victory in health care reform has little to do with the Internet or the trends that Wright identifies. It has to do with the Senate's filibuster rules. The early 2000s not only changed political communications-- Wright's concern--they also produced a change in how often Senators were willing to use the filibuster (and other delaying tactics like anonymous holds) to impose a super-majority requirement.

This change is a far more important factor in explaining the political problems that Obama now faces than the Internet. The major problem with political reform today is a recently created structural impediment to democracy-- a super-majority rule in the Senate for almost every important piece of legislation--and not, as Wright suggests, too much democracy.

Older Posts
Newer Posts