Why the internet will revolutionise politics
Monday April 24, 2006
Does the internet hold an inherent political worldview? Does this medium have a message? I wondered that after I read BBC correspondent Justin Webb arguing that the American left had lost its way and its means.
“The worlds of entertainment and news (which used to pipe a vaguely leftwing message into the nation’s homes) have been blown to bits by technological changes which render them powerless,” he wrote. “The Democrats need a message and a new way of communicating that message to a mass audience. They have neither.” That made sense: mass media were perfect for the old, populist left, but they are mass no more. And the next media phenoms – cable news and talk radio – turned out to be the right vehicles for US conservatives. They used these niche channels to hammer home their angry arguments and fight back at what they saw as the liberal hegemony of mass media (and Hollywood).
So what, I wondered then, is the political nature of the latest medium, the internet? When I started blogging in 2001, I was puzzled by the apparently disproportionate number of libertarians around me, until I came to see that perhaps they had found a home in a medium that enables and celebrates individual liberty.
But perhaps it’s not that simple. I reopened the question when I read the Euston Manifesto this month on the Guardian’s Comment is free. Blogger Norman Geras introduced this declaration of a “new democratic progressive alliance” from 20 bloggers and others who felt “increasingly out of tune with the dominant anti-war discourse”. It hoists many flags I’ll salute, among them: “We value the traditions and institutions, the legacy of good governance, of those countries in which liberal, pluralist democracies have taken hold. We decline to make excuses for, to indulgently “understand”, reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy – regimes that oppress their own peoples and movements that aspire to do so. We draw a firm line between ourselves and those left-liberal voices quick to offer an apologetic explanation for such political forces. We reject, also, the cultural relativist view according to which these basic human rights are not appropriate for certain nations or peoples. We reject without qualification the anti-Americanism now infecting so much left-liberal (and some conservative) thinking.” For the rest, see EustonManifesto.org.
Predictably, sides formed on blogs, including Comment is free, where writer Mike Marqusee labelled the manifesto a “remarkably pompous, vague and prolix declaration”. John Kampfner, editor of the New Statesman, who published the manifesto, demanded that “these self-styled progressives” admit they got Iraq “spectacularly wrong in just about every respect”.
Now this could seem to be a playing out of the common view of the internet as a medium that hardens political views in an ever-more-deafening echo chamber. But note that this is not left v right but left v left, a melodrama I’ve experienced on my own blog as fellow Democrats have decreed that I could not possibly be liberal if I failed their self-set litmus test on one issue: namely, Iraq. They use the medium to enforce their orthodoxy. Yet note what happened in the Euston Manifesto: some progressives splintered away from the liberal body politic, and the internet enabled them to find the like-minded and reorganise as a new entity.
In the dawn of the blogosphere, some optimists hoped that our medium would plough common ground. Matt Welch, writing in the magazine Reason, recalled that in the unified days after 9/11, warbloggers shared “a willingness to engage (and encourage) readers, a hostility to the Culture War and other artifacts of the professionalised left-right split of the 1990s … a readiness to admit error [and] a sense of collegial yet brutal peer review.” Today, he writes, “Man, was I wrong.” But only his expectations were wrong. The internet is not a field of daisies where we’ll all find peace and love. It ain’t Woodstock. It’s just people talking.
The internet is only doing to politics what it has done to other industries: it disaggregates elements and then enables these free atoms to reaggregate into new molecules; it fragments the old and unifies the new. So in the end, the internet gives us the opportunity to make more nuanced expressions of our political worldview, which makes obsolete old orthodoxies and old definitions of left and right. Thus both the Euston Manifesti and their opponents can claim the cloak of liberalism and we’ll see whether they can still band together to make a party.
The surest sign of this new world order will come if a blogger without party favours wins an election with the support of his online tribe (one blogger has just launched a campaign against a controversial US congresswoman). If that happens, it will show that the internet lowers the barrier to entry not only in media and commerce but also in politics. So the internet doesn’t favour right, left or libertarian. The internet is revolutionary.
Â· Jeff Jarvis is a media consultant who blogs at BuzzMachine.com