We are not a nation divided…. We are a nation undecided

We are not a nation divided…. We are a nation undecided

: A few posts in recent days have grappled with the contention of some that we are living in a more fragmented, some would say balkinized world — and many blame the Internet for that.

Those who say that are wrong about the Internet, wrong about the natural state of the world in media and politics and marketing, wrong about the current state of American politics, wrong about about the cause for all this change, and essentially insulting to the intelligence and spirit of their fellow man and fundamentally cynical about democracy. Take that!

See Jay Rosen’s comment at Davos that the age of mass media is just that — an age.

And today, Jack Balkin follows up on his eloquent refutal of Republic.com a few days ago by refuting a New York Times story that frets over fragmentation.

The Times says:

The Internet became the ultimate tool for finding like minds and blocking out others long before supporters of candidates began seeking one another out on Meetup.com. With online dating sites where searches can be tailored by age and income, e-mail forums for the most narrow band of subjects, bookmarked sites and even spam filters, the Web allows users to tailor the information they consume more than any other medium. Social scientists even have a term for it: cyberbalkanization.

And Balkin replies:

The article runs together two different kinds of democratic activities: One is organizing followers for a political campaign, where you want people of like minds to get together, the other is engaging in democratic discussion about public issues with people who may disagree (and disagree strongly) with you. These two activities are part of democracy, *but they are not the same activity.* Both are necessary, but it is often difficult to do both at the same time.


In fact, if these fearful critics read citizens’ media, they would understand that it is incredibly open: You have to link to that with which you disagree so you can argue with it and by doing so, you send people to your opposition and absorb that opposition’s viewpoint in what you write.

But candidate weblogs, as I’ve said often, are not citizens’ media; they are political organizing tools and damned good ones.

Both are important tools in a democracy. Both serve different roles. Neither balkinizes. The organizing tools of the Internet get more citizens involved. The citizens’ media tools enable more citizens to be heard than ever before. Together, they are healthy for democracy.

Now as to fragmentation, I’ve said often that the real revolutionary invention of the last century was the remote control (added to the cable box and the VCR), for that gave the audience the freedom to select what it wanted to watch, not what three network executives wanted them to watch. This is how I put it a few days ago:

The remote control and cable killed mass media like a volcanic eruption; the Internet is the forest that grows in the ashes.

Given choice, the audience, of course, selects from it. That is the natural order of things in news, entertainment, media, products of any kind. And it works in all those areas; it serves the market — that is to say, each of us — better: I now get the news in which I’m interested from all kinds of new sources. I consume the entertainment that entertains me, not necessarily you. I buy products more customized to my needs. Given choice, of course we take it. That’s not fragmentation. That’s progress!

There’s just one area in which that does not completely work: elections.

For we can’t all have the President — or senator, or congressman, or mayor — we want.

Somebody has to win.

In the end, we can’t be fragmented, segmented, balkinized there; if we are to be a nation united, we have to end up selecting and supporting the winners.

Now there are those who say that we are terribly divided now. I say they are wrong. Here’s how I put it in my Star-Ledger op-ed:

And the truth is: We are not all angry. Despite the way media and politicians treat us, we don’t all live on the edges, in our red or blue states, facing each other across some new Mason-Dixon line of left vs. right.

We hear all the time how we are a nation divided. But we’re not. We are a nation undecided.

Look at the large number of voters in Iowa who settled on whom to support just a week or even a day before the caucuses. They were looking for a leader to march in front of the positive wing of the party, to stand for something.

We are a smart and caring people in a system that works, and we want to hear various viewpoints and select the ones that fit us best and that give us the best chance of winning. That’s politics. That’s democracy. That works.

The Internet as well as cable are, in fact, doing a great job of providing us — those who care — with a tremendous new diversity of sources of information and viewpoints and opinions. This is incredibly healthy for the democracy.

The Internet and cable are not dividing us. They are informing us.

And we are absorbing this information and these viewpoints and deciding in our own sweet time whom to vote for, as is our right. That’s what happened in Iowa. That is what is happening across America in what is now — God bless America! — a wide-open race.

No, the Internet is not dividing us. Politicians are. Media dinosaurs are.

Yes, if anyone is dividing us — or trying to — it is the politicians and pundits who want to think that we are two-dimensional creatures, easily swayed, uncaring, not bright, not informed, set in our ways, angry, and vindictive. How dare they? How awfully insulting of them. How terribly undemocratic.

Yes, it’s true that half of American didn’t vote for George Bush and half did. But once he was in office, most Americans — especially after 9/11 — wanted to support our nation. Most don’t want to see us lose in the war on terrorism or in Iraq. Most are patriotic, caring Americans with diverse opinions. Most aren’t angry and divided. We can disagree and argue but we are still one nation. Democracy, after all, is a conversation. (To quote myself once more: Get off the bandwagon and get on the Cluetrain!)

All this is the surest sign not of division but of a democracy, working.

The Internet is the best thing that could happen to democracy. This campaign is the proof.