Wednesday, December 08, 2010

How the Internet Destroyed American Politics

Two years ago, the road to 2012 seemed like a cakewalk for Obama and an unreachable mountain for the Republicans. The roles haven't quite reversed yet, but they are evening out. And like in the old Hope-Crosby  movies like "Road to Morocco" or "Road to Singapore", the road to 2012 has turned into an absurdist journey. Not a traditional political journey, but a silly parody of it with very serious stakes.

American politics has changed so dramatically over the last several years that anyone who had been in a coma  would have trouble adjusting to this new world, in which the occupant of the Oval Office spends half his time abroad and the other half appearing on TV shows, and his likely opponent is doing her press releases via Facebook and has her own TV show. Most of the old taboos have been broken. From the dignity of the office to foreign money to the press corps, very little remains intact anymore. And a lot of this is collateral damage from the impact of the internet on our political institutions.

The internet has done two things. First, it undermined the existing system by creating faster and cheaper communication and organizational alternatives. Had the institutions adapted to it, the change would have been much less drastic. But that's not what happened. The media is the most obvious casualty of that failure to adapt, but the political institutions are next. Obama vs Palin is not a matchup that could have existed in the pre-internet America. But the internet has made grassroots organizing easier, and is tearing down the wall between the inner and outer circles of political parties. Obama and Palin are both beneficiaries of that.

The old tiered political structures are becoming irrelevant. Internet guerrilla politics when properly funded by willing billionaires can dramatically change elections in ways that even William Randolph Hearst with his media empire could never have managed to do in his own time. Populism was always limited by access through a tiered system. But those tiers are being bypassed like old toll roads suddenly confronted by airplanes. The internet doesn't just go through them or around them, often it goes right over them. The internet adds another dimension to every system through direct access.

Palin's Facebook postings are an example of that. Rather than do interviews with accredited reporters in order to reach a large audience, she speaks to that audience directly. And that forces the media to report non-interactively on her Facebook posts. Obama has similarly bypassed the White House press corps, instead doling out televised interviews and keeping himself in the public eye through international travel and guest appearances on everything from American Idol to Mythbusters. The end result is the same, substituting direct access and reflective coverage for the interrogatory process of the press, which was a traditional tier of the establishment's old guard.

This would not have been possible under the media as it was. But the internet shifted the media from developing stories to repeating in their own words what was already in the public eye. Stories are rarely investigated or broken anymore. Instead trending topics are seized on and developed, or tweaked slightly and then sent out. The internet has dramatically cut into the available time to reach readers. If reporters used to hurriedly phone in a scoop, today they blackberry stories directly. Every extra minute for a major news outlet is money lost in the constant race to jump on a topic first and rack up the eyeballs that count in online ad sales.

In such an environment, stories that take time to get right are more and more of a luxury. And if Time or the New York Times can profit more by creating their own blogs where someone like Joe Klein makes snap judgments about a breaking news story, than by spending a month in Africa covering the horrors of Sudan, then guess which one you'll see a lot more of. That attitude bleeds into standard news coverage which is a lot more shallow and flippant than it used to be. And also mostly redundant. Instead of doing research, reporters frequently rely on Wikipedia and unsourced talking points. One wire story sounds very much like another because they're duplicating each other's work and don't care who knows it.

When McCain chose Palin as his VP, after the media recovered from their initial confusion over how to cover her, they began complaining that she hadn't been vetted. And they 'vetted' her by recycling talking points from Anti-Palin blogs and passing them off as 'investigative pieces'. Some on Jornolist actually tried to develop their own talking points. Mostly though they took the other side's talking points and pretended they were reporting on the story. The truth is that neither Obama nor Palin were vetted. Because the media doesn't do that anymore. If you toss something in their lap to use against a candidate they already don't like, they'll use it. Without asking questions or even thinking about what they're covering.

The media's own degeneracy makes it childishly easy for Obama or Palin to manipulate them and keep them in their place. Or for Matt Drudge to ram through TSA coverage by holding out the lure of traffic and using it as incentive to get the media to report on it. There was a time when that couldn't have happened, but that time is long gone now. And so are the institutional standards and safeguards that now exist in name only. The media will cover anything that is 'happening' in the loosest sense of the word or brings traffic to their sites. They will cover it from their own narrow ideological angle, but they will cover it.

In that environment, the difference between politics and pop culture has vanished. The View or The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live provide political coverage as much as the evening news. Warped and biased political coverage, dumbed down for an audience that can't follow anything unless there's a joke halfway through, but political coverage nonetheless. And more influential than the evening news. And the distinction between the two has vanished. Pop culture is front page headlines. Dancing with the Stars is a political event.

The common denominator is the end of standards. The only goal is access. For the media that means getting traffic and viewers by doing anything. For politicians that means reshaping media coverage by using direct access and entertainment outlets to reach the public without the political interface. And so we have both a politicized culture, in which every movie and TV show are judged on diversity and political messaging, and pop culture politics where politicians also have to be entertainers.

Politicians have realized that by lowering the barriers to political involvement they can attract people who otherwise wouldn't care. And so we have an entire class of people who are involved in politics because they think Obama's posters look cool or because they're angry that Sarah Palin's daughter almost won Dancing with the Stars. Call them the Alvin Greene vote. They don't understand a single issue, not even the dimmest populist ones, but they are emotionally involved with the image that the candidates project. They vote based on Saturday Night Live skits or what they hear on The View. Often young and dumb, for politicians they're an important target group. And they make up an increasingly large share of media consumers.

Access also means bringing them into the process, not as informed voters, but as cheerleaders who treat a politician no differently than they do the cast of the Jersey Shore. Politicians have always tried to market their 'story' and their 'journey', but here there is nothing left but the story and the journey. The personality and the attendant drama completely outweighs the politics. It's a more accessible approach, and one that completely undermines a system of representation in which voters cast ballots based on what they want done, rather than whom they want to have a beer with.

We have been on this road throughout the 20th century. Every revolution in communications also dumbed down the political process as candidates had to become performers, first on radio, then on television and finally on the internet. Long speeches gave way to buzzwords. Every statement had to be formulaic to avoid the risk of a candidate saying something off the cuff. A candidate's look was more important than what he had to say. Branding had always been part of American politics, but it had never so thoroughly and completely overwhelmed the candidate, as it has today. Style has almost completely defeated substance. And the Obama era is the best testament to that.

As the speed of communications has accelerated, its substance has diminished. The faster the message goes out, the less considered it can be. The failure of political and cultural institutions to grow with the internet, means that they have instead been overwhelmed by it. And rather than shaping it, it has shaped them. A decade from now, the process of transformation will be complete, and we will be living with a media and a political process completely transformed by the internet. That will have its good sides and its bad.

Obama and Palin were born in the early 60's and began their political careers in the 90's, during the early days of the internet. The next generation of politicians will have grown up with the internet, and they will be even more savvy about how to use it as a platform. The old media will exist online more than offline, and will mainly serve as a platform not so much for generic wire story coverage, but for personalities who will use social media to act as provocateurs, delivering controversial opinions on trending issues and thereby becoming the story. (Jeffrey Goldberg's recent call not to donate to Israeli fire relief is a classic example both of how this is done and why even formerly respected publications are now worse than useless.) Politicians will follow suit, and the lines between media and political personalities will blur. (Allan Grayson is an early example of that.)

American politics will become more Latin American in that regard. Political parties will routinely solicit celebrities not just for campaigns, but for public office. Celebrities who have worn out their careers will step into politics and then the media. And the process will also go the other way with media personalities going into politics and then becoming celebrities. This will not be an aberration, but the norm. Local campaigning will decline in favor of social media organizing. The ability to build a following online will be a prerequisite for running for political office. Anyone who fails to do this will not be considered a serious candidate. The idea of Twitter being a test for public office is not a pleasant one, but that is where we're headed unless we can reverse the outflow of content and context.

Second, the internet has eroded the firewall between the American political process and the rest of the world. The damage that Soros and Assange have been able to do to America should be a wake-up call in that regard.

Distance and custom used to be natural insulants between American politics and the rest of the world. That is no longer the case. Obama was the first candidate to aggressively market himself overseas. But the trend began with Howard Dean who as DNC head had already begun soliciting international support for a Democratic takeover. America plays a major role in the world economy, on everything from imports to exchange rates to terrorism. A lot of the world feels it should have a say in American elections, and 2008 was the first time they got a say. It will probably not be the last.

We don't know how much foreign money Obama received in 2008, but it's safe to say that this will continue to be a problem, and without rigid legal accountability, this will become a pattern in future elections. With every candidate soliciting online donations, it becomes all too easy for money to trickle in from abroad. Accountability may close that door part of the way, but not all the way, because too many 501c's also have an impact on the political process. As do many groups that are not directly involved in elections, but do play a part and can legally receive money from overseas. It will take hard work to insulate the American political process from foreign donations. And with the rise of foreign exchange trading and online gambling interests based overseas who work through American front companies, that may no longer be possible.

And foreign money is the least of the problem. With social media playing such a major role, foreign campaigners will become ubiquitous. The Obama campaign benefited from a social media network that was often very "international". In the age of the internet, it becomes all too easy to run phone banks out of Gaza, raise money in Moscow and have stories that shake up the campaign appear in The Guardian. When enough of the campaign is being outsourced, it becomes impossible to regulate or track who does or says what on the internet. And that means anti-American candidates for public office now have a base of support that they can rely on. It worked for Obama. But it won't end there.

The only thing that could avert this would be if such conduct were viewed as scandalous, but the media is unlikely to treat the outsourcing of a campaign as scandalous, unless it's done by a candidate they don't like. Which means punishing a politician for his politics, rather than his actions, another reminder of why the media cannot be trusted to vet candidates or do anything but act as cheerleaders for their man or woman.

The internet is international and it is internationalizing American elections. We are now told which candidate has international approval. We have campaign rallies overseas. We have money coming in from abroad and unofficial campaign volunteers operating abroad. And that is only be the beginning.

Technology has erased distance, and that means the end of all forms of isolation, privacy and integrity. It has also erased standards and barriers. It is up to us to try and create new standards in the age of the internet. If we fail to do this, then the medium will go on dictating the message.


Leah said...

Yes, I agree with you. What I also noticed and am disgusted with is the derth of respect and formality that is present online. They are not our "friends". They are not like "us". If you are running for a political position there must be distance.
I noticed how Obama and his wife are perceived in this day and age when I listened to a song by Enrique Iglesias. He says something to the effect: "I'm gonna call Barak and Michelle and let em know etc...." What" You would write a song in which yourefer to the Preseident by their first names. Look, I did not vote for Obama. Personally, I think the man needs to be impeached, but hey this on first name basis reference garbage doesn't fly with me, either.....
As always, Daniel Greenfield, an exceptional article. Thank you. Keep up the good work!

Johan Norman said...

I'm not an American, nor i live any in western countries or cultures, but I truly like your articles and often on the same side of your opinions. Good job Daniel!.

lgstarr said...

It's not just "young and dumb" though...I know some intelligent, educated professionals who glommed onto Bristol Palin's appearance on "Dancing With the Stars" faster than a chameleon's sticky tongue. Leftists just need to feed.

Yael said...

Although your command of the English language sometimes verges on the spectacular and as such is a pleasure to read, this content is deeply disturbing. If I am not to go back to bed and pull the covers over my head, I must imagine that there is a sequel already being written about the silver lining to this particular dark cloud.

In the meantime, I will google "creating new standards," to see how I might contribute to such a worthy cause:)

moshe said...

The process you describe is not new. What is happening to America today is what happened to the Weimar Republic. The outcome is likely to be the same. Only the media tools are new.

Barry said...

I don't think that American politics has changed only that it is now more transparent and the "We the people" can now engage in the vetting process as well, not leaving it totally in the hands of whatever adjectives adequately describe the types journalists now dictating the agenda.

When one sees the damage done to the Yemin Orde Youth Village by the fire and read Jeffery Goldberg we are now able to sum up how distasteful a person he is.

Anonymous said...

Leah, "the NEW medium [i.e., the Internet] is the bad message" is at the heart of this article, whereas offhand pretended familiarity with political figures such as heard in the Iglesias lyrics which disturb you is a very old rhetorical device of jesters. The last American standup comedy satirist who handled his political complaints with something approaching respect for the person & office of the President was Mort Sahl in the 1950's vis-a-vis Dwight Eisenhower. Then came Vaughn Meader, a JFK mimicker who vanished from the public eye the instant his target was assassinated, and things became pretty savage after that, e.g., nobody blinked at Vietnam War protesters' signs saying, "Pull Out, Dick!" when Richard Nixon was in office. On the other side of things, news about the sleazy side of the greats has always trickled into contemporary extant media, too, all the way from Jefferson's bastard offspring, Jackson's cohort of drunken louts and Buchanan's likely closet gay life to philandering by FDR, Eisenhower, JFK and Clinton (so far as we are permitted to know so far, only the husband). Look up "jingoism" and you'll find that the electorate of yore was often as lame-brained as today's Netnoodniks. What scares & disappoints me is not how offhand and low the Internet medium has brought us, but how facile our civilization has become about accepting the seeds of its own destruction as the message of higher truth; e.g., that divorce is a problem solver rather than a problem causer, that homosexuality is a fine alternative to the not-so-special heterosexual basis of the family, and that pauperizing future generations with staggering debt is a fine alternative to reining in hyperspending to avoid the momentary bankruptcy of a corrupt banking system. I wish the the media furor over Wikileaks' blowing confidential or secret government cables were matched one tenth as much by complaints about the impenetrable veil of secrecy about who got what & why during the multi-trillion dollar "bailout".

Anonymous said...

I agree with everything you wrote. This informality with the entertainment and social media has degraded the office of president and every other politician.

Maybe I'm superficial but I can't respect a politician writing informal inane stuff on Facebook or appearing on Opera, Jay Leno or SNL.

Bad example but it's sort of like walking into a shul and seeing the gabbai in cut off jeans and a T-shirt and sandles (not that I have ever seen that).

Even if I have zero respect for the politician I want him or her to respect the office.

As for politicians referring to constituents as friends it is common. I don't have a problem with that. It's the "we" as in we the people.

Obama has never to the best of my knowledge addressed the public as we. It's all about him and his policy, his doctrine, his everything.


Leah said...

Yes, anonymous, I do agree with you and hear you loud and clear on "How facile our civilization has become about accepting the seeds of it's own destruction as the message of higher truth".
Yes, here's an additional one to boot: "I have to be true to myself". Do you notice the selfishness of this? I believe it was the former NJ. governor who wrote about his elicit homosexual affairs while married etc...and said that he wrote it all for his daughter?! He said he had to be "true to himself". It seems that so much has become acceptable in society as long as you coin the phrase, "I have to be true to myself". Notice the "My" in myself...apparently it does not matter whom you hurt as long as one's personal agenda is saved. So, it apparently does not matter to the current admin. about future generations as long they take care of what they want according to "THEIR" own plans.....
excellent response and I appreciate hearing your very interesting historical tidbits on past American Presidents poor behavior....

Leah said...

To the second anymous response: You realize I just visually "went there" on the cut off jeans and sandles at the pulpit....true, though.....

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