If there’s a metaphor for the way that Americans do politics online that’s less apt than “a national conversation,” I can’t think of one, except perhaps for “a great debate.”
Yet at a panel on politics and social networking the other day, at the Milken Institute Global Conference, there it was again. The speakers were marveling at the proliferation of political communication tools—blogs, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and the rest—when one of the panelists admiringly described what’s going on in cyberspace now as a “conversation.”
If what happens when sports fans cheer their own teams and razz their opponents could be called a conversation, then I guess the term might also apply to online political discourse, but that strikes me as a real stretch.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m addicted to political media, on all platforms, from the paper-and-ink dinosaurs that hit my driveway each morning, to the cable shows and blogs and tweets. And I’m in awe of the democratization that new technology has enabled.
The letters-to-the-editor forum has been cracked wide open to all comers, in real time. The gatekeepers who once decided what voices are worth hearing have lost their monopolies; today, anyone with a computer is a publisher. Content aggregators and journalism portals, from Yahoo! News and Google News to The Drudge Report and The Huffington Post, now make it convenient to monitor scores of sources of news and opinion. Search engines and keyword alerts make it possible to stay on top of every new mention in text, and every new appearance in video, of anything you’d care to track. Popularity widgets like Digg and Delicious, and metrics like “most emailed” and “most viewed,” tip you off to what the crowd finds fascinating. Special interest social networks with thousands of members organized around thousands of topics are proliferating wildly. Today there is more about politics to read and see, and there are more ways to create content and comment on it, and more opportunities to construct virtual communities of shared political passions, than were imaginable even a few years ago.
But if you read what people are saying in their comments and on their social networks, you’ll hardly discover a marketplace of ideas—certainly nothing like a digital, interactive version of The Federalist. You’ll find plenty of rants and flame wars, but you won’t find people saying, “That’s a really interesting point. Thanks for opening my eyes—you’ve changed my mind.” You’ll find people buttressing arguments they like and dissing ones they loathe; you’ll find hyperlinks intended to defend or demolish. But an actual conversation that progresses from point A to point B? A give-and-take, a back-and-forth? Evidence of successful persuasion, of common ground found, of synthesis achieved? That kind of discourse is no more common online than it is in a sports bar.
This is not a new deficiency. The online political world was not designed to be a digital Oxford Union. It’s got the same limitations as the rest of our political culture. By rewarding extreme statements with extra attention, the political Web bleaches out nuance and encourages polarization. It promotes self-segregation, giving like-minded people new media venues to double down on what they already believe. It puts everything on the same footing, flattening out hierarchies of truth and value, substituting accumulation for discrimination. All versions and all views are welcome; adjudicating among them—actually having the hard conversation—is the last thing cyberspace is good at.
But these aren’t problems that the digital world has created. Online politics just reflects the problems of the offline world—“meatspace,” as it’s wryly called. What ails American politics is that we’ve confused marketing with deliberating. The permanent campaign isn’t a permanent conversation; it’s a perpetual branding strategy, a message war, a spin siege. It’s not about the power of ideas; it’s about the power of framing. Calling health care reform “socialism,” or calling cap-and-trade an “energy tax,” or calling a tax cut a tax increase: this isn’t what happens in a good discussion, it’s what happens in a good food fight. Unfortunately, moving that melee online doesn’t make it any less infantile.