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Is the internet making politics more dysfunctional?

March 26, 2014, at 11:22 AM
 
Democrats may harness the power of social media, but Republicans have the incentive to innovate new digital outreach.

Democrats may harness the power of social media, but Republicans have the incentive to innovate new digital outreach. Photo: (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

In a new episode of Political Wire's podcast, we spoke to Nicco Mele, a Harvard lecturer and author of The End of Big: How The Internet Makes David The New Goliath, about the disruptive and even dangerous power of the internet in public life and elections.

Here are five takeaways:

1. Technology has helped give unprecedented influence to insurgent forces in American politics. To be sure, American political history has plenty of examples of insurgent candidates or movements that have risen to challenge the establishment. But traditionally it's been very difficult for these insurgent forces to gain a strong, long-lasting foothold and win a lot of elections. "What usually happens is the insurgent candidate loses, but in the process forces the establishment process into some new positions." Today, however, we are seeing what Mele called a technology-fueled "radical connectivity" that is helping upset the traditional levers of power. Said Mele: "It's about that ability to be connected to other people, to small-dollar donors, to grassroots activists, in a way that before was prohibitively expensive and took a lot more time. Now it takes a lot less time and is a lot less expensive." By making it easier to harness the power of the grassroots, technology has reduced parties' traditional role as major gatekeepers of power, he said.

2. This radical connectivity has helped reinforce, not reduce, gridlock. Today, political dysfunction and gridlock reign in the halls of Congress, and the public is disgusted with Washington. And at least to some extent, "technology seems to be fueling some of that rather than helping us create new institutions or reform existing institutions to have more compelling outcomes." For example, by reducing the grassroots conservative movement's accountability to the Republican Party establishment, technology may have helped produce the government shutdown last fall (though it certainly wasn't the only factor). Mele explained that grassroots conservatives "have online donor bases that are independent and separate from traditional Republican Party donor bases. They have activists and media entities that are in many ways very digital, but also separate and outside the mainstream discourse of the country."

3. Technology has changed how campaigns reach out to voters, work with the press, and raise money; what it means for polling and advertising is less clear. Using technology to issue press releases, reach out to voters, and raise money is one thing. Using it to persuade voters, via advertisements, is another story entirely. "Why don't you see many attack ads online? I think the nature of digital persuasion is still kind of undiscovered country or uncharted," Mele said. TV-based advertising isn't going away, he said, but its role in political campaigns will change, just as radio's role changed when TV first emerged. One challenge facing TV-based advertising, however, is the growing use of DVRs and subscription services such as Netflix, both of which let users work around or avoid advertisements. Political polling may undergo similarly big changes, both in terms of how it's done and how it's used, Mele said: "Even the way we think about sampling might change, given the size of some of the datasets we're getting out of field programs."

4. The Democrats' recent edge in technology isn't insurmountable. Although Democrats certainly have done a much better job in recent years of employing email, blogs, and social media, and using data and analytics to get out the vote and raise money, "I don't want to be naive and assume that that advantage is in any way permanent or necessarily long-lived," Mele said. In academia, he said, scholars argue that the political party that's out of power has the clear incentive to innovate to figure out how to get into power. And today, "Republicans have a lot of incentive to figure this out in an aggressive way," he said. Even the Democrats may have been motivated to achieve their current technological advantage after John Kerry lost to George W. Bush in 2004.

5. In 2016, insurgent candidates could give establishment candidates real headaches. And it's not just because insurgent candidates can find innovative ways to deploy technology. Given how the public feels about Washington and financial institutions like Wall Street, being seen as the establishment candidate is "a real liability that really creates opportunities to organize online, to fundraise online," Mele said. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton would fill the role of establishment candidate. "I think she'll face an internet-fueled insurgency," Mele said. And 2016 for the Republicans, Mele argued, could look like 2008 did for the Democrats, "where a smart, well-informed, strategic, ambitious insurgent uses all the tools at his or her disposal to defeat the establishment and win the nomination." It's unclear who that insurgent will be, he said, much less whether they could win the general election. Ultimately, however, "the lesson of the last 10 years is that the internet is enormously powerful in the hand of an insurgent challenging the establishment," Mele said.

Listen to the whole conversation here:

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