Jonathon Chait at the New Republic has written a timely and interesting analysis of the netroots (a shorthand for a group of bloggers gathering around such sites as MyDD and Eschaton) and the way that they have influenced American politics. His analysis is accurate- the netroots have essentially provided a sounding board for Democratic memes or framing of debates within the internet- an evangelisation project similar to that offered by Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly on the right (or even the rightwing circles gathered around such blogs as the National Review Corner.) The Netroots are basically the activists of the Democratic party- and consequently they, like the National Review, offer us not a search for truth but a brand of truth (I have argued this case before).
There are all sorts of reasons why this might be good or bad for particular political parties- and hence for the body politic. Arguably the presence of a strong group of leading conservatives in the media ready to rebut liberal claims and scream elite has helped the Republicans in the United States- definitely that is the impression in the UK, where as Jeff Jarvis has argued British conservatives have set up their own internet television station, 18 Doughty Street (the station advertises itself as anti-establishment and willing to back any small c conservative candidate or policy). It is also the opinion of the founders of the netroots- people like Markos Moulitsas who argue that the Republicans have dominated through their domination of the media in this way. But is it good ultimately for democracy?
One might argue that it is- afterall this is the truth and the problem is that it is not being sold well enough. Anyone interested in and absorbed by politics can understand the frustration of perceiving something- some disaster- for example the coming of Global Warming and seeing it so obviously that the fact that everyone else can't see it means that they are being either wilfully blind or have been deceived. So consequently one develops mechanisms for convincing them. Anyone interested in people knows of situations where a mindset has developed amongst a set of people- for instance that anything Manchester United do is great- that is unreasonable and every fact is twisted round to make United seem excellent. Putting two and two together it is perfectly reasonable for politically interested individuals to conclude that the facts aren't getting out there because all the Manchester United supporters won't listen and they control the media.
Perfectly reasonable but in my view incredibly dangerous. Politics is about rhetoric- we do need to convince others but it is also about self-examination. A problem of political psychology is the false belief that one is completely and totally right- listening to the echo chamber one hears what one wants to hear. In that case, there is a danger which some have perceived emerging on the left in the United States of making policy because you already know the answer, that leads you into the situation where your only worry about your policy is about its presentation and not about whether it matches to reality or not. Where you are concerned with ideological challenges- not as challenges which might make you seriously re-evaluate where you stand- but because you see them as lies which might seduce- the Delilahs of political thinking.
There is a further consequence to this. Much ink has been spilt in the United States over the increased polarisation of the American electorate- the cartoon above taken from here is one such satirical attempt. Intelligent observers have noted similar trends in the increasingly partisan British blogosphere. Part of this, but not the whole, is related to the fact that people on both sides simply beleive the others to be categorically wrong. If I cannot imagine a way that you hold your opinions beyond the fact that you are evil then we really can't have a conversation and it won't be very easy to respect you. Ultimately this kind of politics is deeply immature- there are many political issues from the perrenials like abortion through to the issues of the moment like Iraq where there are good arguments on either side. Failing to acknowledge that and using extremist rhetoric means that you deny your opponents any legitimacy as principled advocates: instead of being honest citizens struggling with their consciences they become evil and once you've taken that step, then any measure, as in the Nixon White House, becomes a neccessary means to the ends of your virtuous society.
The development of the Netroots, the development of Fox News and their commentators, of 18 Doughty Street, of the hoarse and often bellicose advocates of peace on the left and the self-righteous Christians of the right saddens me. Part of politics is self doubt- part of politics is questioning your own views as much as other people's views- is realising that changing your mind is a sign of maturity and that beleiving you have reached a truth that you need not doubt is a great sign of arrested intellectual development. This isn't a call against principle or against argument but it is a call for tolerance- all the phenomena I listed above seem to strike against that fundemental principle underlying all democratic discussion. In the end you might just be right and I might just be wrong- lets have the debate in those terms instead of hurling insults at each other and treating politics as though it were propaganda.
I fear this post will fall upon deaf ears...