May 02, 2007

Netroots and Politics

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...


ashok said...

I don't know what to say. I'm more partisan and will cut people apart, as one of my profs learned during oral exams.

The reason why this is so isn't because I want to sit around and go "you have no right to say anything," it's more that there are good, solid positions which can be argued with, and really bad positions that shouldn't even come to the table.

My own writing is supremely arrogant, inflated, and full of historical and philosophical guesswork (read: bad history and worse philosophy), because I'm daring people - I'm just like "try to think at this level, or don't even bother entering the debate."

The reason why I make such an anti-democratic move that is self-satirical ultimately is that the rhetoric of "let's welcome more voices" has gone too far. The principle of equality underlying democracy means anti-democratic arguments can be advanced under the rubric of equality and not be countered at all.

So what I feel we need is a pretentious, self-righteous, blowhard approach to discussing issues that is not tolerant of stupidity and pretends to be smart via grandiose prose and claims. The reason why we need false idols that are obviously false is that it might get people to realize the irony inherent in "being themselves:" democratic man has proven himself to be the most tyrannical of all creatures.

Tyrants used to be defined by ambition - but it is democratic man's softness and paranoia that makes him engage in the leveling function where all thoughts and arguments are created equal.

Graeme said...

I think that believing that other opinions, or contrary opinions, are categorically wrong is dangerous even on a strategic level. From what I understand about America (which comes from a combination from what I can gather from the internet and in conversations with Americans living or visiting Britain, which is not a representative group) it seems that most liberal/left people hold the right in extreme contempt. I can understand on one level why this happens, but it seems really foolish and is ultimately not going to help American politics in the long run because it's demagogic and divisive. What needs to happen instead of echo chambers is for people--grassroots activists or whoever--to go out and actually engage with people.

There was a really interesting piece in the Economist a while back about how Barack Obama is some of the evangelicals through an appeal to their faith. It seems that some evangelicals are kind of fed up with the right. They might have some views in line with the right, such as their stance on gay marriage or abortion, but they also have some things in common with the left, such as the welfare state. I think that Obama is extremely smart to appeal to the aspects of their faith that do coincide with the Democratic platform, and I find that this way of engaging with voters is really encouraging.

T said...

its a dumb phrase but in this case i think rather relevant: do you think that "the 24 news culture" has played a role in this?

After all the paranoia which drives the creation of this islands of political hegemony in our media landscape, is that these views, or this perspective, is not being adquately represented now. We need instant rebutals and instant validations.

The agenda appears (the key word for me) to be moving so fast we can't trust debate to bring out the truths that we believe to be the case - they need to heard now least the focus moves elsewhere.

However I still think that political debates in this country at least are won over the long run leaving room for the kind of honest discussion that you call for.

The political classes and the media play their own game for control of the spotlight but that doesn't match the underlining political reality of the country. It strikes me that when you compare TB97 to TB07 that's one of facts he's come to realise.

Lord Nazh said...

Shouldn't that be nutroots? (j/k)

I am partisian in a conservative sense. I vote republican merely because they are closer to my ideals than the democrats.

I see other ideas as wrong much as the next person, but I ask questions (which mostly never get answered) on why they believe or what and who knows, maybe they can convince me of their position. But they have to talk about it to me to get that :)

Partisianism isn't necessarily bad, as long as Congress can't do much of anything, the people are usually better off.

Ruthie said...

"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."

Yes, yes, yes.

I have been saying this over and over. The blurring line between journalism and punditry. The death of healthy, respectful debate.

I'm glad to see someone else sees this problem.

Gracchi said...

Ashok- your argument is interesting- I think I almost need a post to answer some of your posts. I think though any form of republic depends ultimately on conversation and conversation ultimately upon a willingness to listen as well as to speak. Hobbes in his translation of Thucydides interestingly equated tyranny with a peace of silence. I would offer a definition of republicanism as structured conversation- not anarchy or babel but a conversation structured by laws and norms of politeness etc. But its something I need to think about.

I suppose on one last thought we are talking a little at cross purposes. My own argument is that the real value of democratic policy lies in an ethic of listening- it is through listening, reevaluating and reconsidering that we acheive political knowledge.

Graeme I think your analysis is spot on its listening that is the key to a successful political strategy for a country- for a party I'm not sure the base vote is key and anger is a motivating force.

T interesting thought on the long term I think in the UK though the debate takes place at such an elite level that very few people understand it- just look at the major political websites or newspapers.

Lord Nazh yes but I also think that's because of this mindset by which very few people actually do any thinking. Have you looked say at Ronald Dworkin's latest volume on US Democracy or indeed some of Olivier Roy's assessment of Islam- both might be interesting if you are a conventional republican. I don't know if you are but if you are they might be a place to start working out some of the liberal mindset as it can be defended philosophically or indeed a different (not sure Roy is a liberal) take on Islam and the Middle East.

Gracchi said...

Oh and Ruthie- I completely agree with you sorry to have left you off that list- but I think you are right :)

Matthew Sinclair said...

I think you are caricaturing 18 Doughty Street a bit. Donal Blaney aside it actually has a reasonably pleasant demeanour. It doesn't have the hectoring style that frustrates you.

Gracchi said...

Possibly I was a bit harsh- some of their items in particular the Peter Hennessy interview are quite good- others aren't so good.

james higham said...

...often bellicose advocates of peace on the left and the self-righteous Christians of the right...

Small correction:

...often bellicose advocates of peace on the left and the self-righteous pseudo-Christians of the right...

Gracchi said...

I'll take the correction.

ashok said...

How exactly is tyranny a peace of silence? I'm trying to think about how that argument works, but it seems to me the Athenians are very vocal when the Melians get them riled up with the appeal to piety, and that Brasidas is very vocal when telling everyone they will be "free" under Sparta, like it or not.

Demosthenes' silence is purposeful, as is the silence about him, but that's because some actions speak truly.

I can't think how this argument is supposed to work. Please do clarify.

Gracchi said...

Sorry I don't think its Hobbes on Thucydides I think its the attributed tract on Tacitus.

As to the wider argument- Tacitus I think is a good author to illustrate it from. If you look at T's discussion of the role of rumour in the formation of his history- he argues that he can only rely upon rumour because all the sources taht come from the time have been altered by the emperor or were written deliberately by the emperor's friends- the senatorial record for example- then it makes perfect sense. What Tacitus is arguing was that the emperors supressed speech- they stopped the conversation that flowed under the Republic. Modern authors looking at Rome have highlighted the way that in the Empire one began increasingly to focus on writing rather than speaking as a means to influence people- the cult of the Rostra had disappeared. Its something that Renaissance Europeans were aware of too- just look at Utopia by Thomas More where Hythloday argues that the truth is foreign to the courts of monarchs. David Starkey had a good article on the way that the literature of advice was elbowed out by the idea that one spoke to the prince what he wanted to hear in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes I think the year is 1986.

Essentially though the argument would be that speech was not possible in a tyranny because the speech that was allowed was the speech that the tyrant wanted to hear. Hence the cult of Early Modern Taciteanism. Hence the idea of a peace of silence- because discordant opinions cause conflict and hence limit peace- if they are exiled and everything is silent except for the voices of the ruler or the voices permitted by the ruler then you have peace through silence.

ashok said...

Yeah, that's definitely an interesting argument.

Is there a distinction between speech as conversation (maybe reasoning) and speech as persuasive that is prior to the formation of tyranny/republican rule, you think?

Pappusrif said...

I feel so frustrated not to be able to comment because I know nothing about the athenians, Melians,...

Gracchi said...

I need some time to think about that Ashok- possibly there is a distinction between rhetoric and reason- rhetoric I suppose is a deliberately public activity- persuasion always has to involve another whereas reason can be a private activity and therefore is universal. That's a beggining to a thought but its not quite right.

Pappusrif- don't worry about it- the Melian dialogue was a famous incident in Athenian history as told by Thucydides- part of the text is here.

Pappusrif said...

thanks for the link