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Did internet kill the political star?

Robert Wright thinks the rise of the Internet has made legislating a whole lot harder.

The new information technology doesn’t just create generation-3.0 special interests; it arms them with precision-guided munitions. The division of readers and viewers into demographically and ideologically discrete micro-audiences makes it easy for interest groups to get scare stories (e.g. “death panels”) to the people most likely to be terrified by them. Then pollsters barrage legislators with the views of constituents who, having been barraged by these stories, have little idea what’s actually in the bills that outrage them.

It’s no exaggeration to say that technology has subverted the original idea of America. The founders explicitly rejected direct democracy — in which citizens vote on every issue — in favor of representative democracy. The idea was that legislators would convene at a safe remove from voters and, thus insulated from the din of narrow interests and widespread but ephemeral passions, do what was in the long-term interest of their constituents and of the nation. Now information technology has stripped away the insulation that physical distance provided back when information couldn’t travel faster than a horse.

I don’t see a miracle cure here. It would be hard to restore much of the insulation without tampering with the First Amendment.

I don't really have an opinion on whether this is correct. It certainly seems plausible. On the other hand, it's not like FDR or Truman or Nixon found it easy to pass a universal health-care bill.

The one thing I would say is that I find people oddly resistant to the idea that changes in the country -- either cultural or technological -- have left our political system struggling to adapt. I get the reticence: It can be hard to close that door once you've opened it, and there's a real utility to our lionization of our system. But the Internet has forced serious changes in pretty much everything else in American life. Journalism, for instance, works very differently in the age of blogs and Google, and it's still struggling to figure out exactly what that looks like. My sense is government is going through a similar process.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 3, 2010; 5:06 PM ET
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The situation could be fixed if more people could see what's really in a bill, without having to slog through the legislative gobblety-gook. That would put a lot more eyes on the real story, and more ammunition to refute the deception that gets thrown at a bill. Right now, only the Senate Finance Committee publishes a plain language version of the Chairman's markup. All committees in both chambers should be required to do this. It's not the internet that's the problem. It's too much bad information, and too little access to the real information, that's the problem.

Posted by: skitso | February 3, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse

The House of Representatives has had no difficulty passing all sorts of legislation over the past year. And the House, as its name says, is a representative institution.

The legislation has then gone on to die in the Senate, which was created by the Founders to be a non-representative institution. But it's made much, much less representative by the Senate rules, especially the filibuster, which is not in the Constitution and came into existence by accident when a mistake was made in amending the Senate rules in 1806.

It's not just over the past year that the Senate has killed legislation that the representatives of the people really wanted. Anti-lynching laws were filibustered in 1922, 1935, and 1938, and a filibuster forced the watering-down of the 1957 civil rights law to the point that it was ineffective.

But before the last few years, the party discipline necessary to enforce the filibuster existed only among Southern Democrats, who were happy to be Democrats on every issue except race.

Today, the Southern Democratic wing of the Democratic party has a new name - it's now the Republican party. It still has the same party discipline that it had half a century ago. And it's still able to frustrate representative government, but now it does it not only on race, but on everything.

So please. Don't give us this nonsense about how the internet is killing representative government. The United States Senate is killing representative government. Sometimes the obvious answer is the right answer, and the clever answer is just wrong.

Posted by: Bloix | February 3, 2010 5:31 PM | Report abuse

Ezra: "the Internet has forced serious changes in pretty much everything else in American life. Journalism, for instance, works very differently in the age of blogs and Google"

Spare me the "Internet has changed everything" hype. Television, and before that radio and newsreels, had a bigger effect on journalism.

As for representative, as opposed to direct democracy, we still have it. Knowing what our elected officials are up to at any given moment and being able to voice opinions on blog posts doesn't change that. And the frequency with which we can throw the bums out hasn't changed since the Constitution was ratified - it's still at least two years between elections.

Internet, television, newsreels, radio? Want to know a communication technology that really changed the world? The telegraph. Messages that previously took weeks or even months could be sent in minutes. The Internet means we can read news in minutes, instead of waiting a few hours for the next edition of a major daily to be published (multiple editions per day were common before TV). Big deal.

Many people seem obsessed with the idea that today we have a rate of technological change that is unprecedented. Yet the changes in the 19th and first half of the 20th century had a greater effect on people's lives. Go back 50 years to 1960 and you'd be in a recognizable world. Black and white broadcast TV and cars with ugly tail fins are not game changers. But someone in 1960 going back 50 years would be in an alien world. For most people it meant no telephone, radio, TV or even electric lights. No cars, and for many (due largely to the lack of electricity) no indoor plumbing. Now that's a change. On the plus side it also meant no threat of nuclear annihilation.

Posted by: alex50 | February 3, 2010 6:10 PM | Report abuse

I'd say it democratized special interests. Before only lobbyists and their constituents knew enough about what was going on and had the action networks to do anything about it. Now dude with an internet can tell a good story, and if it is truly good it can trickle up through the ether and eventually make politicians scared.
The thing that politicians don't like is sometimes this means they sometimes have to be responsive to people who aren't dropping $2000 checks onto the cocktail weenie platter.
And if they REALLY don't like it, there is a fair election bill just waiting for their support.

Posted by: flounder2 | February 3, 2010 7:45 PM | Report abuse

I am not sure if stories "trickle up," which, by the way, is a horrible metaphor. I am still waiting for the "Guantanamo Suicides" story from Harper's Magazine to break out.

It seems to me popular outrage does not translate into action. Remember the anti-Iraq war protests? Hundreds of thousands in New York, many millions world wide? We still went to war. There were no WMDs. And, Bush still got re-elected!

If we could introduce penalties for demonstrably false speech, then maybe the plethora of viewpoints the Internet provides would be more managable. Maybe someone could introduce a voluntary association. Each of its members sign a contract, whereby they agree to pay fines and print retractions if they abandon standards of journalistic integrity. People could advertise that they are a member of this society. Something like that, if its not already out there.

Posted by: MGriebe | February 3, 2010 8:24 PM | Report abuse

Senators and congressmen used to keep safes in their offices for the bribe money, cuz that's just how things were done in Washington. I think television, radio, cable news, and the Internet has generally improved things.

The mismanagement of craven politicians is not the fault of the Internet or talk radio.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 3, 2010 9:05 PM | Report abuse

supermajority is a problem in california and a problem in the us senate

51 votes is a majority and the each senator (democrat or republican) who needs to be "appeased" to sign on to a bill to reach the magic sixty has enormous power (as in the senate healthcare drama (nelson, lieberman, snowe, et al)

Posted by: jamesoneill | February 4, 2010 9:53 AM | Report abuse

This seems like just another labored attempt to avoid realizing that the bill was simply unpopular.

Posted by: tomtildrum | February 4, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

I think that members of congress are old school and haven't yet figured out how to use the internet to communicate directly with their electorate. Right now, most of the internet communication is flowing from voters to congress. It needs to flow from congress to voters.

Posted by: ideallydc | February 4, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

I agree with the above comment that the internet has changed every aspect of the way we communicate and many facets of society are struggling to adapt. It is interesting to me how everyone from pundits to blogger debate what the future will be like when very few expected the internet to come in and change the game forever, what new technologies yet discovered/ marketed will change the game next? I found a very interesting debate on the topic at airing at 5:00 am tomorrow and 3:00 pm in the DC area. I think those of you that are interested in the topic will find the debate interesting and informative.

Posted by: youngva | February 5, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

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