Clark Kent Has A New Boss

This post is a follow up to the previous post, and the first in what I hope will be a series of blogs investigating the future of political communications (the topic of my ongoing undergrad thesis).

Investigative reporting can be thought of as a public good that is undervalued by most individuals, in that most people don’t recognize the value of investigative reporting to their well being. Under the previous price regime, the supply of the public good was below the socially optimal level as a result of the high cost of information gathering by journalists and the high cost of distributing information. The result was local monopolies (newspapers, radio stations, network TV) on information gathering and distribution that supplied the surplus profits to pay for the public good.

Clark Kent Has New Boss

He Works for Pro Publica Now

Online, the economy of information functions much differently and we shouldn’t fear a new constellation of political communication. Fewer firms can produce more investigative reporting, as the price of gathering and distributing information diminish signifigantly. Local monopolies fall on the basis of diminished profits, but the level of provision of the public good actually increases as a result of increased productivity and lower barriers to entry. A citizen in Cincinnati is better off using Craigslist and relying on ProPublica to investigate public officials than it would be to pay for their local paper to maintain a DC branch, or simply pass along AP reporting.

Whether or not that citizen becomes aware of the information produced by Propublica’s investigations is a seperate, but not unrelated question that has serious implications for the future of political communication. On this front, I think the internet poses a more serious challenge to current forms of democratic practice. However, as I mentioned in a previous post on partisanship and media organization, informational cocoons entail some trade-off between deliberation and participation. Perhaps our John Doe from Cincinnati doesn’t encounter the political news as a result of his no longer buying the local paper; his neighber Jane Doe down the street is able to participate in lots of new ways using online technology and is more likely to participate as a result.

This points to an interesting and underresearched empirical question: does selective exposure to political news increase or decrease political knowledge by the median voter.

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Red Sox are Democrats and Yankees are Republicans

Henry Farrell, who over the course of my thesis has become my favorite current academic, wrote an awesome article in last week’s American Prospect outlining the trade-offs between partisanship and participation. There is a commonly held view, amongst intellectuals, politicians and the public, that civic culture is in decline and partisanship is at an all time high. Less people are involved and those who are involved are less likely to talk to each other. Farrell, of late, has been writing journal articles arguing something more sophisticated and contemporary: namely, that partisanship is a boon to participation.

Evidence suggests that people who are strongly engaged in politics and hence likely to volunteer for campaigns are strongly partisan and tightly clumped around the ideological poles (they are strongly liberal or strongly conservative). If this is right, online activists are unlikely to follow Obama if he moves toward a post-ideological politics of citizenship and may even use Obama’s own machine to organize against him (as they did within MyBarackObama.com when Obama announced his support for controversial wiretapping legislation). By rebuilding the Democratic Party around a model that is friendlier to decentralized online participation, Obama is both making it easier for Democratic activists to organize in protest against overly “moderate” decisions, and forcing Republicans to adopt similar organizing techniques in order to win elections.

This is, I think, the key lesson of online organizing for both theorist concerned about normative issues and activist concerned with mobilizing supporters. Online politics offers an extension of traditional party politics that can provide new tools and opportunities, but does not alter the structure of the electoral system.

There is a tradeoff in online participation between moderation and active participation. My girlfriend offered a useful analogy for Farrell’s argument by likening political partisans to sports fans. (An analogy that compares sports to politics: it should be obvious why I like this girl.) More engaged sports fans are more likely to know more about their team, but also, as a consequence more about the other teams, the league’s schedule, and how the game is played. Those more likely to go to a game, or buy a team hat, are those who care most about their team. Likewise, more partisan citizens are more likely to donate money or volunteer for a political organization, or talk to their friends about politics.

Theorists and media denizens who wish for active citizen interest in politics without partisanship seek to separate the reality of politics as practice from the idea of politics as a deliberative process (David Broder, I’m looking at you). Taking an active rooting interest is a crucial part of enjoying sports – and politics. Which isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be cordial relations between members of parties, or active consultations with members of the opposition. It is most fun as a sports fan to watch the game with other people who care as much as you – whatever team they might be rooting for.

In politics, as in sports, this kind of thing is unacceptable: