The internet has been going strong for over a decade now, but there is a lively debate about whether it is truly a democratizing force or whether its grassroots potential is still dwarfed by traditional forms of power. I for one believe that the internet is radically changing our democracy and empowering new actors in positive ways.
Take political fundraising. While many large donors and their elite events still grab major headlines, the internet has elevated grassroots fundraising to a new level. A few million ordinary people each giving $50-$100 to a campaign can generate tens of millions of dollars and catapult candidates into the first tier of a race. Just ask Barack Obama, who has a growing army of 100,000+ donors that he is building mainly through his website. Learning from the success of Howard Dean’s internet rise in 2003-2004, Obama is not only raising phenomenal amounts of money, but his website emphasizes the movement over the money. Individuals can join groups, find and host events and invite others into the campaign.
While Obama leads the Democratic field in utilizing the internet’s potential, Democrats similarly are way ahead of Republicans. Instead of simply asking for money, Democrats are using the internet to create a sense of togetherness and to engage users in the cause. This is a striking development given that Republicans have long held the advantage with mailing lists and grassroots fundraising.
This brings me to the second significant aspect of the internet: the rise of political blogs. Sites such as Dailykos, in which any user can post a diary that is then rated by others and can rise to the top of the main page, affords huge audiences to ordinary people based solely on the merits of their ideas, not their credentials. In addition, the comments section allows all users to actively participate in the conversation.
Almost all blog writers are not “professional” journalists, yet their writing often rivals or is better than what appears in major news sources. Their off-the-cuff style may be offensive to some, but the candor and lack of political-correctness on the blogosphere is a welcome development when the mainstream media’s op-ed sections seem to be dominated by sycophants too lazy to fact-check their claims.
And these days many stories that otherwise would have slipped by the major news outlets are being heard because of bloggers. Case-in-point is the recent work by the writers at Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo, which led to the heightened interest and eventual whirlwind surrounding the purge of U.S. attorneys.
And the left-leaning sites appear to offer much greater reader engagement than right-leaning sites; to my knowledge the right has no site that rivals Dailykos in its community participation.
Like all other mediums the blogosphere has increasingly become concentrated, with a relatively small number of blogs dominating computer screens around the country; at the same time the blog medium itself is profoundly more democratic than traditional media. No no-name will ever get an op-ed job at the New York Times, but the internet gives every unknown the chance to reach huge audiences by working hard and building a following. Who knew Atrios before Dailykos got rolling?
The extent to which bloggers might ultimately blunt the influence of Washington’s chattering class and the highly paid consultants who dominate the Democratic and Republican parties is still unclear, but any diminishment of their power is to be welcomed.
All in all I think the internet is proving extremely beneficial to democracy, with its full potential yet to be exploited. This is good for the country and ultimately good for the world. The citizens of China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Cuba aren’t going to forever watch the rest of the world actively engage in open and democratic societies without demanding freedom of their own.