Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How are new media reshaping politics? Take 2

Yesterday I posted on Hidman's "missing middle" hypothesis. Kudos to my good friend Ben Peters for some great, thought-provoking responses. Today, I'm going to push forward and respond to another great thinker in this area: Benkler's theory of the "networked public sphere."

Benkler and the Networked Public Sphere

On the other side of the debate, Yochai Benkler is an Internet optimist. He argues that many-to-many communication will invigorate the public sphere, leading to broader intake of ideas, better discussion, and ultimately better governance. Benkler is very critical of the media oligopoly of the mid-20th century, which he says was heavily influenced by money and ideology, and excersized outsized control on public access to information. According to his account, the current proliferation of online information sources is certainly better than being dependent on a handful of corporate broadcasters, even if it still falls short of utopia.

This picture of the public sphere is appealing and not entirely untrue. I want to believe it. However, Benkler fails to take into important and well-established facts about American political system.

First, most citizens in the U.S. are poorly equipped to deal with political information. Converse's half-century-old finding that as many as 90 percent of Americans are "innocent of ideology" (i.e. they have no idea what "liberal" and "conservative" mean) has been replicated and extended many times. Most voters don't know how government works, they don't know how it's supposed to work, and they don't care to find out. True, partisan cues, endorsements, and heuristics can sometimes bring voters up to speed enough to fill out a ballot, but these heuristic strategies cannot inform most citizens for participation in the public sphere the way Benkler imagines. We must distinguish between the handful of citizens who are motivated and equipped to reason about politics, and the majority who are not so prepared or inclined. Benkler's optimism really only extends as far as the electorate is capable of reasoning about democracy.

Second, Benkler ignores the structure of government and policymaking. He treats "government" as a unitary actor, and makes only passing reference to elections and political parties. Benkler is painting with a broad brush, so perhaps he can be forgiven for ignoring the institutional details of representation and government in American politics. However, those details are likely to matter, deeply.

Consider: primary responsibility for lawmaking in the U.S. falls to elected legislators. These legislators are influenced not only by the ebb and flow of ideas in public debate, but by their ability win in zero-sum, partisan elections. Proliferation of information sources may affects public debate for the better, but it also affects the electoral pressures faced by public officials. We have strong reason to believe that access to additional channels, selective exposure, and ideological pandering are leading to increased polarization in the electorate. What if this polarizing electoral effect dominates the enriching discursive effect that Benkler outlines?

I'm sympathetic to the the idea of a networked public sphere. As I said earlier, I really want it to be true. But Benkler's picture ignores key institutions in American politics, like elections and parties, so I have a hard time placing much faith in his predictions. We need to think carefully about the interplay of partisanship, ignorance, and representative government with technologies that allow cheap, many-to-many communication.

No comments: