PJ Media

Blogs and the 2008 Election

My trip to the Blogworld New Media and Expo in Las Vegas was, in the end, something of a disappointment. It appeared to me that there were fewer political bloggers in attendance, while the number of attendees who were more concerned with trying to sell something to bloggers rather than learn or share anything about blogging was greatly increased over last year’s inaugural event.

The buzz at the conference was the 2008 election. I was somewhat surprised that there seemed to be very little discussion of the role of blogs in the political process given the strides made by leftwing blogs in organizing themselves into a force that has a voice in Democratic Party politics. Not much discussion either of how conservative blogs have lagged behind in this area and what can be done to change that situation.

I suppose it was unrealistic to expect that the political blogosphere might make some positive contributions to the 2008 election campaign. But judging by the smears and lies that are either created by bloggers or are simply echoed again and again on websites both right and left, along with the painfully shallow emphasis on whatever bloggers can blow up into a “gaffe” by hugely exaggerating some minor misstatement by either candidate, one is left with the sad conclusion that most blogs are contributing absolutely nothing of substance to this election.

While the nation is going through an economic crisis, trying to decide the best course of action in Iraq, and wrestling with serious questions of war, peace, and financial security, blogs as a whole are concerned with either promoting or knocking down the latest smear from their opponents. Or, even worse, trivializing the utterances of both candidates so that the elections seems more about the best way to make the opposition look bad by blowing a statement out of all sensible proportion while, at the same time, accusing the candidate of all manner of hair raising-perfidy.

Perhaps it is time to pause and ask “Is this the best blogs can do?”

Both campaigns send out a steady stream of news releases and emails highlighting these “gaffes” and then sit back and watch as blogs pounce on each incident, posting in real time so that in a few hours the blogospheric echo chamber has made an “issue” of it. Admittedly, some of these gaffes are real and deserve an airing. But there is nothing rational or reasoned about most of these distractions. Both campaigns and both sides of the blogosphere are at fault, so there is little to be gained by trying to point fingers at one side or the other and declare one side is “worse” than the other.

In a time of crisis, the fact that there is so much silliness reveals that the promise that blogs once represented has been shelved in the interest of partisan hackery. (Blogs are  not necessarily responsible for this, but they nevertheless are the engine driving campaigns to play this game.)

Blogs are a unique form of information dissemination and, with their large,politically active readership, could have performed a valuable service to the public by explaining the issues at stake while advancing the cause of their favored candidates.

Some blogs are indeed helpful in this regard. On the center-left, Crooked Timber has good, incisive commentary on the issues featuring a plethora of very smart, very talented writers. Also, Jerlyn Merritt’s Talk Left has featured a partisan but reasonable take on the election.

In the middle, there’s Joe Gandelman’s group site The Moderate Voice — a blog that has tried to stay above the day to day mudslinging while posting some excellent pieces that analyze the candidates’ positions. Another more centrist blog that leans left but features some good analysis is Obsidian Wings.

On the center-right, there is the Volokh Conspiracy and its stable of quality legal minds with a serious take on the campaign. And for some good, clean conservative analysis of defense and foreign policy, there is Winds of Change.

Obviously, this is a partial list and I’m sure you have your own favorite blogs that, while partisan, try and cover the politics and the issues of the campaign without crawling into the gutter or overemphasizing the trivial nature of many campaign blow-ups. But the fact is, some of the biggest blogs on the left and right do little else but follow the “gotchya!” games, while advancing some of the more nauseating smears directed against both candidates.

Blogs can and should be doing better. For instance, the financial crisis would seem, on the surface, to be a perfect opportunity for the blogosphere to roll up its sleeves and put the financial mess in layman’s terms so that even economic dunces like yours truly could grasp the essentials of what is going on.

Instead, its been variation upon variation of the blame game, with the lefty blogs on a tear against the Bush administration (while doing the bidding of the Obama campaign and trying to tie McCain to Bush’s policies) and righty blogs trying to prove it’s the Democratic Congress’ fault. Those few sites that make an honest attempt to show the history of these events while taking both sides to task for lax regulation are mostly on the fringe.

It may be good politics to try and blame one side or the other exclusively for the mess we are in, but it is also stupid and self-defeating. Where blogs might have educated the public, we have instead a hugely misleading gaggle of posts that rail against one side or the other.

Was it realistic to expect blogs to do more? Most bloggers take their lead from the top 100 or so websites, so perhaps I am being too hard on the rest of the blogosphere who are only writing what they believe is “popular” and “linkable.”

But can blame be assigned exclusively to the larger blogs? Or is it more reasonable to blame the nature of blogs themselves and grant that whatever promise blogs appeared to represent a few years ago was, in fact, a mirage and never incorporated the one great variable into the blog equation?

That variable, of course, is human nature and, by extension, the nature of politics in America today. A recent study showed that blogs and blog readers are even more polarized than expected with most people reading websites with which they agree politically. It stands to reason then that blogs large and small would be extreme partisans and that any hope for a reasonable discussion of the issues would be left to smaller or fringe sites whose writings might break through to the mainstream blogosphere only if they offered information that buttressed a partisan argument.

In other words, blogs and blog readers are as shallow and trivia-driven as the campaigns to which they are in service. Size of the blog doesn’t matter as much as carrying the message of the McCain or Obama camps to their readership. In this respect, the blogosphere has become a minor appendage of the campaigns and is simply parroting the latest attack meme, driving the debate to utter irrelevance.

One would hope for more independence from bloggers . Indeed, there has been some excellent analysis and criticism of the candidates’ positions based on bloggers’ ideological point of view. But there has not been nearly enough side by side comparison of the candidates’ positions. Meanwhile, there has been too much devotion to mudslinging and the minutia of political gamesmanship.

I can recall when it was believed by the new media gurus that the advent of blogs would change politics forever. They were right — but obviously not for the reasons they believed. Blogs have helped coarsen and trivialize politics. Few in the blogosphere can hold their heads high and say otherwise.