The Power of New Media on the Presidency
So, has New Media changed the way we select our Presidential nominees? Has it fulfilled its promise to reduce the ability of the mainstream media and the political establishment to pick our candidates for us? It might not seem so. After all, the three remaining possibilities are all U.S. Senators perennially embraced by Old Media. Moreover, mainstream media has been mocking conservative talk radio hosts and bloggers for their inability to defeat McCain. But, a look beneath the surface reveals that finally, during this election cycle, New Media has seized control of the nominating process, probably forever.
Ironically, the progress made by New Media as a political force can be measured in terms of how far back in time it has taken us. There have been better times in history for citizens seeking information on political candidates than the last few decades, when we have endured a monolithic, center-left, establishment-loving mainstream media. Once, America was served by an abundance of news outlets providing different opinions to different groups of the like-minded. That's what French historian Alexis de Tocqueville saw in the early 1800's when he marveled at how our "Newspapers make associations, and associations make newspapers." Before that, we lived in Thomas Jefferson's America, noted for its unlimited and uninhibited free expression, lively debates in which ideas were attacked and defended, and a free people who thought for themselves rather than having "the truth" as seen by elites imposed upon them.
And way before that -- before there was an America, before there was even a printing press -- news was spread by word of mouth, completely frustrating elites and governments who have ever since meddled with our use of communications technologies to control the flow of news and opinion to the public.
We will know that the New Media fully controls our nominating process when we choose our candidates, not by who mainstream news outlets shove in our faces, but by listening to a multitude of voices competing in a freewheeling marketplace of ideas. Based on what we have seen so far in this election cycle, we may already be there.
A Multitude of Ideologies -- Love them or hate them, every American should celebrate the New Media-driven multitude of alternative voices among this year's Republican nominees. Think about the diversity of views represented by Giuliani, Huckabee, Hunter, McCain, Paul, Romney, and Thompson. All under the same, Republican banner we heard support for pro-life vs. pro-choice, immigration enforcement vs. amnesty, gun rights vs. gun control, heterosexual vs. same-sex marriage, foreign affairs activism vs. isolationism, and government largess vs. minimalism.
Never has a party engaged in such substantive intramural debate, and it is all because of New Media. Old Media has never had the capacity nor will to share this much information about so many campaigns. In the past, this has sucked-out the oxygen from non-establishment, people-pleasing candidacies.
A Multitude of Identities -- In contrast, the choices on the Democrat side have represented a multitude of identities, not a multitude of ideologies. Much of the voting has been based on the groups to which the candidates and constituents belong, rather than the ideas they have. According to Gerard Baker, Obama is the candidate of latte liberals, Clinton of Dunkin' Donut Democrats. Obama is the candidate of the young, affluent whites, and blacks. Clinton is the candidate of Hispanics and women, particularly those who view themselves as victims (note the tears and requests for apology when Hillary, and now her daughter, are dissed). This new identity politics was fueled by the New Media, which provided vastly more exposure to candidates and information than Old Media ever could. For example, New Media gave visibility to Bill Clinton's ham-handed use of the race card in the South Carolina primary, which polarized and energized the black vote.
The Republican race has not been immune from identity politics, e.g. evangelical support for Huckabee, Romney's Mormonism, and veterans' support for McCain. But as Jonah Goldberg noted, "On the Democratic side, if you strip away the crass appeals to identity politics, the emotional pandering and the helium-infused rhetoric, you're pretty much left with a campaign about nothing." It was different in the last cycle's Democratic contest, when New Media's Moveon.org and DailyKos added an alternative, stronger anti-war position into the Democrat debate.
A New Two-Party System -- But the most striking impact of New Media in this cycle has been the emergence of a new two-party system. It will no longer just be Democrats vs. Republicans, but also the Political Class vs. the People. The Political Class includes Old Media, powerful incumbents on both sides of the aisle, political operatives, lobbyists, and all others who suck-off the teat of the federal government. The People are the New Media-fueled citizens who are now listening to that multitude of voices competing in a freewheeling marketplace of ideas. What is shocking is that in this cycle, the Political Class actually lost.
On the Democrat side, the candidate of the Political Class was Clinton, and they fronted her as the inevitable and most acceptable nominee. But the candidate of the People was Obama, and at this moment it looks like he may very well win. This surprising loss by the Political Class has been masked by the fact that Obama is an acceptable candidate to them, too, and they are comfortable giving him favorable Press treatment. They do not fear that he will derail their power and money gravy train, as People's candidate Howard Dean might have in the last election cycle.
On the other hand, what happens on the Republican side is a sideshow for the Political Class, which sees a Democrat President as the natural order of things. But even though their preferred candidate, John McCain, should win the nomination, it will not be because they were particularly successful in getting Republican voters to choose him. Instead, he slipped by because the People lacked a candidate who could unify the economic, social, and national defense conservatives that collectively account for the majority of Republican voters.
But, all is not lost for those who fear our fragmented future of ideologies and identities -- those who prefer unity and an occasional reach-across-the-aisle. New Media may break us into pieces, but it will also unite all of us, from far-left to far-right, against a common enemy -- the Political Class. So, New Media will not just take us back to the old days before Old Media. It is also a new revolution that will take us back to the old, but timeless, ideas of America's oldest revolution.
Steve Boriss blogs at The Future of News. He works for Washington University in St. Louis, where he is Associate Director of the Center for the Application of Information Technology (CAIT) and teaches a class called "The Future of News."