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Crowdsourcing the Apocalypse

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, November 16 2010

You know what Howard Dean and Sarah Palin have in common? Both, finds the New York Times Magazine's Matt Bai, are crowd-sourced candidates who, finding themselves "buffeted in a digital storm of emotion," welcome the feedback of the masses and develop personas ratcheted to match a participatory environment. Here's Bai:

The point is that in an increasingly interactive society, candidates can get an instant and amplified reaction to everything they say. And a candidate who happens to be more malleable in her political philosophy, either because she hasn’t yet settled on one or because she is temperamentally susceptible to the passions of the crowd, can be transformed by the moment.

It's a bit difficult to know what to make of this. For one thing, it's fair to say that those of us who participate actively in the online space get more feedback, from a wider range of sources, and more quickly that normal grown-up life involved until recently. (Kids and young adults, you might argue, have the benefit of near constant scrutiny by their parents, teachers, and peers. Generally speaking, as you grow up, few people care you about what you're up to that much to critique you that closely.) Facebook is a veritable intravenous burst of forced public consideration. But, still, doesn't Sarah Palin seem to be exactly the politician she was when she burst onto the national scene two years ago? If it's the web that has transformed her into a polarizing, outspoken, argumentative politician, she seems to have taken to it rather well. And while in '04 Dean certainly amplified his message about people-powered politics beyond what was theretofore natural for him (read Ari Berman's rather good "Herding Donkeys" for more on that), history tells us that Dean has always been a little ornery. He might have yelled on that fateful night in Iowa because the crowd was yelling, but that seems to fall well short of a guy deriving his political opinions from the "crowd."

Bai doesn't say it straight out, but he's tapping into the more controversial argument that this participatory World Wide Web of ours ("why buy professionally-shot photographs for your Web site when thousands of amateurs are willing to provide them at the click of a button?," Bai puts it) just so happens to unleash and amplify extremist voices, and therefore, yadda yadda, American politics is done for. And while you can make the case that the blogosphere and Twitter permit and even reward full-throated extremism, it really doesn't seem to have played out that way in actual American politics. Ask the quotable Christine O'Donnell about that. Or the quiet Senate Majority Leader Reid.*

You can make the argument that a political leader whose actions are dictated by the people runs the risk of being a dangerous demagogue. But a politician with core convictions who nonetheless speaks to the American people, and listens to them, too -- well, that sounds an awful lot like how representative democracy is supposed to work.

*Corrected: I somehow demoted Senator Reid between brain and keyboard. Been fixed.