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Has the Internet Broken America?

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, February 3 2010

The New America Foundation's Robert Wright has a piece on the New York Times' website that asks the provocative question: has the Internet made America ungovernable? If you're interested in the topics we cover here, it's worth a read. Wright starts by looking back almost wistfully on the days that the only task before a President looking to do work on entitlements, for example, was to navigate between Grover Norquist on the small-government side of things and AARP, as representatives of the folks who wanted expanded government programs. Those, it seems, were the good ol' days:

If you think this was a grim predicament, wait until you hear about Special Interest 3.0. The mass-mail revolution had worked its paralyzing magic by lowering the cost of mobilizing far-flung groups of people who share a political interest. Obviously, subsequent technological history hasn’t exactly reversed this trend toward the cheaper processing and transmission of data. The personal computer, the Internet and allied technologies have given a new fluidity to political opposition, spawning interest groups almost overnight in response to policy initiatives.

Wright's gist seems to be that the ever-shifting political landscape of the Internet age makes it impossible for politicians to govern-by-lumping in the way they once did. Add to that the fact that technology undercuts at least some of the historic reasoning behind representative democracy (a la folks had to work the fields and couldn't be expected to make their way to the county seat every time a decision had to be made).

A few thoughts. First, Wright's piece brings to mind the old bumper sticker: "If you aren't outraged, you aren't paying attention." Wright rightly notes that it's far easier these days to pay attention, what with the Internet and all. Nearly everyone is going to find something about politics that drives them crazy at some point. We're still mere babies when it comes to our skill at parsing the tremendous amount of digital information now available to us, and we shouldn't confuse growing pains with some sort of inescapable and enduring suffering. And second: Wright seems to be embracing the idea that legislators are very, very sensitive to vox populi. Extend their terms, he says, to shield them from external forces. And while that might well be a good idea, that's probably because it would shield them from having to expose themselves to fundraisers and lobbyists quite so much.