Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Bloggers and politics

Andrew Sullivan has a good piece outlining how Dean's campaign used the Internet to bypass the DNC and built a cheap, grassroots machine to drive the very successful campaign. Sullivan thinks this trend is good for Democracy:
That means real dynamism in the campaign next year. With the web operation in place, a burst of enthusiasm after an early primary win could mean an instant infusion of web cash that could then cover a key state with advertising and keep the momentum going. One good showing in a debate and, again, the response is instant. This insta-democracy could well have its disadvantages, of course. It could remove some of the barriers that deliberately slow democratic decision-making to avoid too much fad and not enough substance. But there is no denying its power"
Firstly, I must admit that I am less impressed by current democratic decision-making than Sullivan because I don't believe that making it more faddy and less substantive would alter it in the least. Indeed, I don't think anyone would even be able to tell the difference.

Secondly, while the Internet is good at making activist voters contribute money, I would try to be realistic about how much influence money really has on elections in the US. (U Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt has tried to quantify it here (.pdf) -- hint: it's pretty small). And while these online activists bring cash, they also bring ideological baggage that would be harmful in a genuine election. Given voter participation rates in the West, anyone thinking about or supporting politicians 18 months before the election is clearly an outlier.

Lastly, it would be nice if people just dropped the pretension that democracy can somehow be improved by "bringing it closer to the people" or "getting people more involved" or whatever the power-to-the-people sentiment of the day is. Ken Arrow (U Chicago, econ, nobel prize) mathematically demonstrated that voting systems simply cannot be perfect because it is impossible to produce a decision, through polling, that is intransitive. The fact that Nader supporters voted for Bush is a fundamental feature of the system, not some aberrant flaw. Given that the election winner is an artifact of the voting schedule, you have to wonder how the quality of the inputs matters much one way or the other. This is without going into the fact that, given how unimportant the marginal vote is, and the tremendous disutility associated with listening to politicians drone on and on, and only rational decision is to ignore the whole business. Empirically, this is also the popular choice.

I don't think the web nature of Dean's campaign is revolutionary in the way people seem to think it is, because I don't believe that the "authentic", "grassroots" support it has is anything more than a new special interest group that can now work the system. I think it will help and hinder Dean to the same extent any special interest group helps or hinders a candidate.


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