Politics after the Internet

By Levin, Yuval | The Public Interest, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Politics after the Internet


Levin, Yuval, The Public Interest


IT is no longer in vogue, as it was just a few years ago, to gush breathlessly about politics in the age of the Internet. In the late 1990s, many commentators were convinced that a new day had dawned in the life of our republic. Some said direct democracy was just around the corner, as tens of millions of Americans in "chat rooms" would form, in one author's words, "a committee of the whole, made up of all citizens online." Others predicted enormous increases in voter participation, the rise of a more informed and active populace, and a decline in the importance of money in politics. It seemed for a moment as though everything was about to change, and for the better. That moment has passed, and the subject seems to have been dropped. It may be too soon to pick it up again in full. The influence of information technologies on our politics has not been playing out as anyone quite expected, and to say that we now know the shape of the future would be to repeat the mistake of earlier prognosticators. But by unde rstanding the source of the error committed by the forecasters of the 1990s, we may be able to see farther than they did, if only by a little.

The cyber-utopians

Cyber-politics prophecy reached its height between 1995 and 2000. Writers in the genre ranged from communitarian liberals, who viewed the World Wide Web as a source of civic energy and unity, to libertarian futurists, who foresaw the dawn of a new age of direct democracy and individual power. Most analysts combined some features of each.

To the first group, the Internet seemed like a tool for building community and promoting civic activity. By opening up new sources of information and new means of participation, it would energize an American political system suffering from citizen apathy and cynicism. Political scientist Anthony Corrado predicted in his 1997 book Elections in Cyberspace that the Internet would bring about "a revitalized democracy characterized by a more active informed citizenry." Daniel Weizner of the Center for Democracy and Technology saw in the Internet "a vast new forum for political discourse and activism which allows genuine interaction between voters and elected representatives." Others saw the Web as a means of organization, of drawing in the politically disaffected. In his book Netactivism, Edward Schwartz wrote that the Internet was simply "the most powerful tool for political organizing developed in the past 50 years.

One consequence of the new Internet-based political activism would be the end of the two-party system. The rise of the Web, according to Corrado, meant that "in the future, the political system may no longer be dominated by the Democratic and Republican parties," as countless new political actors entered the field. Howard Rheingold, a student of the culture of cyberspace, argued that "the political significance of computer mediated communication lies in its capacity to challenge the existing political hierarchy's monopoly on powerful communications media, and perhaps thus revitalize citizen based democracy."

Some, including high-tech guru Esther Dyson, believed that this citizen-based democracy would have the most impact at the local level, where, as Newsweek's Howard Fineman wrote in 1997, the Web would produce "an explosion of microdemocracy." But most analysts of Information Age democracy focused their attention on the federal government, where they foresaw a new era of citizen authority. In his 1997 book Politics on the Nets, technology expert Wayne Rash argued that in the age of the Web, "voters will have a voice that reaches directly to the highest levels of both parties and the government" and might have the ability to "bring accountability directly to bear on elected officials." British M.P. Graham Allen, writing in Wired magazine in 1995, expressed the same view, arguing that "new technology affords the possibility of cutting out the middle person and directly inputting our views into the national, regional and local electronic parliaments. …

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