Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Steam is probably going to shoot out of his ears when he sees this, but I think that Doug Turnbull has a good point:

While this is certainly a real phenomenon, for me this weekend has illustrated a larger and more pernicious echo chamber—that of those who really pay attention to politics. This is a pernicious echo chamber not because of it’s effects on those inside, but because the majority are outside and either don’t know or don’t care.

What brought this home to me was the whole Trent Lott affair. I generally don’t spend much time on the internet on weekends, and rarely watch the network news programs. So I was completely ignorant of the entire issue until I took my morning stroll around the blogosphere, and found it all abuzz with the huge controversy. It was the big news of the day, and everyone was weighing in. I spent my weekend like everyone else in the country, and had no idea what the heck everyone was atwitter about.

But outside this tiny group of pundits and journalists, no-one cares. If you went to the mall and pulled aside the average person of voting age and asked them what they thought of Trent Lott, even if you happened to find someone who knew who he was, I can almost guarantee you none of them would have any clue about this recent flap.

And that’s a problem. On the one hand you have a vocal and involved political active minority, throwing around stories back and forth and building them up or tearing them down. In this insular little world, the biggest news of the day really is the Trent Lott gaffe. But for the 98% of the population who aren’t political junkies, the group that actually decides elections, this might as well not have happened. The echoes can be deafening inside the chamber, but outside they are almost inaudible, drowned out by the hum of everyday cares.
This is actually quite accurate, and actually echoes a common problem in modern democracy and particularly in American democracy. There is a large amount of people who are disconnected from political activity for some reason or another, a large enough group that it affects democracy itself. There have been a number of reasons given for this phenomenon:

-the tendency of candidates to seek out small compatible segments of the electorate to "activate" for political participation;

-the increasingly ideological nature of candidates, legislators and activists alienating the relatively moderate electorate;

-and the problem of people's social networks crossing partisan lines, and the inevitable conflicts that arise when one becomes politically active when that will increase friction and tension between one's peers (and within oneself) when trying to take a position on an issue.

It's actually a very complex phenomenon.

Hmm... actually, I don't normally do this (yet.. I've been thinking about it), but I'm going to link to a book. It's called "By Invitation Only: The Rise of Exclusive Politics in the United States", by Steven Schier, and it actually does a pretty good job of exploring exactly why this sort of phenomenon exists, and what can be done to rectify it.

(It's actually somewhat counter-intuitive in some respects. One of the reasons why so many people are frozen out is, oddly enough, the primary system: it weakens political parties, and parties are one of the best mechanisms for the sort of mass political participation that you just don't see anymore.)

I've been actually thinking about following Atrios' lead and putting some books that I think would be good reads on the sidebar. I'm not planning on doing it right now, and it's not really for the (vanishingly unlikely) prospect of making cash from them... it's just that it'd be nice to point to a number of books and say "go read these". This is one of those books.

Otherwise, nice post Doug.

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