Know your political Internet

March 26, 2001|By David M. Anderson

WASHINGTON -- Many journalists, political scientists, members of the online politics community and citizens interested in the Internet keep repeating the same mistake.

They keep asking -- after an election -- whether last year was the year the Internet had a major impact on American politics. Did it in 1996? Did it in 1998?

It is asked frequently whether the year in question was "like 1960," when television transformed presidential politics by virtue of John F. Kennedy's destruction of Richard Nixon in the televised debates.

Some recommend that we stop waiting for "the year" when the Web will have the same kind of dramatic effect that television had for Kennedy and Nixon. (Few would say the Web had a monumental effect the last election year although many, myself included, believe it plays an increasingly important role in election politics.)

The Internet, we are told by optimists, will gradually transform politics in America. Web usage, even though as high as 60 percent in some studies, is still not enough to reach "the public." Moreover, it is a "decentralizing" medium that cannot be dominated by a major story the way television was in the 1960s -- before it became decentralized with the rise of cable.

This is reasonable, but it still misses the main point.

There is a simple reason that it is a mistake to keep asking after an election whether this was the year that the Web transformed American politics. Since elections are only a part of politics, it is wrong to judge the effects the Internet is having on the political system by examining only one part of that system.

Politics includes election politics, issue politics and governance. Politics is about candidate campaigns and elections, grassroots organizing and issue advocacy and the activities of elected officials.

Online politics is essentially the same: It is about online election politics, online issue politics and online government -- or e-government, as it is called. And, of course, this applies at the federal, state and local levels.

Online election politics is only one part of online politics overall in the same way that election politics is only one part of politics overall. It would be impossible to make any judgment about politics overall by making a judgment about election politics. Likewise, it is impossible to make any judgment about online politics overall by making a judgment about online election politics.

If we keep evaluating the effects the Internet is having on American politics by relying on election analysis, we will continue to make a basic mistake. This is like asking a team of three athletes what one of them scored when you are trying to determine the score for the entire team. This confused pattern of thinking is related to the idea, held by many individuals, that citizenship is essentially about voting when in fact voting is only one part of citizenship, though admittedly a fundamental part.

It may turn out that looking for "the year" that the Internet had a major effect on American politics is a misguided endeavor. It may be that no single year will be "the year" for the Internet and politics. Indeed, it may be that this information and communications technology will have a major influence on politics in America, but that the transformation will come about slowly. So perhaps we should stop looking.

Yet unless we understand the question we are asking we will never be able to tell whether a given year was the year that the Internet changed American politics forever.

David M. Anderson, who teaches at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management, is director of the Democracy Online Project's National Task Force. The ideas expressed are his.

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