High Technology Mass Media as Strengthening Democracy: Immediacy and Community in the Blogosphere – Extremism Plus Increased Citizens’ Involvement
Along with the extremism which the blogs have generated, there is also a heightened political involvement. Young people especially have connected with each other through the blogosphere. This is both dangerous for democracy, and yet exciting too. For, something like the “face-to-face” democracy of the ancient Greek world is recreated in the blogs, such that huge demonstrations and voter turnout can be generated through internet political blog activity.
It is easy to revive Orwell1 and project a future of high technology totalitarianism. Big Brother is already watching us through our smartphones, Amazon deliveries, credit cards, and computers. The Chinese and the Russians are already using Cyber surveillance and, in the USA, Amazon, Apple and Google know where I am, and what I like to buy, watch and listen to. Dystopias abound: every movie about the future seems to be dystopian—combination of high technology totalitarianism and medieval monarchy.
Further, the recent Russia hacking into the American presidential election, and, the European elections as well—even the “Brexit” vote in Britain—have furthered our pessimism about the future of politics.
Further yet, those negative television ads and robocalls denigrated the character of anyone who runs for office—these certainly do not increase our optimism on the future of democracy!
However, I wish to point out that there are some positive effects that have occurred regarding the new technology.
Jean Jacques Rousseau, in the heady days leading up to the French revolution, contrasted the face to face democracy of the ancient Greek city states—and his adopted city of Geneva, in Switzerland—with the representative democracy being established in France (and already established in the Dutch Republic and England). Rousseau believed that representative democracy becomes too distant from the citizens, that the face to face democracy of the smaller city-states was the only real democracy.2
Now, Rousseau was behind the times, for representative democracy was needed to integrate large scale nation-states into functioning political entities, and, to replace the monarchies as a new and viable form of government for large-scale political entities. The other French “philosophe” like Voltaire3 and Condorcet,4 thought Rosseau was either joking or misguided. But, he was neither. His position that face to face democracy creates more immediacy and more of a feeling of genuine participation in government for the citizens, is correct. He was misguided, though in two ways: one, as mentioned, because the representative system was absolutely necessary in order to replace absolute Kingship as a unifying political institution; and two, he was misguided because he failed to highlight the fact that face to face democracy was more volatile, more likely to get caught up in “mob’ psychology—as Polybius called it, “ochlocracy”—rule by the mob.5
Rousseau failed to realize what Locke,6 Montesquieu,7 Madison, Hamilton8 and Jefferson9 understood: that representative democracy—because it creates a distance between the citizens and their representatives, allows the representation to debate issues with a cooler head—there is no mob psychology in a small group of representatives debating an issue.
Further, the representatives are limited, guided, and bound by checks and balances, constitutionally institutionalized. These checks and balances are lacking in a face to face democracy, even though constitutional guidelines may exist.
There is no doubt that the representative democracies of the Netherlands, Britain and the USA were more stable than the face to face democracies of the ancient Greeks.
So, what is my point here? Representative democracy has proven to be stable and deliberative in a good way. However, Rousseau was correct that the mass of citizens does feel a certain alienation from the democratic process. In the USA, our citizens often complain about “Washington”—the representatives are characterized as far away from “main street” and “out of touch” with the citizens. Just this week (January 2018) the German millennials (younger voters) complained that the “politicians” in Berlin were too willing to make compromises and unwilling to stand up for their party’s principles—they were “out of touch.”
Why am I describing this citizens’ alienation from their representatives?
Because, the new mass media have created a new sense of immediacy and political community that had been lacking in the representative-democratic system.
Yes, this new “blogosphere” and “Twittersphere” and Facebook sphere does cause greater volatility and increased extremism—there is the danger of regenerating mob psychology in the cyberworld.
This new mass mediated “intimacy” does cause extremes, and it can lead to mob-like actions in the real world: marches, demonstrations, online money-raising directed at local elections far away from the blog-incited contributors.
But, look at the excitement this has engendered in terms of democratic participation! During the 1950s and then again in the 1970s, voter apathy was considered a major problem. Low voter turnout was worrisome, not only in the USA, but also in Italy and France.
With the introduction of political blogs on the right, the left, and center, citizen participation has gone way up. Voter turnout is higher, voter involvement is more passionate, citizens’ participation is more enthusiastic Is this frightening? You bet it is. But is it creating a more vibrant democracy? Yes. Our representatives don’t seem so far away anymore, because—through the blogosphere—we can petition them, urge them, or challenge them (in a primary). If they are not doing what their constituents want, their constituents let them know it in no uncertain terms.
This whole new technological world of the mass media, linked to computers, tablets, and smart phones, has created a political reality that allows the modern citizen to actively participate in the political process. The modern citizen does not feel alienated anymore. Not only have they become much more active in the computer world, but many more of the modern citizens are running for office.
Hence, we should be worried about the increasing polarization of opinions engendered by the rigidly ideological blogs, while at the same time, we should be celebrating the new vitality of political process in modern high technology democracy.
Television coverage of primary and general elections—in all the modern democratic nations—has created a familiarity between the candidates and the viewers. The viewer feels like they are really seeing the candidate face to face. Of course, they are not, but since television presents the candidates in many venues: debates, stump speeches, informal talk shows, interviews and more, the citizens do get a chance to judge the candidates more closely than in the days when a stump speech was all you could get.
Thus, the television coverage of elections has created a heightened immediacy between the candidate and the citizen. The citizens feel like they are really seeing the candidate face to face. Of course, they are not, but they are seeing the candidate more intimately than in a large hall, or by way of a newspaper article. With all this election coverage, voters definitely feel more connected to, and less alienated from, the participating process. People watch carefully; they have gatherings at their houses and apartments; they hold fundraisers while watching the debates.
This is all good for democracy—it brings the citizens closer to the political process, and replicates—in a mass-mediated way—the face to face democracy of ancient Greece or eighteenth century Geneva.
Though this process is, of course, not actually face to face, it is better than the very distant process we used to have wherein the majority of voters just voted along party lines and barely knew the candidates.
Of course, demagogues have learned to use television and other mass media to their advantage. However, Hitler and Mussolini, as dictators, and Roosevelt and Churchill, democratically elected leaders, had already learned how to use the mass media available to them to the maximum advantage.
Then there are the blogs. The blogs definitely add to the extremism in democratic policy positions. Voters tend to read and write on the blogs which represent their views. Since the blogs are hotly partisan, their policy positions tend toward extremism.
Extremism is not good for democracy. It destabilizes democracy. It discourages lawful compromises and encourages volatile political action.
How can this be positive for democracy?
The blogs, because they are partisan, encourage political activism—rallies, marches, fundraisers, policy research centers and more. This kind of activism makes democracy more vibrant, if more volatile.
The blogs raise the participation level of citizens. Far from feeling alienated from the electoral process, the citizens feel energized and “engaged,”10 to use Jean Paul Sartre’s term. I know this seems foolish, and I know that extreme partisanship makes lawful compromise more difficult, but there is no doubt that the blogs have energized the electorate—and electoral participation and enthusiasm have increased. This is true in pre and post “Brexit” Britain, in “immigration-crisis.” The Netherlands, France, and Germany, as well as in “financial crisis” Spain and Greece.
Both extremism and electoral participation have increased in all the European democracies and in the “culture-war” problematical USA. Old party lines are blurring, and new interest groups are forming. For better or for worse, there is increased electoral participation because of the new blogosphere and intense television coverage of elections.
Benjamin Barber, in his book, Strong Democracy11 describes the Swiss systems of referenda. In the Swiss system, policy decisions are put to the vote through a series of referenda. These referenda by-pass the legislature, which is very weak in Switzerland (on the national level).
Barber believed the referenda systems could be brought to the USA and the EU, and, that it would enhance democracy.
Referenda, however, have proven to be too volatile. The “Brexit” vote in Great Britain is a perfect example, or, the California vote on the proposition that set a limit on taxation. Referenda bring out the irrational and ideological in the electorate. This is why the system of parliamentary representations and constitutional law was put in place—precisely to control debates within a framework of law, and to keep debates in a rational context.
So, why discuss referenda at all?
Because referenda will be used from time to time to test the opinions of the electorate. As long as they are non-binding referenda, and they are repeated a number of months apart, the representatives can gain a sense of where the electorate stands on current policy issues.
In fairness to Switzerland, they run three referenda in a given issue, months a part. The first referenda and non-binding, so that the final vote can be taken when the issue is less volatile.
Still, the Brexit vote, and the Catalan separatist vote in Spain show us that referenda should only be used for polling reasons and never for binding votes that bypass the legislature.
The checks and balances of the Enlightenment theorists are necessary to the stability of modern democracy and must not be sidestepped through the use of “instant referenda.”12
15.3 Computer Voting
Computer voting should have been the wave of the future. Citizens could have voted right from their own living rooms, using computers set for local and national elections. However, computer-hacking has destroyed this possibility—the enemies of democracy, mischievous geniuses and criminals have successfully hacked into the computer systems containing voter registration rolls, party affiliation rolls and voting machines (that had been computerized).13
This computer hacking has occurred in the UK, the EU and the USA. The Russians have been the most malevolent of the hackers in attempting to discredit and disrupt the electoral democracies of Europe and America. But there have been North Korean, African and Eastern European hackers as well. All those hackers, national or criminal, have created mischief in the voting process, and made the use of computer voting unwise.
Will computer voting in some protected form become part of the modern voting process? Only if a fail-safe system can be invented. The hackers, however, always seem to learn to override every new safety system.
15.4 The New High-Tech Communication Devices & Systems
Computers, tablets, smartphones and other new communication devices have created the most wonderful system of global interconnectedness. I still remember my amazement at sitting with my German friend, at a Canadian University, while he “skyped” with his wife in Munich. They chatted with each other as if they were together—and they were together “virtually”.
Wherever we go in the world, we can connect with our family and friends. This does create a “global citizen” potential.
Already, there is a global middle class, who communicate easily with each other—using English or Spanish, and interacting through email, Facebook, Google, Skype or cellphone.14
This could, someday, reduce world tensions and lead to a world-wide model of democratic electoral processes constrained by constitutional law. The United Nations already exists as a world forum, with instant translating (and bilingualism with English). The United Nations, at this point in the twenty-first century, is made up of a majority of developing nations, which are not yet exhibiting a majority middle class which is well-educated and prosperous. When and if, the UN reaches the point where the majority of the nations of the world are developed—economically, educationally and politically—then the UN itself could become a democratic, lawful world government. It is not that now.
Let us return to the new communications systems.
I have waxed eloquent about the spectacular new avenues of communications which are interconnecting the peoples of the world in a positive way. We can and do talk to our families and friends in distant cities and far away nations and, they feel close to us, and this is nice. So too is the democratic potential of the new communications networks.15
15.5 High Technology Totalitarianism
The totalitarian potential of the new communications devices is even more obvious than their democratic potential. The totalitarian impulses jump out at us. It is so much easier to be dystopian than utopian on this global phenomenon. “Big Brother” is, as mentioned, already watching us.
Facial recognition technology is on the way from Apple. Amazon is watching your living room and your packages in your doorway. Your smartphone knows where you are and where you have been. Your Apps know what products you want, what music you play, what art excites you. Your websites tell you whom you should date and what kind of person you should marry. And, so much more. The computer surveillance systems already know who you are, where you are and what you like and dislike. They know your political opinions, too, from the blogs that you favor.
High technology totalitarianism is a real and horrifying possibility. Right now (2018) if you are sitting in a café in Beijing and you try to bring up the Tiananmen Square uprising on your computer, the Chinese police will be alerted to this on their computer surveillance system and they will detain you.
Yes, high tech surveillance can lead to the worst form of totalitarian domination that has ever existed. Hitler, Stalin and now Kim Jung Un, have already created totalitarian regimes that were, and still are, overwhelming with their mass mobilizations and continuous terrorizations of the populations living within them.
Now, aided by the new communications surveillance devices, totalitarian control can become even more total. Let us look at a few of the hideous possibilities.
George Orwell, 1984, any edition.
Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, NY: Cosimo Books, 2008, Originally published 1762.
Voltaire—writings, Google Books.
Condorcet—writings, Google Books, 2008.
Polybius, Bk VI, Roman History, “mob rule”.
John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, London, Penguin, 1950.
Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws.
Hamilton Madison, Jay, The Federalist Papers.
Jefferson – helped write the USA Constitution.
Jean Paul Sartre, Existentialism, (engage in politics) Britannica.com-Existentialism.
Benjamin Barber, Strong Democracy, Rutgers, Rutgers, Univ. Press, 1990.
Glassman & Swatos, Charisma, History, and Society Structure.
Movie: Triumph of the Will, (woman director), Leni Riefenstahl, available on Google.
Aristotle, Politics (Kings, p. 241).