I’m really, truly, not going to talk about Jonah Goldberg. Instead, I’m going to talk about Cass Sunstein and his idea, reprised in Republic 2.0 that the Internet poses a threat to democracy by virtue of it’s capacity to allow us to
avoid information we don’t like. Conservatives are increasingly seeking only conservative views, liberals are seeking only liberal views, and never the twain shall meet.Sunstein argues that the echo chamber effect tends to reinforce existing views and produce a poisonous partisan divide.
It seems to me that exactly the opposite is true. The partisan divide in the US is being reinforced because people are more exposed to the other side than before.
Before the Internet, the average liberal or social democrat was largely insulated, on a day-to-day basis, from the kinds of views represented by Free Republic or Little Green Footballs. Similarly, unless we sought out rightwing magazines we were insulated to a large extent from commentators like Goldberg, Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter. Now we can see them minute-to-minute and it’s obvious that the idea of treating them as part of a legitimate discussion is absurd.
Moreover, where it was once possible to treat occasional public manifestations of Freeperism as aberrations, it’s now obvious that this is how the Republican base really thinks. So, any Republican advocate or politician, no matter how superficially reasonable, must be regarded as either someone who shares Freeper/LGF views or someone who is willing to exploit the holders of such views in the pursuit of a personal or class interest.
And, of course, they think the same of us, and have been reinforced in their views by their contact with us (eg Jonah G).
The most optimistic take on this is that the Internet has merely accelerated a US-specific process that was well underway by the 1970s, with the emergence of self-conscious movement conservatism. The availability of blogs, Google and so on has killed off the illusions of the DLC and Broderism about the possibility/desirability of compromise and assisted the emergence of a similarly self-conscious movement on the left.
Outside the US, things haven’t gone quite the same way. Although most of the English-speaking countries have a significant group of bloggers/bloviators/pundits whose ideas (and sometimes whole columns) are imported directly from the US right, such people have been relatively marginal to the conversation in the Internet (at least that’s my view of the Australian experience). On the whole, the result has been much more positive than in Sunstein’s picture, and there has been quite a bit of genuine discussion. But that only began to happen once people started to exclude the RWDB group from the conversation.
To sum up, Sunstein’s story is really about US Republicans* and not about the Internet. Having established a self-sustaining ideology, immune to any form of empirical refutation, US Republicans have indeed created an echo chamber. But this process works across all media (Fox News, the Washington Times, talk radio and so on) and beyond, to the replacement of scientific research by the products of think tanks. Moreover, it does not rely on the exclusion of alternative views so much as on the availability of a distorting filter in which any opposition can be ridiculed out of existence.
- Note again that, for Republicans the reverse analysis applies with “the rest of the human race” in place of Republicans.