Bloggingheads have posted a dialogue I did some days ago with Cass Sunstein (I’ve embedded it below; if it doesn’t work for you, go here instead). As John Q. noted a few weeks ago, Cass is pretty skeptical about the virtues of Internet communication; he believes that it is quite likely to lead to political polarization and perhaps extremism, and not to the kinds of thoughtful, deliberative exchanges between left and right that he’d like to see. I suspect that he’s largely right on the empirics – but as I argue in the bloggingheads, there’s a strong case to be made that deliberation isn’t the only aspect of politics we should treasure. We should also be interested in increasing political participation. Unfortunately, there’s evidence that the two may be partly antithetical to each other – exactly the kinds of cross cutting exchanges between people of different political viewpoints that Cass wants to promote may decrease people’s willingness to participate in politics.
Here, I’m riffing off the work of Diana Mutz (her most relevant article is available as a PDF here ; a somewhat more user-friendly version of her claims can be found in her book, Hearing the Other Side, available from Powells, or Amazon). Mutz looks at individuals’ personal networks, and the extent to which they have political discussions who share their political perspective, and people who have different ones. Much of her evidence supports Sunstein’s claims – that is, she finds that there is a strong relationship between people’s direct exposure to other viewpoints, and their willingness to acknowledge that other ways of looking at things may have a genuine rationale. She also finds (as Sunstein claims) that one of the most important way in which people get exposed to differing points of view is via mass media – people’s intimate personal networks involve far less exposure to alternative points of view than you might expect.
Where she differs from Sunstein is that she points out that this cross-exposure may make people less likely to participate in politics. Her evidence suggests a quite substantial negative correlation between exposure to cross-cutting views and willingness to participate – furthermore, there’s some reason to believe that the arrow of causation points from the networks to participation rather than vice versa. This suggests, as she argues, a real trade-off – more participation is likely to go together with less deliberation among people of different points of view, and vice versa.
It’s still an open question as to whether these effects apply to online networks as well as offline ones (my initial strong suspicion is that they do; I hope, together with my GWU colleagues Eric Lawrence and John Sides to have some empirical work to present on this Real Soon). If so, this would offer a different argument against Sunstein’s claims – which is that a more deliberative blogosphere is likely to have less impact on political participation than a less deliberative one.
You could take this, if you want, as a “best lack all conviction while the worst, Are full of passionate intensity” kind of result, but I think from a pragmatic point of view, that’s precisely the wrong way to go about it. You take the citizens that you’re given, not the citizens that exist in some idealized democratic heaven. There are going to be circumstances under which you might want to encourage more deliberation, and circumstances under which you might prefer a greater degree of political participation. My purely personal take on it is that given the political circumstances of the last several years, it’s no harm at all that the left blogosphere has had significant consequences for the forging of a more self-consciously left-of center political movement. Even if this has clearly had some costs for deliberation, I think that it’s been worth it. I’ve linked before to this piece from dKospedia which suggests that some netroots types at least are aware of the trade-offs.
the line between disagreement and trolling often isn’t an easy one to define. … This site is primarily a Democratic site, with a heavy emphasis on progressive politics. It is not intended for Republicans, or conservatives. … This is not a site to debate conservative talking points. There are other sites for that. This is not a site for conservatives and progressives to meet and discuss their differences. There are other sites for that, too. … Conservative debaters are not welcome simply because the efforts here are to define and build a progressive infrastructure, and conservatives can’t help with that. There is, yes, the danger of the echo chamber, but a bigger danger is becoming simply a corner bar where everything is debated, nothing is decided, and the argument is considered the goal. The argument, however, is not the goal, here. This is an explicitly partisan site: the goal is an actual infrastructure, and actual results.
If Mutz’s findings extend to the Internet too, then this is a quite plausible account of the trade-offs that movement builders face. NB that this doesn’t at all undermine the findings of pro-deliberation people like Sunstein – but it does suggest that people who value other goals, such as increased participation, may reasonably choose structures of debate that don’t maximize deliberative opportunities with the other side, but instead place a premium on movement building activities.
(Cross-posted to The Monkey Cage )