from the power-to-the-people dept
Virginia Postrel points out a great story on the way YouTube is changing the dynamics of political debate. It points out that when Bill Clinton was first running for president in 1992, the media landscape had relatively few mechanisms for holding politicians accountable for misstatements. There was only room for so many stories on the nightly news, and so when politicians told white lies, reporters tended to move on before anybody could check the claims for accuracy. But now that anyone can create a blog post or a YouTube video, politicians' fibs and gaffes can take on a life of their own, whether it's Hillary Clinton's sniper fire, Barack Obama's "bitter" Pennsylvanians, or John McCain's "100 years in Iraq." The nightly news doesn't always cover these kinds of comments when they happen, but someone in the blogosphere almost always catches them and they then get endlessly reported, debunked, and hashed out online. And once a clip has generated a lot of heat among bloggers, it can often become a big enough story that mainstream media outlets pick it up again. While some of these attacks can be nit-picky or taken out of context, on the whole it's a definite improvement in the quality of democratic debate. With video cameras everywhere and bloggers ready to pounce on any misstatement, politicians have a stronger incentive to tell the truth, and not to talk out of both sides of their mouth.
Meanwhile, USA Today reports that the presidential candidates are raising eye-popping sums of money in small increments via the Internet. In the first quarter of 2008, Barack Obama led the pack with $129 million in small donations, followed by Hillary Clinton at $65 million and John McCain at $37 million. Even John McCain's fundraising would have been considered a major accomplishment four years ago -- Howard Dean made headlines with $15 million in online donations in the third quarter of 2003, much of it from small donors. If the trend lasts -- and there are good reasons to think it will -- it will also have a democratizing effect on the political process. Presidential candidates will be more inclined to pay attention to the priorities of grassroots activists, and comparatively less worried about pleasing insiders capable of raising money in $2300 increments.
And of course, these developments are connected. The rise of blogs, YouTube, and other participatory media has gotten more people engaged and invested in the political debate, which in turn makes them more likely to open their wallets. Conversely, the fact that blog readers are often campaign contributors gives bloggers real leverage over candidates -- bloggers can punish candidates perceived as not playing fair by directing contributions to their opponents. All of which is producing a more engaged and accountable political process. Of course, things are far from perfect, but there are good reasons to think that 21st century politics will be better than politics was in the 20th century.