Monday, October 24, 2005

Blogger Influence

As the Miers nomination continues to get negative reviews, this is the topic on the minds of both policymakers and (of course) bloggers themselves. How much influence do we have on the actual going-ons of the world?

Daniel Glover started the discussion by comparing bloggers to freshman representatives--they have "occasional seats at the policymaking table -- but they are definitely back seats." He warrants this by noting that, even in the wake of a furious reaction by the blogosphere right, President Bush has stood loyally by Harriet Miers.

First of all, I wonder what Glover would say if Bush ends up withdrawing Miers after all, or alternatively, if she loses a Senate vote. But Daniel Solove thinks that even the status quo showcases plenty of blogger influence on the Miers nomination:
The fact that Bush still stands behind Miers is not an indication of the blogosphere's failure. The blogospheric reaction certainly has the Administration reeling. The blogosphere has registered the dislike for the nomination in a much more potent and articulate way than a mere poll.

I also believe that bloggers have helped shape the debate on the issue. The blogosphere has led to many experts, who might just get a soundbite in the print and TV news, having a much larger influence in shaping the debate. The mainstream media has picked up on this and turned it into a lead story for the Miers nomination. The eyes of the media and those inside the Beltway are looking at the blogosphere to gauge the way the debate is progressing.

I think this is very true. Framing an issue is critically important in politics, and blogs have had a lot of success in this respect. Even if Bush ends up winning on Miers, he'll have to expend a lot more effort and capital than he would otherwise, and that's a very tangible impact in modern politics. I'd argue that its the relative newness of the genre which is responsible for our lack of influence--we still aren't quite sure which buttons to press to harness our power. The fact that bloggers have played acknowledged keystone roles in certain controversies (e.g., Trent Lott/Strom Thurmond, Rathergate) means that the potential is there--and any politician caught in the wake of a bona fide blogger storm can probably vouch for our strength.

Pundit Review isn't quite as "up" on the blogosphere as Solove (or myself) is, but still thinks they play some role. He focuses on grassroots organizing and fundraising as the blogosphere's main strengths today--but sees room for improvement:
I do think blogs have had a substantial impact on other areas such as grass roots activism, fundraising and on the media. We discussed this very issue with Danny on his recent visit on Pundit Review Radio.

Dealing with politicians who are hostage to spe$ial intere$t$ is another question. It will take time. How many reformer politicians have gone into DC and then just been enveloped by the inside beltway infrastructure? Hundreds? Thousands?

The way for blogs to break through on Capitol Hill is to pick off a congressional candidate or two, then they will be able to move up a few rows in the bus. I think the Thune Senate candidacy in 2004 was the first where bloggers had a significant impact. We need to see more of that, whether it is coming from the left or the right. A couple of high profile defeats, brought about in large part by activist bloggers, will go a long way in getting the attention of the entrenched elites on Capitol Hill.

We are in the first inning of this blog/citizen journalist/new media phenomenon, so as Danny mentioned, there is room for improvement and hope for the future.

Surely, the organizational capacity of the blogosphere should not be underestimated (look at DKos if you needed proof). However, I think that the interactivity between politicians and activists that blogging engenders is a rising phenomena that needs to be examined. John Conyers is currently guest-blogging on BlackProf, and is writing some superb posts. Barack Obama's post on DKos regarding the Roberts nomination caused quite a stir in the blogosphere. Of course, some politicos start blogs to look trendy and then do nothing with them (Harry Reid, I'm looking at you). But even Reid's blog has comments open, and by more closely integrating politicians into the discursive stream, blogging has the potential to crack the bubble that separates politicos and their constituents. The golden opportunity, from my perspective, would be if politicians were expected to engage the blogosphere--this would be a major threat to the status quo where politicians can play the spin game and avoid any substantive debate.

And finally, I want to point to some comments by Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez (from a post by Todd Zywicki) that I think are quite relevant:
The confirmation process has been fundamentally changed by technological changes that allow the instantaneous and costless spread of information. In this age of the 24-hour news cycle of blogs, talk radio, and cable news, there is a seemingly constant vacuum to be filled with new information on the nominee. Much of this revolution is for the good, as it allows the public to develop a more informed view. But there are harmful effects as well. Unsubstantiated rumors, false allegations, and distorted facts can be spread with impunity by those who don't take the time to check the facts-as well as by those who affirmatively seek to mislead. And once such baseless claims and innuendo are made, the Internet ensures that they take on a life of their own and can never be fully rooted out.

In light of these changes, those who traffic in information owe all Americans a duty to act in good faith, to avoid circulating falsehoods, and to verify information before broadcasting it. The careers and reputations of good people depend on that....It is important that amidst all of the static surrounding a nominee, the Senate focus on the characteristics that are essential to good judging, seek out reliable information, and maintain the dignity of a process that is essential to our democracy.

Obviously, a Bush administration official talking about "distorted facts" and "unsubstantiated rumors" sets off my irony alert. But the point is still well-taken--we have an obligation to be impeccably honest, forthcoming, fair, and of course to admit mistakes when wrong. In the early days of the blog I posted a "code of ethics," and I think it is all the more relevant now:
1) I will not be a partisan hack, nor will I engage in hatchet jobs on my political opponents that are grounded weakly or not at all in facts.
2) I will focus predominantly on issues, not personal lives or other tangents. While instances such as Rathergate deserve some attention, they don't deserve ALL of our attention and certainly don't outweigh the pressing issues that face our country.
3) I will do my best to present issues with as much factual grounding as possible.
4) If evidence turns up that proves I'm wrong, or casts my point in substantial doubt, I will either address the criticism or admit error.
5) If a political opponent says something that I think is smart, wise, well-advised, or I otherwise agree with, I will point it out.
6) I will at all times conduct myself in a manner that seeks to further, not hinder, intellectual debate on the issues.
7) Recognizing that full compliance with the above is often a case of judgment, I will make a good faith effort to comply with this code.

I honestly think that the influence of bloggers will only continue to grow. It is now, in the early days of this institution, that the norms which will govern how blogging behave for decades to come will be established. Do we want to merely replicated the smearing and hackery of mainstream politics? Or, just as bad, mimic the bland "he said/she said" "journalism" of the Mainstream Media? Or do we want to be something different: an honest, serious, and intellectual discussion and advocacy of the issues that matter? Now's the time when we have to decide.


Anonymous said...

You offered lots of good insights in your post, David, and I'm glad you have joined the conversation.

You wondered aloud what I would think of bloggers' influence if Bush withdraws Miers' nomination, so I thought I would answer. If Bush withdraws the nomination, the outcry from bloggers might well be a minor consideration in that decision. But the major factors would be political calculations that have everything to do with the realities of mainstream Washington -- i.e., a belief that the Senate would defeat Miers' nomination or that the cost to Bush's political capital in Washington would be too great to stand by her all the way to the end -- and nothing to do with what bloggers think.

As I mentioned in my column, and as Mark Tapscott of the Heritage Foundation seconded, mainstream opinion makers like David Frum (former Bush speechwriter) and George Will are the driving force behind the opposition to Harriet Miers. In the Trent Lott blog swarm, by contrast, the MSM and politicos in Washington were behind the curve and bloggers forced everyone else to take a stand they were not willing to take on their own.

I'd also like to add that my column does not say bloggers have no influence in Washington. (As I said in a comment at Concurring Opinions, why would I write a blog dedicated to the proposition that blogs are having an impact on policy circles within Washington if I thought that?) I didn't even argue that they have had no impact on the Miers nomination. I just said they are "batting zero" in the sense that they have not gotten their way -- and on Miers that means that she would not have been chosen in the first place and second, that her name would have been withdrawn by now.

Bloggers' influence is quite limited in Washington right now, but I do believe, as you apparently agree, that it will grow over time. I'm eager to cover that transformation every step of the way.

I'd love it if you'd stop by Beltway Blogroll, look around and continue this discussion in my comment section.

The probligo said...

Could I suggest that there is still nothing that can compare with writing your Representative(s) personally.

I mean snail mail, hand written (if you can make it legible), or at least typed and signed.

The feeling (expressed to me by candidates on my doorstep...) is that e-mail etc is too easily ignored.

A personal letter on paper with at least a handwritten signature is taken as an indication of personal commitment. It also presses for the courtesy of a personal reply at least.

Most importantly, they get read - so that the reply can be appropriate.