Computerized politics: Salvation or Satan?

The very notion that I would set out to write a commentary on the explosion of technology in politics would be the subject of much mirth amongst the staffers of the Stennis Institute. As further proof that timing is everything, particularly to an incurable political junkie, the close proximity of the Christmas break in academia and the earlier-than-ever Iowa presidential caucuses, afforded a sufficient wake-up call to the almost totally revamped approach to big-time campaign strategizing. Like a modern day Rip Van Winkle I awakened over this winter sojourn to the world of watching 24-hour television news while chasing down political “blog” sites with my laptop computer and tweeting with my iPhone. What will be the upshot of this computer-driven, high-tech explosion in the world of campaign politics?

First, it is clear that confining one’s approach to campaign publicity to traditional newspapers, television, and radio will no longer suffice. These are all the tools of the old 24-hour news cycle that enabled an event to happen one day, be reported that night and delivered in the form of a timely response prior to the next news cast. Many of the more “long in the tooth” among us remember the days when Walter Cronkite or Chet Huntley and David Brinkley held forth with the news of the day for a full 30 minutes around dinnertime each evening for five days a week. In those days it was known as “earned media,” in which the candidate could say or do something newsworthy enough to be included in newspaper, television, or radio news without having to pay for it. The difference now is that this entire process has been shrunk from that 24-hour news cycle to a matter of seconds repeated millions of times a day.

While the use of communications technology is evolving even as this column is being read, its onset is relatively new. Former Democratic Presidential candidate Howard Dean was arguably the first candidate to make significant use of the Internet largely for fundraising purposes during the 2004 Democratic Party primaries. The initially lightly regarded former Vermont governor astounded many political observers by raising tens of millions of dollars via an Internet website that enabled online credit card payments. With that the Internet political arms race was on. In 2008, every serious candidate was availing themselves of the Internet and the growing “social media.” No one, however, came close to the comprehensive use of these tools that was made by the upstart Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama. All forms of media combined, the Obama campaign connected millions of supporters into a cohesive base.

Rest assured that what happened in 2008 is now considered quite out of date. In fact, during coverage of the Iowa caucuses recently a 2012 Obama campaign staffer was interviewed. He was questioned about the reaction of the President’s re-election campaign committee to the news that the Republican National Committee had compiled a notebook full of hundreds of Obama quotes to be used against the President in the general election campaign. The staffer was hardly perturbed as he briefly discussed new innovations in real-time computer analysis and response that would, in his words, “make 2008 seem prehistoric.”

The variety of 24-hour television news stations, partisan blog sites, email, Twitter, Facebook, online news sites, highly partisan messages from well financed “super pacs” – what are we to make of this new way of politicking? A few observations pertaining to the good and the bad are in order.

First, it can be maintained in a positive vein that this explosion of available information is a vigorous exercise of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, and hence it represents a healthy expansion of representative democracy. Secondly, in a perhaps less positive sense, the literal smorgasbord of sites and venues containing political news, many of them decidedly slanted to the left or right, has enabled us to select only those sites that are in sync with our already well-defined beliefs. As such they provide the data and “talking points” to simply confirm and harden our most deeply felt convictions. Thirdly, of a clearly more negative nature, there is very little in the way of limits placed on what can be said about a “public figure.”

Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at marty@sig.msstate.edu.

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