Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Marginal Returns of Political Blogging

As readers know, I've been recently studying political demonization in the blogosphere.

In fact, I've developed something of
a theory of secular demonology (by no means original), that hypothesizes a particular psychology of hatred that drives the leftosphere, which I've applied, for example, to "The Commentocracy of Hate." To be clear, I do not claim that conservatives are angels (there's a lot of right-wing extremism online, frequently defended by reference to strained notions of free political speech). Recent empirical history, however, demonstrates a powerful propensity among those on the left to mercilessly attack conservative partisans in government and online, going so far as mounting a political psychology of revenge.

I'm returning to this topic again after reading
Jason Steck's outstanding essay on group think in the blogosphere.

Steck argues that blogging as a political medium has reached the point of diminishing marginal returns. Online partisans on both the left and right have no inclination toward objective critical analysis, and their respective commentocracies reward those blogs best able to demonize the other. Consequently, insightful, intellectual nuance and persusion get completely marginalized in the flaming haze of political battle:

Take a step back and review any political blog you like and you will immediately be struck by the sameness of the posts. They take the story of the day — invariably some substance-free “gaffe”, photo op, or partisan charge of corruption — and attach a laundry list of catastrophic impacts foretelling the end of the world if that candidate would be elected. Any reference to actual policy issues will be brief, insubstantial, and driven entirely by stereotypes. Comments threads will be infested by cut-and-paste repetitions of well-worn slogans and talking points, bereft of any engagement with the issues of the real world or any recognition that disagreement could indicate anything other than demonic possession. The scripts rule the day without any tolerance for deviation or criticism of any kind:

Mandatory Script #1: Obama is a “socialist” who is simultaneously too intellectually lightweight to be President yet a Machiavellian genius enough to be bamboozling everyone

Mandatory Script #2a: McCain is “McSame” seeking a third BushHilter term so that he can sell Social Security to Halliburton and bomb every country where brown people live in order to establish an American Empire that will revoke the Bill of Rights in order to establish a theocracy.
I'm getting a kick out of both of these "scripts," although if parsimony adds power, the brevity of Obama's script might provide a little value-added as the campaign moves forward.

Seriously though, Steck's onto something, although I don't think his resigned conclusion is completely warranted:

I care deeply about this election, but I find that writing about it publicly is pointless. Welcome to the brave new world of politics, where morons rule by rote.
I've been blogging for about a two-and-a-half years. Recently, when logging-on in the mornings, and especially when I check Memeorandum, I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. The most important stories on politics and public policy are often pushed to the side. Controversies serving as fodder for scandal rise to the top. The major bloggers weigh in with venomous attacks and snarky dismissals. One or two of these get picked up by the MSM, and then become "news" themselves. The White House or the major campaigns make a statement, and then it all starts over again in the morning.

I think there's more to it than that, however. I was introduced to the blogosphere by reading academic, high-brow blogs. I liked reading, for example,
Daniel Drezner and Virginia Postrel. Folks like this are successful in their professions, and they've generated much of their readership trough their working reputations. Ann Althouse is a fabulous blogger as well (she also teaches law), and she's become something of a media sensation with her serious but stylistic online presence.

There are more examples like this, but what's happened with the partisan blogs is that they've become of the footsoldiers of the revolution, especially on the left. There's simply not going to be compromise when partisan bloggers and their communities see themselves in battle. It can get disgusting, as Steck notes in the comments:

Whenever ... a blog emerges that actually does attempt to provide balanced and/or mixed perspectives, they get shunned. To say that such blogs get "blacklisted" is not an exaggeration. They disappear from Memeorandum, are systematically denied links by the partisan blogs as punishment for their heresies, and are sometimes even subjected to campaigns designed to encourage other blogs to blacklist them. (For example, one blog owner I know of often disseminates orders to his co-bloggers instructing them not to link to other bloggers he doesn’t like or agree with and extends requests to the same effect to his other friends in the blogosphere, yet he claims publicly to welcome equally views from "left, right, and center".) There are more than a few commenters who do the exact same thing — trying to harass and defame any blog or writer who commits an act of heresy against their particular Mandatory Script....

For example,
Newshoggers is an example of a blog that often [finds] stories that no one else is talking about at all. But they cancel out much of the value of that positive contribution by their relentless and abusive approach to blogs that they disagree with, usually ignoring contrary perspectives entirely but, when they do acknowledge them, often personally attacking the authors of those dissenting blogs or just lying about what those dissenters said in order to force-fit them into the pre-existing, demonized scripts. Glenn Greenwald is another exemplar of this tendency who has been rewarded massively for his hateful efforts as is FireDogLake. And those examples are in addition to the blog that I know for certain does outright blacklisting behind the scenes while publicly claiming to represent “left, right, and center”.
I'm betting that this "certain" blog is "The Moderate Voice" (aka "The Partisan Voice"), and I'd also note, interestingly, that the three blogs Steck mentions above are among the most prominent demonologists in the leftosphere.

Still, I too think folks should step back a bit, but my suggestion is for people to ask themselves what they hope to achieve by blogging? In my case, I visited many blogs years ago, and my comments at various sites became essay-length, so I thought I'd better get in the game.

It takes a while to find a niche. I started with a lot of cerebral posts, often unrelated to the headlines of the day, with very little partisan bite. I talked to
more experienced bloggers who said they liked what they say, but recommended taking the gloves off. I have done that, while trying not to lose my academic side, with my style of lengthy, substantive posts of ranging ideas.

In any case, the blogging medium should be here to stay, or, at least until another platform comes along to replace the immediacy and potential impact of citizens' journalism. Most bloggers will not have a huge readership, but I'm confident that insight and intelligence are rewarded, and I'm frankly blown away sometimes at how awesome the blogosphere works as an alternative and competitor to traditional media.

All is not lost, for the moment at least. The returns of excellence in political blogging may have diminished some, but the ultimate output still carries substantial utility for politics.