Clicks and politics: the impact of the partisan blog

Email|Print| Text size + By Joseph Rosenbloom
February 10, 2008

Blogwars: The New Political Battleground
By David D. Perlmutter
Oxford University, 272 pp., $24.95

When Matt Drudge broke the Monica Lewinsky story, some political theorists heralded the coming of a new age: e-democracy. Exhibit A was the thunderclap that hit the political world in 1998 after Drudge's blog revealed that Newsweek had spiked a story about sex between a White House intern and a president.

If a lone blogger could reach the masses directly and mightily through the World Wide Web, the argument ran, unfettered Internet technology could transform American politics. No longer would the "media elites" control the flow of information. The Drudges of the world would steer the ship.

But the question remained: Would blogs really matter that much, and if so would they alter the American political system for the better or worse? David Perlmutter, a professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, has plunged into cyberspace as both a researcher and blogger to look for answers.

Despite the "potty-mouthed diatribes" and other excesses he encountered, Perlmutter welcomes the political-blogging phenomenon as a force that is reinvigorating American democracy. He says that the online publications are empowering ordinary citizens to "reach large numbers of people with personal messages" and to build voluntary associations for political purpose in the best American tradition. In sum, he says, bloggers have the potential to "stimulate political participation and in turn make us more responsible citizens."

Perlmutter does not say that every Tom, Dick, and Harry is joining the parade. He cites studies indicating that the typical blogger belongs to a fairly narrow demographic slice of high-income, well-educated, and (perhaps not surprisingly) tech-savvy people.

All the same, he says that blogging promotes democracy because the regular participants are disproportionately "opinion leaders," who "make a mighty impact." His point would be more convincing if he could demonstrate that the blogging of such people was a force for good, which he manifestly does not do.

Three years ago, Perlmutter bravely signed on as a guest commentator at what he describes as two "hot, partisan political blogs." (He does not identify them.) Too thin-skinned for the ferocity of the interactive to-and-fro, he lasted merely a week.

Bloggers he met while researching the book deport themselves like "warriors going to battle," he says. Perlmutter explains why: From behind the cover of blogs' anonymity emerge "flame wars, psychotic rants, partisan attacks and just plain folly."

Of course, many political bloggers do not cloak themselves in anonymity. Some have achieved a measure of celebrity. Some run for president. By Perlmutter's count, at least 30 of the 100 US senators, including Hillary Clinton and John McCain, have blogged at one time or another. Perlmutter does not attempt to assess how effective they were. He does note that assiduous blogging is so demanding that few politicians are likely to find time to do it, especially during a campaign.

For readers unfamiliar with the political-blogging terrain, his book serves as a worthy introduction. There is the bloggers' curious lexicon. Hence John Burgess, a retired US foreign service officer who blogs about Saudi Arabia, is a "wisebot" - defined as a Web-savvy expert on some subject who is both wise and smart.

Portions of the book are rambling and scattershot - not unlike a string of blog postings. (Is hanging out in the blogosphere contagious?) In one of the stronger sections he cogently reviews blogging's emergence as a political device.

He recounts, for example, how Howard Dean and his staff harnessed a network of Internet users and bloggers to further his presidential bid four years ago and help raise $50 million for the campaign. Perlmutter terms the Dean campaign's success as a precedent-setting "miracle," but argues that his aides could have handled their network of bloggers even more deftly. The campaign's notion that it was democratically propelled by its network - a "boat pushed by the current of a river of people," as the saying had it - was more myth than reality, according to Perlmutter. In fact, the campaign "could have done a lot more to make bloggers feel listened to and have used them more effectively."

Perlmuttter is not the first to examine "blogthroughs" - that is, political dramas in which bloggers have pulled some of the strings. But he is exceptionally adept at analyzing blogthroughs, such as George Allen's "macaca moment," in which the former Virginia senator wounded his re-election campaign by singling out a videotaping volunteer at a campaign rally with a racial slur. When a video clip showing Allen's gaffe was posted on YouTube, countless blogs picked it up in a viral-spreading effect that contributed importantly to Allen's defeat.

Blogthroughs may be more or less than meets the eye. In the case of Drudge's blockbuster about Lewinsky and President Clinton, Perlmutter says the blogger's impact turned out to be inconsequential. When Drudge posted his scoop, Newsweek was still hot on the heels of the story. Even without Drudge's blog, Perlmutter says, the scandal "ultimately would have seen the light of day."

Joseph Rosenbloom is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect.

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