It was the Internet wot wun it : lessons from the US election

How much difference did the Internet really make to the US election?  And how much of what they did would be illegal in the UK? – for example the massive, but also untraceable, donations to campaign funds raised over the Internet.

I have asked Ed Phelps, lead rapporteur for EURIM’s work in this area this, to attend e-democracy 08 and report back on the discussions on the lessons from the USA. In the mean time I have asked him to do a “guest blog” on why progress in engaging “real people” (as opposed to obsessive Internetties and a new generation of professional poliitical manipulators) has been so slow – and the implications of that lack of progress. This is what Ed said


The huge literature on democratic disengagement in the past decade bemoans the state of democracy where fewer and fewer identify with political parties, fewer vote and increasing numbers have negative views of politicians and the political process. A clear and reasonable vein of assumption runs through the literature; that mass engagement is not only desirable, but that citizens would participate in greater numbers if things were better. If politicians and policies more responsive to citizens needs and people felt they could make a difference – they would all suddenly participate in their droves.

But the reason that engaging “real people” has been so slow is essentially the same as the reason for the widespread decline in party membership and voter turnout in recent years. This is established knowledge. Hibbings and Theiss-Morse (in their book Stealth Democracy):  assert that American citizens prefer to be politically disengaged. The last thing people want is to be more involved in political decision making or to provide input to those assigned to make the decisions on their behalf, or to know details of the decision making process. In fact people’s most intense desire for the political system is that decision makers be empathetic and, especially, non-self-interested, not that they be responsive and accountable to people’s largely nonexistent policy preferences. Of course the book goes much further. This research as well as wider empuzzlement with citizen attitudes informed Sussex University’s Centre for Parties and Democracy in Europe application for an Economic and Social Research Council  research project grant, to investigate citizen attitudes in depth.

Whilst Hibbings and Theiss-Morse don’t go as far as to argue that these preferences are linked directly to the huge socio-economic transformation of America during the last half of the twentieth century which has re-shaped citizenship norms, there are good reasons to think this. The expansion of mass education, improvement in living conditions, increases in leisure time and restructuring of employment have added to the political relevant skills and resources of the average American and Britain. But, why when one of the most consistent findings of research that the better educated and higher socio economic classes are more likely to vote more often, be active in their community, and to be knowledgeable about politics – have people actually become less inclined to take part in conventional political activity – particularly voting?

One of the best explanations, which resonates in Britain is the post-materialist one. With relative affluence comes relative apathy. And, the major ideological battle of the twentieth century won, people are less motivated to one common cause.

This explains what so many people critical of political parties can’t seem to understand – “political parties are just too similar, there is no choice between them – why bother voting.” Well, yes they are relatively similar. But this is a completely rational response to the electorate becoming more similar. Parties reflect electorates.

But as we saw this week, people may not want to be involved everyday, but they will participate when they feel they can make a difference and when they feel an incumbent must go. Barack Obama certainly used the internet to his advantage with reports suggesting that his website, attracted more than 1.5 million members who organised themselves into 35,000 separate activists’ groups. The Director of The Institute for Politics, Democracy and The Internet at George University in Washington went as far as to say that whilst: “no-one’s going to say Obama won the election because of the internet – he wouldn’t have been able to win without it.” This is the power of E Participation. 

But it is not all positive. Hazel Blears has reportedly told a Hansard Society conference that blogs are mostly written by “people with disdain for the political system and politicians”.

Herein lies a huge problem, whilst the internet will probably, in time, lead to a renaissance in democratic participation. What kind of participation and who participates are big questions. E Participation might not be catching on fast and it is certainly not a panacea for a decline in voting. But, it is the domain of the young and would seem, on the face of it, to have massive potential to reach those traditionally left behind, hardest to reach communities, to whom politicians and political processes are most distant and whose fundamental economic needs have not been met by the tide of affluence mentioned above.

We urgently need to harness the internet’s power for the good of all social groups – not just because it is desirable for a democracy to be socially inclusive, but because of the very real danger that if we do not, it will remain the political tool of elites and become the political tool of extremists. In this respect we lie at a juncture – if we do it right, we can combat social exclusion, if we do it wrong we will embed, exacerbate and make social exclusion much more dangerous.

Perhaps the single most important move government can make to ensure that E Democracy is nurtured is to ensure that it is taught in schools. Young people grasp technology quickly – and even the vast majority of ‘hard to reach’ social groups go to school, as least for a time. Teaching them how to be involved will enable them better, whatever their social trajectory may be, to engage with the E environment in a way that suits them, for their own benefit later in life. Critical to involving young people is a body of research showing that whilst many are involved in some kind of political activity, this is typically single issue and sporadic in nature. We must somehow help foster a greater understanding of the interconnectedness of issues. This is a place where new forms of participation may flounder. Political parties have been very effective at bundling issues and policies for citizens, it remains to be seen how this can happen as their membership declines.

I have been tasked to organise a work stream under the auspices of the EURIM Public Service Delivery Group  to look at how to involve the hardest to reach groups not only in participation, to help set objectives, but also in monitoring and reporting the practical delivery of the policies that result. The first stage will be to organise a response to The DCLG Community Empowerment White Paper

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