Australian Democrats deputy leader (and serious blogger) Andrew Bartlett has a post about the role and importance of blogs (or rather their lack of importance) from the viewpoint of working politicians:
Occasionally I read something usually on a blog – about the power of the blogosphere and its revolutionary implications for politics. Unfortunately, my own experience when I say “I have a blog“ to somebody even politically engaged people is that 95% of them will reply “what’s a blog?”
I’m all in favour of mechanisms which better connect people with political processes and better empowers the ‘average’ person. However, I’m also in favour of avoiding self-delusion, so it’s not useful to overstate the impact that blogs currently have, particularly in Australia. The big question for me is what the future prospects might be. …
Sadly (?) I think Senator B is dead right. It’s a conclusion I also reached in an article I wrote for Evatt Foundation a couple of years ago:
Blogging attracts political aficionados. It’s highly unlikely that the ranks of citizens inclined towards its solitary, introverted joys will ever be more than a relatively small minority of the population, certainly not numerous enough to effect a wholesale emergence of an informed, committed and involved civic society. Most people simply have different tastes and better things to do with their time. Moreover, Zaller even mounts a cogent argument that the informed citizen ideal may be undesirable in any event:
Highly informed citizens have many good democratic virtues, but they also tend to be rigid, moralistic, and partisan. It is not obvious that democracy would work better if more voters were like the most informed voters in the current system. Poorly informed voters are not so disengaged from national politics as many believe. Indeed, at least as regards presidential elections, poorly informed voters are more systematically responsive to the content of political campaigns than their better-informed counterparts. More than others, they reward incumbents who preside over strong national economies and punish those who do not. Poorly informed voters also more responsive to the ideological locations of the candidates … It is not obvious that democracy would work better if fewer voters were animated by the concerns of the least informed citizens.
Apathy may be the ultimate civic virtue. But who cares? Seriously, Schudson posits the concept of the “monitorial citizen” as a more realistic alternative to fostering a universally informed citizenry. The monitorial citizen fulfils a vital watching brief to keep politicians and the media honest. Perhaps political bloggers are best seen as self-selected monitorial citizens, keeping the bastards honest on behalf of the silent, politically disinterested majority. Zaller argues that political intellectuals are effectively guilty of misguided elitism in belittling populist opinion leaders like Tim Blair. By making politics accessible and interesting to a wide audience, populist demagogues of both right and left are the ultimate evaluative monitorial citizens, signalling important political developments to their respective tribes of disengaged supporters in an entertaining way:
Politics might work as well or better if political intellectuals gave up the idea that citizens have an obligation to keep abreast of every important aspect of public life. This ideal is not only impossible but damaging in certain ways. Intellectuals should instead turn their capacious minds to finding ways in which the informational obligations of citizenship can be fulfilled with less effort and more pleasure. Recent trends toward ‘infotainment’ news broadcasting and ‘fire alarm’ political institutions are promising possibilities.
I went on to suggest that bloggers (at least the more populist ones with large-ish audiences) might best be seen as ‘monitorial citizens’. However, even the most popular Australian political blogs have audiences whose size makes them a relatively unimportant vehicle for elected politicians to communicate directly with large groups of voters, so I think it’s unlikely that we’ll see many pollies following Andrew Bartlett’s lead in the near future. Politicians have limited time at their disposal, and there are more efficient modes of mass communication than blogging.
That said, I think there is potential value for politicians in using blogs as consultative and policy development platforms, allowing them to reach beyond the party faithful in an efficient, informal way and network with a wide range of highly educated, politically aware citizens. I know it sounds (and is) elitist, but policy development is elitist by its very nature, because very few citizens have the level of knowledge or interest to participate in a meaningful way. However, as with any such self-selected mode of interaction with voters, politicians need to be acutely aware that bloggers and their audience are a long way from representing a typical microcosm of the overall voter population. That said, it may well be that the audience on left-leaning and centrist blogs isn’t all that far from the typical Australian Democrat voter profile, which may be one reason why Senator Bartlett bothers to put in the time to produce a high quality blog where other politicians don’t.
Finally, I can think of various ways whereby blog content could be articulated to reach a much wider mass audience, thereby making the blogosphere much more worthy of attention from mainstream politicians. I was talking with various other bloggers about this before Christmas, but haven’t subsequently had time to pursue the ideas we discussed. I’ll be in touch soon.