The New York Times has carried two pieces in the last days on the Internet politics, each making a case for its contribution to degraded democracy. Michael Birnbaum writes about the influence of rightist websites in Europe as both the Netherlands and France head into national elections. Tom Edsall adds a thoughtful, more academic note, interviewing scholars and citing to various studies that generally reinforce a dark message about “democracy, disrupted.”   The Edsall analysis also takes on the question of whether this disruption plays favorites, helping more the left or the right, and he concludes as follows:

There is good reason to think that the disruptive forces at work in the United States — as they expand the universe of the politically engaged and open the debate to millions who previously paid little or no attention — may do more to damage the left than strengthen it. In other words, just as the use of negative campaign ads and campaign finance loopholes to channel suspect contributions eventually became routine, so too will be the use of social media to confuse and mislead the electorate.

This is a significant coupling of concerns about the uses of social media with two of the prominent planks in the campaign finance reform program. Edsall may mean that each disserves democracy in its own way, or that there is an interaction among these developments that is generally helpful to conservative, and inimical to progressive, politics.

What is also unclear is why these means are closely associated with a specified political end. For example, what is it about a “negative campaign ad” that is markedly more useful to the right-wing sponsor? There are times when the anger can be turned in the opposite direction, as Republican Members of Congress recently found in their town hall meetings; and this anger is finding expression through social media, on TV, and surely in the election to come, in negative campaign advertising. Those same angry progressive voices will be amplified only if the required funding is available. “Loopholes”–as some understand Super PACs or (c)(4) issue advocacy to be–will flourish on the left and right alike.

An analysis linking different modes of political expression or participation to particular political outcomes can be a trap for progressives. It encourages the development of unrealistic, unsustainable reform objectives, like the one pursued through McCain Feingold to curb “negative speech.”   There is also a bite-back effect, as there was in the Bush years, when progressives in revolt against the Iraq War, were in the mood to be “negative” and to explore what critics took to be funding “loopholes,” only to come under attack for violating their own reform rules. The Trump Era has let loose a similarly, growingly energetic progressive opposition, which is determined to put to work all the tools available, at whatever expense, in social and other media.

Edsall presents a range of views, as he always and commendably does, and he concludes with a comment from a scholar, Sam Greene of King’s College, Oxford, who wisely cautions that the roots of the current political conflicts “lie in our politics — not in the internet.” The political program and message, not the modes of communicating them, will decide the competition between left and right that Tom Edsall is concerned with.

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