Some preliminary thoughts on “ultra-networked” politics: the 1984 anti-Hillary ad in perspective

The identity of ParkRidge47, the heretofore anonymous author of the anti-Hillary advertisement which riffed on Apple’s “1984” commercial, was revealed today as Phil de Vellis, a former staffer for Sherrod Brown and ex-employee of political web design firm Blue State Digital. Naturally, this whole episode has the media endlessly repeating the truism that “candidates have lost control over their message,” and pondering the shape of the 2008 Presidential race as a consequence.

I have no well-reasoned wisdom to offer on this particular issue, only my immediate impressions. It seems to me that political candidates have been steadily losing strong control over their message for a long, long time. Never, in the history of our republic, have candidates had exclusive control over their message. Pamphleteering and broadsides were augmented with whistlestop train tours, which were largely replaced by radio, now talk radio and cable TV, which was supplemented by — and now is growing to peer status – the Internet. By the 2004 election the blogs made it clear that the Internet was going to serve as more than a pure advertising medium, or organizing tool. It was perfectly clear, except possibly to a few of the campaigns, that the chaotic nature of the Internet was going to express a multiplicity of voices: some “ruly”, some unruly, some claiming attribution, others hiding behind aliases and seeking to agitate anonymously. Much early thinking on this phenomenon was fairly utopian: the Dean campaign and the contributors to “Extreme Democracy” are cases in point. More discussion, more voices, is automatically a good thing in a democracy.

But is it?

I’d venture to say “yes” but understanding how and why is important. I’d venture that one way to think about the changes we’re going through right now is through the concept of trustworthiness. A primary goal of the type of “democratic” government that the Founders — and in particular, James Madison — set up was to allow popular election to reliably select leaders who truly represented the interests of their constituents. This isn’t as simple a problem as it might otherwise appear, as any student of the Founding or constitutional law (or the evening news) will appreciate. Madison’s famous essay, the Federalist #10, is one model for such selection: assuming that each individual representative might be highly partisan, but to balance all of these “factions” against one another in order to achieve a representation of the whole.

Furthermore, a critical premise of the “Federalist #10” model for achieving trustworthy government was that by selecting citizens who were “prominent,” voters could ensure that representatives and public servants would have wide experience of the world and be less swayed by merely “local” or factional concerns, and thus would likely have the public good more firmly in mind. Such a view of the correlation between notoriety and trustworthiness (in the public, civic sense) seems quaint today, a relic from a time when “factions” weren’t globalized financial interests, large industries, or national-scale interest groups. More to the point, it seems like a relic from a time when public prominence was not trivial to achieve, given the sparseness of communications and what would later come to be known as “media.” Those who achieved prominence on the national stage generally did have strong qualifications, or at the very least spent long periods in lesser posts working towards high office, and thus were under public scrutiny over long periods of time.

In an age, however, where notoriety and fame can be “manufactured” in short order given accident, momentary accomplishment, or simply the application of sufficient funds, we are quite right to distrust the old mechanisms of evaluating the trustworthiness of potential leaders. Our long-held standards for publicly debating and evaluating political candidates — which were continuous with and derived from Madison’s notion of prominence — no longer work. I would argue that this is because the “media” they rely upon no longer possess self-correcting mechanisms which ensure their role in helping us discern trustworthiness. Owners of media outlets cannot be counted upon to agonize about their public service obligations in a cable-TV world where they have no such obligations. When the criteria for selecting news anchors have more to do with advertising and eyeballs, rather than journalistic reputation, we will search in vain for a Walter Cronkite or an Edward R. Murrow to tell us the straight scoop (though Keith Olbermann is definitely channeling Murrow.) Regardless of your views on the current Administration and its performance, the past 5-odd years have served as an object lesson on the intensity with which virtually every issue and position can be spun, hyped, re-spun, framed, messaged, parsed, and nuanced by both sides of any debate, such that a reasonable percentage of the electorate no longer really trusts anybody in public office.

And thus perhaps we’re seeing, via the intensity and chaos of the “networked” media, a better algorithm for evaluating trustworthiness: the more versions of a story we hear, the better able we are to discern the “reality” behind it all. Candidates, and campaigns, will simply have to adapt. As will voters. I’m not sure we’re really ready as a country to swim in, and absorb, the deluge of official, non-official-but-associated, non-official-but-not-associated, and completely anonymous sources for “who” and “what” a candidate is all about, but we’ll certainly start to learn about the effects of all this multivocality by the time the primary season starts in 2008.

I’m not claiming that swimming in the flood will really be a better model for selecting good leaders than Madison’s “prominence,” but one thing is clear: the old methods of defeating “faction” and selecting civic-minded leaders (on both sides) aren’t working, and we need methods that take into account the realities of our world and our media. Constitutional argument and Supreme Court decisions won’t help us here, because the problem doesn’t lie in written laws or court cases, but in the way individual citizens conceive of our responsibilities — and opportunities — as voters.

The anti-Hillary “1984” ad isn’t necessarily a harbinger of either bad or good times to come politically, so much as it signals that we hold a rare opportunity in our hands. In this moment of flux and change, it is up to us to use the coming chaotic flood of information in ways that are faithful to Madison’s intent: to see behind the manicured image, the scripted question-and-answer, the carefully planned “impromptu” photo op, the coordinated message campaign, and come to our own conclusions about the trustworthiness of those who seek to lead us.


3 Comments so far. Comments are closed.
  1. Carl,

    Exactly. I think that’s precisely the key: independence of sources. If sources are linked together then the frequency-dependent effect will not really reflect ‘choice’ but ‘choices among the proscribed possibilities.’ In this sense, that’s the big program with media in general. As media has agglomerated (sensu Bagdikian), the less “frequency dependent” information sources have been. Of course, this is no accident – it is a function of organization. But it means that places where information is not controlled in a corporate sense have become increasingly important to the functioning of democracy, freedom of speech and fair political debate. So I guess in that vein we should celebrate the 1984 attack on Clinton – if it is truly an independent expression – if only because it demonstrates the kind of ad hoc critical thinking that should characterize political debate (by ad hoc, I mean this in an “arbitrary but not capricious” sense).

  2. Mark,

    I think it does tie in, actually. Part of what I had in back of my mind looking at two “algorithms” for evaluating candidate trustworthiness is that we’re looking at two different transmission rules for the information we need to make our individual decisions: prestige-based versus frequency-dependent.

    Madison’s original advocacy in the Federalist is essentially a form of prestige-biased evaluation, based on an empirical generalization, which seemed to hold in 1788, between “prestige” and a “phenotypic quality” of uncorruptibility — in other words, cooperation versus defection.

    If that empirical generalization has broken down due to structural changes in the “honesty” of the signaling regime, we’d expect “prestige” to allow a lot more defectors through the decision process than previously, and arguably this is what we’re seeing.

    And thus, if prestige biased adoption isn’t a good filtering algorithm anymore, we need to evaluate others, and by what both of us are saying, instead of relying on candidate- and campaign-driven signaling, we rely on frequency-dependent sources of information, as long as we can substantiate the independence of the information sources.

    Random thoughts…

  3. Carl,

    The variability that is generated can only be a good thing in the long run. We need more information about candidates generated from every angle: not the highly constrained and “produced” information that used to be the norm. The danger, I think, isn’t the information in and of itself, but the media response that tends to focus on very specific and often suspiciously-biased points of view. Thus, we get the “insane” hooting of Howard Dean made into the primary issue of 2004. I think in general that individuals sort through the wide range of data about candidates and acquire knowledge from the bits they connect with. The danger comes when the replication rate of some bits of information, usually linked to inferred traits (i.e., hooting=instablity, reasoned decisions=flipflop) that are manufactured and then replicated over and over. This is where the media has the advantage and uses these things to serve ulterior motives: increaseing the frequency of particular trait=behavior pairs among the sea of information to near ubiquity. It’s also where the internet provides some balance: is a peer in many respects to when it comes to eyeballs. Sure it may be biased due to the transmission rate about on the TV channel, but there are fewer constraints to choice here. Indeed, any blogger anywhere has (holding a bunch of things equal) an equal chance of connecting with anyone else.

    I am not sure how what I have said ties into Madison’s Federalist #10 essay. Just some thoughts…