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26.6.04

Godwin's Blog

Part of the reason I haven't been posting much lately has been a bout of deep cynicism about politics and the people who comment on it. One thing that's come out of this is a theory about the significance of the political blogosphere.

We like to think we're engaged in rational discourse, making arguments that the other side will listen to and learn from. But that rarely happens, particularly among the more overtly political participants. The popularity of comparisons to the Nazis is a good example. It's not that Nazi comparisons are totally beyond the bounds of reasonable discourse, it's that Nazi comparisons are percieved to be totally beyond the bounds of reasonable discourse. Making Nazi comparisons is pragmatically stupid if you expect to engage in communicative action. The surest way to make sure your opponents dismiss what you have to say is to say "Bush is like Hitler!" or "Michael Moore is like Goebbels!" -- even if those comparisons are actually useful or enlightening.

So are we all just idiots who can't see how we're failing to make any progress? There's certainly a good deal of naievete out there. But I think we're making a different kind of progress. The point of most political blogging is expressive. We post to get things off our chest, and to validate our feelings by setting them down in a coherent manner. If we can attract a partisan crowd of readers who cheer us on (or who prove that the other side is a bunch of idiots by lashing out at us), so much the better. Nazi comparisons are great for this. They're polarizing, reducing uncertainty as to where people stand. And they're extreme, so they give the satisfaction of really letting rip, refusing to hold back out of politeness (even when they're obvious exaggerations).

Expressive action is often a response to a feeling of powerlessness. Your typical blogger -- a middle-class white American -- is not exactly among the most marginalized people in this world. But the sheer size of the political apparatus means any individual can easily feel overwhelmed and frustrated, reading about things that he or she hates but can't change.

Note that people with actual political power rarely blog, and never do it well. Even Howard Dean, whose campaign made it seem like blogs could have some instrumental value, isn't himself a blogger. Consider, though, where the strength of his campaign came from -- a body of people who had felt disengaged from and cynical about politics, who could suddenly go to a comment thread and see a hundred people posting "Go Dean! We have the power!"

The impact of blogs on who gets elected and what bills get passed will remain relatively small. But the blogosphere will be sustained by its success in making frustrated people feel validated.

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