American Consequences - January 2018

Those of us who get paid to commit acts of political journalism are fond of overstatement. The trade tends to attract excitable types, easily bored and always on the prowl for new stimuli. I’m not going to say that the Internet was invented for political journalists – that would be a bit of an overstatement, wouldn’t it? – but sometimes it seems to have been reverse-engineered to our specific requirements and habits. In fact, you could say the same about every facet of American politics, from journalism to gerrymandering, from polling to poll watching. Ask the question, What has the Internet changed in American politics? And the answer is inevitable: Everything. That’s not an overstatement.

By Andrew Ferguson

portable and universally accessible. The first real presidential campaign of the Internet age followed in 2000. Again the possibilities became apparent incrementally. The first “aha!” moment occurred in the campaign operation of John McCain, who was challenging George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas, and an improbable gaggle of lesser pols (Gary Bauer? Elizabeth Dole?) for the Republican presidential nomination. Having lived in Washington most of his life (not counting five years in a Vietnamese prison camp), and having been in Congress and then the Senate for nearly 20 years, McCain was running a maverick campaign against the “establishment” as a Washington outsider. And for some reason people were buying it. McCain’s unexpected popularity came the old-fashioned, pre-Internet way – through relentless travel, dreary fundraising lunches, constant public speaking, and endless flesh- pressing. But his young staff toyed with the gadgets the web made possible. They outfitted the press bus with an early version of Wi-

Long before the Internet embedded itself into the patterns of our daily lives, in the late 1990s, computing power had already transformed political practice in ways that now seem obvious to us, though their significance dawned on practitioners only in slow motion. Opinion polling became easier to do and (allegedly) more accurate. The act of counting votes was streamlined and accelerated. Journalists could write faster, if not better. The organizing of campaigns was routinized. The mother’s milk of politics – other people’s money – could be accounted for more accurately and quickly. And most consequential of all, the ancient art of gerrymandering could be practiced with laser-like precision, giving whichever party was drawing district boundaries a long- term advantage. Thanks to the computer revolution, in some states, there are large apartment buildings that have wings in different congressional districts. Then came the widespread use of the internet, making all that computing power


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