American Consequences - January 2018



In Obama’s case, digital expertise was better suited to politicking than governing. Candidate Obama, an obscure Midwesterner with few resources and scarcely two years as a U.S. senator, hopped over the traditional barriers to entry that the Internet had lowered. But lowered barriers did more than just embolden obscure candidates. Everyone with a laptop and an opinion about politics could, if their tolerance for boredom was high enough, become a published political pundit. With no printing or transportation costs, the web made way for an ever expanding number of outlets devoted to political news. It turned out that there were hundreds of political junkies in the vast heartland with their specialized knowledge of every aspect of the field. They were easily the equal of the traditional pros. In many instances their blogs blossomed into full-service news sites – PJ Media on the right, for example, and Talking Points Memo on the left. The glut of outlets led to a kind of news inflation. There were too many political reporters chasing too little political news. So the definition of “news” was defined dramatically down. The political class, facing an endless sluice of information flowing through the Internet, could begin obsessing over developments at a level so granular that it was interesting only to themselves. “Granular” is a nice word; trivial is less nice but more accurate. How do 2016 per capita media expenditures by Republicans in Nebraska’s third district compare with Democratic expenditures in Iowa’s fifth in 2014? An overwhelming amount of political news today resolves around such stupefying

cursory attention. While she sunk millions into traditional TV ads – the kind inflicted on increasingly annoyed viewers whether they like it or not – Obama concentrated on custom-designing YouTube ads to reach deep into target audiences. These were essentially free. During the primary season his ads were watched a total of 14.5 million hours. An equivalent viewership on TV, Joe Trippi calculated, would have cost $47 million. The result is well known. Clinton excited no one and won nearly every primary in 2008. Obama whipped his volunteers into a froth and won nearly every caucus. And that’s where the votes were. Clinton never knew what hit her. Once in office, Obama’s administration said it would use the Internet to make government more transparent, to reach out to the people and “bring them into the process.” The results were unimpressive. With great fanfare Obama announced a new portal on the White House website, called “We the People.” Ordinary citizens could go online and directly file petitions with the government demanding a change in one policy or another. “We the People” was to be a model of citizen empowerment in the Internet age. Eventually 4,779 petitions were filed over the eight years of the Obama administration. According to the Pew Research Center, the White House responded to 227 of them. Searching for some concrete change in government as a result of the initiative, Pew researchers finally fell upon the fourth most-signed petition from “We the People.” The petition demanded that the president appear on “Real Time with Bill Maher.” And he did.


January 2018

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