A recent article in the Boston Review argues that “netroots”, and particularly blogs, may help to reshape American politics. Howard Dean’s primary campaign for most recent Democratic nomination is the most famous example of cyber activism, and this excitable account from Wired magazine in January 2004 brings back those heady days.
The biggest news of the political season has been the tale of this small-state governor who, with the help of Meetup.com and hundreds of bloggers, has elbowed his way into serious contention for his party's presidential nomination. As every alert citizen knows, Dean has used the Net to raise more money than any other Democratic candidate. He's also used it to organize thousands of volunteers who go door-to-door, write personal letters to likely voters, host meetings, and distribute flyers.
As you and I now know, the Dean machine ended in tears (or rather in a scream) in Iowa as the Democrats decided they preferred the charms of a more traditional candidate to the wild and untested activism of the Deaniacs.
Since then, although blogs from the right (Drudge Report) and left (Daily Kos) have grown in political stature and the number of blogs has continued to rise exponentially, the idea that blogs could actually have an impact on electoral returns has slunk away into a cave to await its moment.
Will that be the US presidential election in 2008? The Boston review thinks blogs will have an important role to play.
How do blogs work, and why might they open up political argument to new voices? Perhaps the best starting point is Yochai Benkler’s brilliant recent book, The Wealth of Networks, which describes how new technologies are making it easier for individuals to communicate, cooperate, and produce cultural and political goods on a decentralized basis. Benkler shows how the Internet fosters decentralized modes of cultural production, which enable individuals to take control of the means of communication for themselves and create content that is immediately available to millions. Nor do they do this in isolation. Tools such as e-mail, discussion boards, and social-networking software allow them to engage in argument with each other, to cooperate on massive collective projects (such as the production of open-source software), and, in Benkler’s phrase, to create a “networked public sphere.” Benkler suggests that blogs are one of the most important components of this public sphere.
There may be something in this when it comes to the more wired countries, like the USA or South Korea, but I think it will be a long time before blogs manage to muscle their way into the trapo-dominated world of Philippine politics (or British politics for that matter). The leading Philippine political blogs like mlq or the Sassy Lawyer reach a tiny part of an English-speaking elite (itself a minute fraction of the electorate) and I doubt whether they can even claim to have much of an impact on the political agenda. The many excellent Philippine blogs have made a huge and ever increasing contribution to Philippine intellectual life, but I can’t see blogging winning a Philippine election any time soon.
Unless … Like most people here, I often wonder how the current political log jam can be broken. One way may be the rise of a political-evangelistic movement (remember Brother Eddie Villanueva surprisingly strong showing in the 2004 election?). In that case, it will have to be built up from the grassroots and that is where (even in a country with low internet penetration like the Philippines) activist blogging can be a major tool for galvanizing campaigners. Super religious Deaniacs – there is something very Filipino about that prospect.
Postscript Among the many remixes of Dean's notorious screaming speech I found some spoof pictures, even as a cat lover I found this one funny. Here it is, Howard Dean screams at a kitten