Tuesday, December 9, 2008

John Quiggan on US netroots (and why no Australian equivalent)

Very interesting post by John Quiggan on the rise of the 'netroots' movement of online liberal Democratic activists in the US, and why there is no Australian equivalent. I should say that I think he is wrong to say that the antipathy to bloggers from mainstream journalists is less in the US than in Australia.

Political blogging came into its own after September 11. In the past few years it has experienced phenomenal growth, including in Australia. John Quiggin tracks its rise. Artwork by Michelle Verghis. With elections approaching in both Australia and the United States, the role of blogs and bloggers is attracting increasing attention. Writing in The New Republic recently, Jonathan Chait described the netroots (the online community of liberal Democratic Party activists) as “the most important mass movement in US politics”.

He compared its significance with the conservative Republican movement that originated with the 1964 Goldwater campaign, and has dominated US politics since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Chait is highly critical of what he sees as the party-line sensibility and excessive vitriol of the netroots, but he is in no doubt they are well on the way to displacing the old centrist establishment, based on such groups as the Democratic Leadership Council, and on pundits such as David Broder, routinely described as the dean of the Washington press corps. This development is striking in a couple of respects.

First, the whole phenomenon of political blogging is barely five years old. The central focus of the netroots, the Daily Kos blog, was established in 2002, and was receiving only a few thousand visits each day in 2003. This year, it is receiving 600,000 visits a day, a figure comparable with the circulation of the Boston Globe or San Francisco Chronicle. Over the same period, the total number of blogs has gone from thousands to tens of millions. Equally striking has been the shift in the predominant political orientation of blogs.

Political blogging first emerged in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks, and the dominant figures were strongly pro-war, with political orientations that ranged from libertarian to conservative Republican. Prominent figures included Glenn Reynolds, whose Instapundit blog remains at the core of the right-wing blogosphere, and Australian Tim Blair. As late as 2003, conservative bloggers held a lead of two or three to one over progressive bloggers in terms of audience, number of blogs and so on. The conservative blogosphere extended a period of internet dominance that began with sites such as the Drudge Report, Free Republic and NewsMax.

The first big shift in this pattern came with Howard Dean’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, which was heavily backed by internet activists, and gave rise to the term “netroots”. Although Dean burnt out early in the race, his supporters remained active, and a pattern for the future had been set. By 2005, the political balance in the blogosphere had been reversed. Progressive blogs such as Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo and Think Progress now receive more traffic and, increasingly, more media attention than their conservative rivals. Moreover, the progressive blogosphere has been far more successful in mobilising new activists than its right-wing counterpart, though, of course, this reflected the much greater organisational strength of the Right at the time the blogosphere emerged.

Having bowed to pressure from the Right to correct perceived liberal bias, the centrist media establishment found itself increasingly attacked from the Left for seeking balance, in preference to factual accuracy, on issues such as the Iraq war, global warming and economic policy. On all these issues, the netroots claimed, the positions of the Bush administration were factually wrong, and the media was obliged to state this explicitly, rather than adopting the “he said, she said” style traditionally seen in the American media as the hallmark of objectivity.

How does the Australian scene compare? Adjusting for the smaller scale, there has been the same explosive growth, from a handful of blogs in 2002 to hundreds today. And the shift to the Left has been, if anything, even more marked. Although right-wing blogs dominated the scene early on, only a handful of note remain, while there are dozens of prominent left-wing and centre-left blogs. Individual blogs have largely been displaced by group efforts such as Larvatus Prodeo (leftwing), Club Troppo (centre-left) and Catallaxy Files (broadly libertarian).

On the other hand, there has been nothing comparable with the development of the netroots in the United States. Although most political bloggers make their general sympathies clear, few appear to be active members of political parties (an obvious exception is Senator Andrew Bartlett) and fewer still use their blogs for political organising or election campaigning. There are several reasons for this outcome. First, unlike the US system, where activists organising on the internet can easily become involved in Democratic party primaries and where election campaigns are heavily focused on the merits of individual candidates, the Australian system offers only limited opportunities for this kind of activity.

In Australia, participation in preselections is normally limited to party members, either in local branches or as elected delegates. Campaigning for preselections is a matter of old-fashioned canvassing, recruitment (or branch-stacking) and factional deals, none of which are readily adapted to the internet. At general elections, votes are largely determined by the appeal of parties and their leaders, rather than individual candidates. Second, whereas partisanship has increased substantially in the US over the past couple of decades, it has generally declined in Australia.

Although some issues, such as the treatment of refugees, have aroused real passion among people, the general temperature of debate is much lower. The most vitriolic political debates in the Australian blogosphere tend to be those surrounding George Bush and the Iraq war, where Australian bloggers are part of the broader international debate (Australia’s own military involvement being seen by both sides as largely tokenistic).

Finally, the antagonism between bloggers and the mainstream media, as a whole, is far less marked in Australia than in the US. Right-wing bloggers attack the ABC for its soft-liberal bias, while left-wing and environmentalist bloggers denounce The Australian for its treatment of global warming and the Iraq war, but these are just extensions of disputes taking place within the mainstream media.

Australian bloggers have been highly successful in gaining access to the mainstream media, and particularly its opinion columns. Tim Blair (an established journalist before he was a blogger) is now the opinion editor for The Daily Telegraph, while The Australian Financial Review regularly publishLinkes economist bloggers including Joshua Gans and Andrew Leigh.

Conversely, with a few notable exceptions, Australian mainstream media outlets showed much less of the hostility to blogs initially evident in the US and have now embraced the medium with gusto. News Limited has its own blogocracy site, run by pioneering Australian blogger Tim Dunlop, and most opinion columnists (including some of those who were initially very dismissive of the whole phenomenon) now have their own blogs.
This is taken from the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance's "The Future of Journalism" site, and was originally published in The Walkley Magazine. Perhaps the claim that there has been enthusiasm for adopting online open publishing models in Australia may be a complement to the Australia journalism community who receive this work.

No comments: