When I first got to college in 1999, I was amazed by the Internet. At home, I’d dealt with the “eeeeeeeeee…be-dum, be-dum…wheee-uuuuu, whee-uuuuu” of dialup and largely ignored the World Wide Web. Video games, lounging at the pool and playing sports with my buddies was way more interesting. So when I arrived at school, the greater nuances and tricks of the exploding web were still unknown. One morning I received an email informing me that if I forwarded this message to ten of my closest friends, Bill Gates, who was tracking by some sort of Microsoft marketing/espionage tool, would send me a free pair of jeans. Today, we wouldn’t give this email more than a glance, but back when a T1 Connection was a big deal, this was still unfamiliar territory. So, figuring the God of Computers could do anything, I forwarded it…and quickly got a response from a few more-seasoned friends describing the entirety of my idiocy. The “Common Sense” lesson with this internet-thing clicked, etched itself in stone and that was that.
Part of me wonders, idealistically perhaps, on a far slower scale, if we’re going to see the same evolution away from nonsense in our political scene. It can be almost comical (“almost” if it doesn’t make you sad on some level) to look at the political ads today. [cue: thoughtful, touch-of-evil voice with menacing picture of candidate] “He voted to give illegal immigrants the right to take your health benefits…”, “She voted to provide sex offenders with Viagra…”, “He voted to give dogs the right to drive taxis…”, “She voted to give zoos the right to feed the animals…with your children…” Stuff like that (at least the first two). It’s easy to laugh, but it’s worth remembering that if they’re on TV, to a degree, they work. “Yeah, with morons,” is the easy response. Well, morons vote too. There are still people that think George Bush had something to do with 9/11, that Barack Obama is a Kenyan-born saboteur of capitalism and Christianity, that all Republicans are cold-hearted racists, that all Democrats are socialist tree-huggers.
But, (and analogize with me here) that’s because the country is still in the Dial-up Era in sifting through political information, even though the politicking itself has zoomed into the Broadband Era. This will correct itself. These ludicrous advertisements and generalizations are the idiotic FWD’s of our time. Sure, we still receive the gamut of annoying emails, but what do you do with them? DELETE. Especially if we don’t know the sender. The Citizen’s United ruling was a blow to rational dialogue—absolutely—but in this age, how much do we trust information where we have no idea the source? That wariness will increase as the inbox is peppered more and more.
This is not to say that in a few decades we’ll all be walking around with Perfect Knowledge of all things political. Information Uptake works along a curve like anything else. There will still be the aforementioned morons, but they will be relative-morons. To draw a loose, long line, take these three points: Salem Witch Trials, McCarthyism and today’s anti-Muslim American sentiments. These are all, in effect, the same movement: morons persecuting an entire group for the extreme transgressions of a few. Yet we’ve gone from burning at the stake, to ruining lives, to harassing and making them feel bad. In a very dark sense, this is progress. But look at how the morons’ supporters got their information: 1) preachers, 2) preachers/newspapers/radio/basic TV, 3) preachers/newspapers/ radio/satellite radio/basic TV/cable TV/email/cell phones/the Entirety of the Internet. As information increases, extremism decreases. To put it differently, Education strengthens the Bullshit Detector.
Most of the BS in today’s media runs along party lines and as with most great shifts, the BS detectors will strengthen with the generations. Every poll is showing a decrease in the number of young people that affiliate with a political party. Forever, in American politics you were a Democrat, a Republican or an Independent that votes 95% of the time with one of the first two—essentially, Us vs Them. That’s how the public rhetoric played out and whatever team you were on, you stuck with. But the growing numbers that don’t ascribe to taking a party whole hog are finding that there are other people that feel the same way, and there are candidates too. You don’t have to be a “Republican, but….”
One of the greatest offerings of the Internet is Choice and younger generations are accustomed to having it. This is an important difference in thinking. Want to buy a new [something]? You don’t drive to the mall; you scour the Internet. You find what you want, you don’t accept the options handed to you from above. As young people engage more and more with the political scene, the mentality will translate to their candidates. It’s not “Hmm, which of these two candidates in the window do I like more?” It’s “Here is what I want; now I’m going to find a candidate who stands on the same values.” And when you find that person, support them and someone says, “You didn’t hear that he wanted to test hand grenades on puppies?” You go to FactCheck.org, VoteSmart.org, PolitiFact.com, etc. and set the story straight. Information is power…and now, perspective.
For any of these candidates to have a chance in an actual election—sorry for using Tired Political Language, but it’s true—“the current system has to change.” It’s not worth hashing out how 1) money dirties the system and precludes most candidates from having a shot, and 2) so does our primary system. Like good stewards of their own environment, Washington has put in place measures to keep out independent candidates. It is, in effect, one issue Republicans and Democrats agree on. Sure, Independents are in the mix now and again but never really have a chance because they’re kept off the national stage for so long by the primary system.
Those barriers will be whittled away. Generations used to Choice won’t stand for them and, rather than rigid TV and newspapers, an increasing reliance on the unrestricted internet will provide more microphones—though in a louder crowd—and lower the cost of publicity. Lower barriers to entry = more choice.
Of course, this won’t happen overnight, probably not overdecade. Younger voters, the iGeneration will continue their disappointing turnout on Election Day in the near term; but they will grow up, have families and pay taxes eventually. Having always had myriad options to make a decision, being presented with The Democrat, The Republican and The Occasional Independent with No Chance will be unacceptable. And the empty offers of “Increase the size of your change in Washington!” will be discarded to the junk folders.
Follow Caleb at www.twitter.com/calebgarling
Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at