AmericanOpinion

New kid on the block

It’s only 10 years old, but blogging is changing the political landscape

By Jonathan Bradley

This past April, a momentous anniversary passed by entirely unremarked upon. The 16th day of that month heralded 10 years since the word ‘blog’ first appeared in the pages of The New York Times.

The item, a short note in the Business Digest section of the paper, noted that “blog” was a synonym for “web log”, and that a company called Trellex had licensed a program to make easier the keeping of such personal web pages. Blogs were not exactly new when the Times got around to recognising their existence. Two of the form’s most well known practitioners, Andrew Sullivan and Mickey Kaus, had begun their outlets in 2000 and 1999 respectively.

But within 20 months, the web log had moved out of the internet backwater and off the newspaper back pages, and was making headline news. In December 2002, the Senate minority leader Trent Lott resigned after the not-so-nascent blogosphere fixed on comments he’d made in praise of fellow senator and white supremacist Strom Thurmond.

The United States would have been better off if it had elected Thurmond its president when he campaigned for the position in 1948, said Senator Lott. The senator “calculated correctly that this story would disappear from the press within forty-eight hours,” wrote Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig in his 2004 book Free Culture. “But he didn’t calculate its life cycle in blog space.” Unfortunately for Lott, bloggers like Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall and Eschaton’s Duncan Black didn’t let the story go.

It was the blogosphere’s first significant influence on the US political landscape, but it wouldn’t be its last. Today, The New York Times doesn’t just know what a blog is, it hosts 58 on its own website: from tightly focused hubs for news on baseball teams or Brooklyn neighbourhoods, to the cantankerous missives of Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman or elections guru Nate Silver. Silver made his name in 2008, when his blog, not yet under the Times umbrella, became an invaluable source for polling aggregation and analysis for that year’s presidential election. A stats whiz whose experience lay in crunching baseball data, Silver’s site became a must-read for everyone hooked on one of America’s most absorbing political contests in decades. He ended up proving himself worth the attention on election day, when he correctly predicted the winner of 49 of the 50 states, only failing to forsee that Indiana would ultimately side with Barack Obama—by a 1 per cent margin.

The big internet story of the 2008 campaign was the Obama team’s ability to use the web to access the previously untapped resource of small donors. But with the Citizens United Supreme Court finding and the Republican Party having watched and learned from the Obama fundraisers, the enduring influence of the internet on American political culture may well lie in how it permits people to talk about politics rather than how well it helps them to hand over their money.

In its early days, the blogosphere leaned conservative, with bold and excitable pronouncements—written in bold and excitable print—on Matt Drudge’s news aggregator The Drudge Report, the heavyweight of the day. But opposition to George W. Bush’s administration and the Iraq War rallied the left, creating an energetic online opposition distinguished by a fearlessness the then tremulous Democratic Party lacked. The netroots worked as an organisational force, helping to draft General Wesley Clark for the 2004 presidential race, and building up Howard Dean as a credible contender, but they also had influence in creating an alternate form of independent commentary and citizen journalism. In 2005, Ariana Huffington founded her blog, the Huffington Post, which acted as a forum for left-wing opining in between trashy posts about celebrities and gossip designed to draw traffic.

It was a less showy brand of writer, however, that would go on to shape the contemporary blogosphere. Starting their blogs in the early years of the new millennium while still at college, bloggers like Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, Dave Weigel, and Brian Beutler began commenting on the politics and policy of the day. Their style had a brashness befitting their youth, but it was coupled with a rigour unusual for a form that even now sometimes struggles to substantiate itself as credible journalism. Most of these young up-and-comers leaned to the left, but their concerns were more wonky than polemical. They were nicknamed the Juicebox Mafia for their youth, but their posts were analytical, policy-focused, and filled with the sort of serious reporting work more commonly associated with old media.

Today the new guard has become the establishment. Klein works for the Washington Post, Yglesias has a position at ThinkProgress, a blog run by the liberal think tank the Center for American Progress, and Weigel maintains an invaluable blog at Slate. The new breed has gone from D.C. outsiders to Washington insiders. At the same time, their style of blogging is evidence of the form’s continued relevance to political journalism. Tied to the news cycle, it is difficult for newspapers to analyse policy in extensive and complex terms. The blogger, meanwhile, is unbound by the demands of the front page, and may pursue an idea to wherever it might lead her or him.

It’s that quality that makes blogging an ideal tool for advocacy. If the left-wing blogosphere is characterised by wonkery, the right-wing’s is currently known for its activism. The online counterpart to the Tea Party, conservative bloggers tend toward the pugilistic and populist. At outlets like Erick Erickson’s RedState, they deliver impassioned critiques of the current President’s policies and churn up scandals in pursuit of embarrassing revelations. At times, their efforts veer on organisational; Erickson is known to publish stern warnings to politicians who look like straying from his preferred policies, and to rally support for candidates he likes.

“This is the age of the individual voice, liberated by the new media,” Andrew Sullivan told The New York Times earlier this year. Therein lies the great power and challenge of the blogosphere. An individual voice responsible only to readers can be a great asset for a politician on the campaign trail. But the challenge, which the internet has always presented for politicians, is its unpredictability. There’s no telling when a previously friendly blogger might decide to become fixated on exactly the last thing you want them to.