Asked why he beat George Bush Senior in the US Presidential election of 1992, Bill Clinton answered ‘It’s the economy, stupid’. Last week Bush’s son might well have been tempted to say, ‘It’s moral values, stupid’. George Bush Junior, the reformed alcoholic and born-again Christian, became the standard-bearer of Middle America’s crusade against evil – the evil of gay marriages and abortion at home, the evil of Osama bin Laden abroad.
Much less discussed is the political technology of Bush’s victory. This is the first election to be influenced by the revolution in communications. The Republicans were quick to grasp how cable and satellite TV and the Internet might be used to subvert the cultural authority of the ‘liberal’ (ie progressive) big city elites. The defining moment for cable TV was the launch of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel in 1996. This set out to select and report news from a conservative angle. Starting with access to only 17 million homes (compared with CNN’s 70 million) Fox reached 65 million by 2001. With 8.1m viewers on election night, it routed the other cable networks, and came close to matching the ‘free’ news Channel, CBS.
A second front in the ‘culture war’ was opened up by conservative cable comedy. The most popular of the shows, ‘South Park’ ( a successor of the irreverent soap ‘The Simpsons’), featuring four crudely animated and foul-mouthed schoochildren, relentlessly satirizes ‘liberal’ fads like sex education, ‘holistic’ medicine, conservation, and so on. One episode caricatures an ultra-radical activist group advocating gay sex with minors. Andrew Sullivan , former editor of New Republic, calls it ‘the best antidote to P[olitical] C[orrect] culture we have’.
Even more arresting has been the rise of the political Internet –a branch of a universe of website-based exchanges of information and ideas collectively dubbed the ‘blogosphere’. The most famous political site for bloggers is the Drudge Report. Matt Drudge calls himself a ‘pro-life [ie anti-abortion] conservative who doesn’t want the government to tax me’. Five years since he broke the Monica Lewinsky story, his news and gossip site has become an essential daily visit for political junkies. Journalists ransack it for their columns and news stories. Set up to detect ‘bullshit’, it clocked up 1.4 billion hits in 2002.
Cable TV and the Internet have broken open the book trade. New publishers like Collier-Encounter have sprung up to satisfy the demand for conservative books. Conservative titles which found it hard to get reviewed or stocked have become readily accessible through Amazon and big chain booksellers like Wal-Mart and Barnes and Noble. Amazon’s Readers’ Review feature –where readers can post their opinion on books they’ve read and rate them –has weakened the authority of professional reviewers, whose judgments used to dominate book sales.
The lesson in all this is not that the new technology favours any single political tendency, but that it provides multiple channels for the dissemination of ideas. It thus breaks the hold of established opinions, whether left or right. Authoritarian regime are right to see this as a danger, and will make increasing efforts to control electronic communication, citing the ‘war on terrorism’ or the ‘war on pornography’. But the blogosphere is harder to control than terrestrial space.
The potential of the new technology for democracy depends crucially on access. In the UK, 59% of people use Internet; in Sweden it is 79%. In Russia only 5-6% used Internet in 2003, though the figure is expected to rise to 15% by the end of 2005. Also only 37% of Russians know how to use a computer. As these figures rise, the prospects for democracy will improve. One prediction can be ventured: the next democratic movement in Russia will start in cyberspace.