Obviously, I'm reading a lot of stuff on the US elections at the moment. However, with the sheer breadth of stuff out there, it is possible to start to suffer from election fatigue - especially if you go beyond reading the columnists and start to look at the comments that many news providers now allow the general public to make on their websites. The problem is the whole flame war thing. It is horrendous. Really ugly. You have Obama supporters convinced that he is the second coming. You have Hillary supporters convinced he is a muslim. And the continual threat amongst both camps to vote for John McCain if their charge doesn't gets the nomination. That doesn't even mention both camps' attitude to the media (bias in every way, apparently). The whole thing is a manifestation of something that has been discovered again and again in research on the Internet - namely, given the chance to interact and debate with each other over politics, people don't achieve Athenian heights of deliberation; instead, the whole thing becomes more like an episode of Jerry Springer. In short, we have a loud mouthocracy.
So I was really thrilled to discover a thread of amazing quality at the New Republic this evening. The debate, from both sides, was generally really well argued. There were people who supported one candidate talking about their misgivings about their man or woman and respectfully making points about their opponents, and undecideds asking great questions and pushing those who declared a partisan allegiance. Wow! In fact, I was so inspired, I wanted to go and make my own comment*. But when I tried to set up an account with the TNR, I found this. In other words, if you want to be part of the conversation, you need to have paid for a print or online subscription to the paper. Only then will you get your password.
Well, I have to confess, my first reaction was one of outrage. What is the point of allowing comments if you are going to lock it down to such a degree that only a few people can be a part of it? Think of all the wisdom and ideas you are losing out on. And then, the penny dropped - this was the highest quality thread (in terms of the average comment and level of interaction) I had read over the whole course of the American election. It was also only open to a limited number of magazine subscribers. These two things were not unrelated. Not only is that quite thought provoking, but it raises a lot of important questions both about how we might run internet deliberation and what goals we should prioritise in doing so.
*If you wondering, my comment was going to be something like: "A lot of the comments on this board have come down to the fact that Obama's speeches tend to be about very ephemeral concepts (hope, change etc) and that he is not very specific about his policy aims (and even if details are on his website, he does little to advertise his ideas when he speaks). I would suggest these two things are not unrelated. Obama claims to reject partisan division and is casting himself as a post-ideological politician. That trick can be pulled off if you don't get too specific about policy. However, any kind of policy discussion would necessarily prove difficult and damage the coalition he is creating. I would also argue this issue explains his great electoral failing - namely, that he cannot reach out to people on low incomes. In order to do this, he would need to offer specific political positions that would help these groups. However, such policies would be the complete antithesis of the post-ideological identity he has created for himself.