By Brigitte L. Nacos
Throughout American history, when the inevitable gap between the declared ideals and the reality established by political institutions was deemed unacceptably wide, movements emerged that fueled creedal passions in favor of narrowing the disparity. In his book American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony, Samuel Huntington identified four what he called creedal passion periods that produced movements for change--the revolutionary era in the 18th century, the Jacksonian period in the early 19th century, the progressive period in the early 20th century, and the era of civil rights/anti-Vietnam protests in the1960s and 1970s. In all periods, one of the goals was, as Huntington put it, "the opening up of the processes of decision-making to public participation."
It is particularly striking as Huntington recognized that each of the movements of those times was associated with the emergence of a new type of media. (1)The political pamphlet of the revolutionary period was central to the movement in favor of independence and a republican form of government; (2) the penny press—newspapers cheap enough for the masses—were instrumental in expanding democratic participation--albeit in the limits of the time; (3) the mass newspapers and news magazines with the advent of investigative reporting (muckraking according to Theodore Roosevelt) in the late 19th and early 20th period drove the progressive movement in its fight against corrupt political and business institutions and for participatory democracy; (4) the three national television networks shaped America's attitudes towards the struggle for African-Americans' civil rights and the Vietnam War and protests against.
I have wondered lately whether the new medium of our time, the Internet, would give birth to or facilitate a new popular quest for narrowing the once again widened gap between the promise of America and the performance of its institutions and the leading actors therein.
During the first post-9/11 years, when every criticism of the administration's so-called "war against terrorism" was countered as anti-American, unpatriotic, and being just like the terrorists, the conventional news media abdicated its fundamental responsibility, did not act as watchdog against government overreach/abuse of power/violation of human rights and civil liberties, and did not work in the public interest. It took the images of Abu Ghraib and then some for the silent watchdog to find its voice and teeth again. When the 9/11 terrorists struck, when the invasion of Iraq occurred, and when George W. Bush was reelected four years ago--the Internet as we know it today did not exist. Since then, we have had the rise of the blogosphere and the emergence of the Internet as multi-media platform. As the New York Times noted the other day, "Many of the media outlets influencing the 2008 election simply were not around in 2004. YouTube did not exist, and Facebook barely reached beyond the Ivy League...These sites and countless others have redefined how many Americans get their political news." Given the rise of the blogosphere's popular sites and their influence in Barack Obama's campaign for change, one wonders whether these major sites combined with the new social network vehicles and YouTube would have made a difference as alternative voices to the sleeping mainstream media watchdog in the years after 9/11.
At this time, more importantly, I wonder whether the virtual social networks and blogs will continue to be strong advocates for the change that the president-elect promised and will act as watchdogs in the service of the majority of Americans who voted for translating the promise of America into actual politics and policies.
If that were to happen, we may add another period of reform to the four previous ones that Huntington analyzed and recognize a movement for closing, or let's say for narrowing, the ideal versus reality gap--beyond the victorious election campaign.