Does participation have to be hard before it can be good?

Here is a quote attributed to a campaign manager: “Why is it better to have more people participating if their level of interest is so low that they can’t even get off their butts to get a stamp and write Washington? Are their opinions really valuable if they can’t afford 33 cents for the opinion? If they will blubber in front of the local TV cameras but not be bothered to actually vote?”

There seems to be some proto-protestant self-flagellation involved in the argument, ‘it has to be hard before it can be good’. I wonder whether this particular campaign manager think we should go back to oral voting anno circa-eighteen hundred, and reduce the number of polls so people can really demonstrate that they care by spending days on trekking back and forth before they earn the right to express their opinion. The printing press and the secret ballot really made it far too easy for all those coach potatoes to express their opinion… It is hard to accept that technological changes making it easier to vote, contact your representatives, and organize politically are somehow in themselves bad, or that the activity they engender are somehow illegitimate relative to ‘good, old, hard work’. It is not exactly as if we have too much engagement.

I needed to make that rather pedestrian point after having finished ‘Deep Democracy, Thin Citizenship: The Impact of Digital Media in Political Campaign Strategy’, an interesting article by Philip N. Howard, a communications scholar from the University of Washington. The quote is from his fieldwork (on page 3, since you ask). He is undoubtedly right to point out how political campaigns, both from parties, political action committees, and social movements, use sophisticated narrowcasting and polling techniques to mobilize small and precisely delineated publics around the specific issues these particular citizens, and those who fund the campaign in question, care about.

This more fine-grained and information-directed approach to mobilization and participation makes up the ‘deeper’ part of his title. But Howard appears critical of the development, worried by what for him as for many others (Cass Sunstein and his Republic.Com springs to mind) looks like a tendency towards fragmentation of what he seems to think was at some point an integrated and ‘general’ public. His worries over a ‘thinner’ citizenship, “thinner in terms of the ease in which people can become politically expressive without being substantively engaged”. I share his interest in the question of when someone can be said to be ‘substantively engaged’, but the notion that partisan mobilization does not constitute such engagement puzzles me. I wonder how mobilization in the tradition of Jacksonian democracy, trade union activism, or religious organization would fare under his critical gaze? And whether we should really think of the era of three strikingly similar TV-networks, a newspaper monopoly for every town, and a highly stratified mass society as a better setting for democratic politics? I would have pointed the barbed comments towards the idea of ‘political consumption’, or ‘life politics’.

But anyway, his article is interesting, and definitely worth a look. I will move on to his book ‘New Media Campaigns and The Managed Citizen’ one of these days, it looks interesting too.


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