Two years ago, the road to 2012 seemed like a cakewalk for Obama and an unreachable mountain for the Republicans. The roles haven’t quite reversed yet, but they are evening out. And like in the old Hope-Crosby movies like “Road to Morocco” or “Road to Singapore”, the road to 2012 has turned into an absurdist journey. Not a traditional political journey, but a silly parody of it with very serious stakes.
American politics has changed so dramatically over the last several years that anyone who had been in a coma would have trouble adjusting to this new world, in which the occupant of the Oval Office spends half his time abroad and the other half appearing on TV shows, and his likely opponent is doing her press releases via Facebook and has her own TV show. Most of the old taboos have been broken. From the dignity of the office to foreign money to the press corps, very little remains intact anymore. And a lot of this is collateral damage from the impact of the internet on our political institutions.
The internet has done two things. First, it undermined the existing system by creating faster and cheaper communication and organizational alternatives. Had the institutions adapted to it, the change would have been much less drastic. But that’s not what happened. The media is the most obvious casualty of that failure to adapt, but the political institutions are next. Obama vs Palin is not a matchup that could have existed in the pre-internet America. But the internet has made grassroots organizing easier, and is tearing down the wall between the inner and outer circles of political parties. Obama and Palin are both beneficiaries of that.
The old tiered political structures are becoming irrelevant. Internet guerrilla politics when properly funded by willing billionaires can dramatically change elections in ways that even William Randolph Hearst with his media empire could never have managed to do in his own time. Populism was always limited by access through a tiered system. But those tiers are being bypassed like old toll roads suddenly confronted by airplanes. The internet doesn’t just go through them or around them, often it goes right over them. The internet adds another dimension to every system through direct access.
Palin’s Facebook postings are an example of that. Rather than do interviews with accredited reporters in order to reach a large audience, she speaks to that audience directly. And that forces the media to report non-interactively on her Facebook posts. Obama has similarly bypassed the White House press corps, instead doling out televised interviews and keeping himself in the public eye through international travel and guest appearances on everything from American Idol to Mythbusters. The end result is the same, substituting direct access and reflective coverage for the interrogatory process of the press, which was a traditional tier of the establishment’s old guard.