A Short Theory of Internet Polemicism & the Fundamental Tension of Democratic Politics

Obviously the brilliant content my coauthor and I produce here on a (near)daily basis has no connection to the theory I’m about to describe, but for the rest of you online hacks, listen up, because I’m going to attempt to explain why it seems like so many of you spend so much time shouting at each other (and why it’s sort of emblematic of the fundamental tension buried at the heart of democratic politics).

Since deciding along with Richard to start this blog, writing here on a somewhat regular basis, with some degree of seriousness in content (if not in tone), I’ve often been stymied by the fact that, let’s be honest, nobody actually wants or needs to hear what either one of us has to say. Do I think people are idiotically panicking over ebola? Ya, absolutely. But a post here conveying that opinion is a waste of everyone’s time – is your assessment of American epidemiology going to change because you read my blog? If it is, that says more about your decision-making process than it does about my writing. If my sentiments here are at all extrapolate-able, then what you wind up with is an Internet commentariat composed of people who rarely question whether or not their “take” on a given subject matters. Of course it does! If it didn’t, do you think they’d spend so much time blogging and tweeting and, I dunno, writing Ello posts?

This next bit is admittedly speculation, but I would wager that a primary reason people assume their opinions do matter when it comes to anything that could be remotely addressed by policy is the belief that everyone else should be doing [the thing in question] in the exact same way. So really, people virulently pontificating on the Internet are a self-selected bunch who think their opinions are relevant because every other member of the polity ought to agree with them and act accordingly. In a way, it’s logical. What’s the point of hammering out a 1,000-word post that says, “I think people should do X, for all these reasons. Many others in fact believe people should do Y, for all these reasons. Whatever floats your boat.”

And this translates into politics, too. Campaigning obviously requires a platform that’s not like the other guy’s, otherwise people can just…vote for the other guy. And only a liar and a cheat would run on one platform and then spend an entire term enacting the policies which comprised that of her opponent’s (others might call this bi-partisanship or pragmatism, and I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine which is which). This tension between theory and practice (or at least that is one way to characterize it) lies at the heart of democratic politics – a plausible model you could have for their execution is that voters are supposed to care enough about the issues involved to make rational and informed choices and then accept the results no matter what. This holds(ish) in reality, but only boundedly so. Even a policy democratically arrived at could be so repulsive to the 49% who didn’t vote for it as to provoke a revolution.

But if you combine this stylized democratic model with the temperament of someone who figures there are vast swathes of human activity which could be governed one way, or also another, and deciding on which one is what voting is for, it’s awfully hard sometimes to find something worth talking about. It’s not like your disagreement with something makes it any less valid for everyone else.