Rachel Maddow had a rather lengthy and in depth interview with House Democratic Majority Leader and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi during her last program. Maddow asked Representative Pelosi about the changes she’s seen in her 25 year tenure in Congress, and specifically what’s better about the process. I’m not sure whether or not to be surprised by her answer, but I certainly found it interesting. Here’s the clip: (Having trouble with the embed, so just click the link and head to the 9:00 mark. Ugh)
Communication technology has produced the greatest positive change in Congress, according to Pelosi, in that it gives immediate voice to the people who send representatives to their government. She does, to her credit, admit that new media also offer the possibility for more chaos and confusion, although she unfairly attributes that to Republicans in a plainly partisan remark. I would agree with both observations, although I think it’s important to acknowledge that what’s happening to politics and governance as a result of new technologies is 1) not completely new to the last 25 years, and 2) much more impactful on our social system than on any one specific body.
Just as the printing press gave character to the Protestant Revolution, the speed and breadth of its movement, the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, and the television (all products of electricity) all gave character to the 20th century and the way we related to one another and the social systems that we’d created in eras past. The networked computer, with its capacity for instantaneous data collection, analysis, and sharing is an extension of the electric revolution with some significant changes still emerging day by day. When the former Speaker deals with the issue of technological change, let’s not forget that in 25 years we’ve seen more than computers, Internet, and social media arrive on the scene. We’ve also seen changes in global financial markets, the capacity to organize non-State terror syndicates, and a whole range of other radical systemic changes that reach far beyond the walls of Washington. We are indeed living in a global village and the drums are beating constantly.
To her second point, I think it’s very important that people are able to register their perspectives and opinions in real time and make the general cultural sentiment known to legislators. The part of the equation that, perhaps, has escaped Pelosi’s notice is that such communication environments erode prior structures, including her bureaucracy, and diminish the power of institutions which still represent the biases of the print world. There is no durability any longer, as sands shift constantly under our feet, communique after communique, and it’s impossible to expect a body as procedurally complicated and legally wound up as Congress to be able to respond appropriately to the expectations of a citizenry accustomed to immediacy and responsiveness.
The way this has manifested, unfortunately, is that our representatives rarely take on the controverial challenges before them, preferring instead the symbolic over the substantial and the partisan over the compromise. It’s safer to know your audience and always meet their expectations, pandering to the whim of the moment, than it is to do the hard work of the marathon negotiation over party lines. If you have several days to meet, discuss, negotiate, linger over lunch and drinks, shake a few hands, and make a few deals before the public has caught on to a particular issue…enough to understand it in any real way, you can get some quality work done. When every moment is potentially broadcast to the chattering masses, with opinions of all stripes bombarding the channels, and factions organizing for *and* against the same issue at the drop of a hat, it’s next to impossible to get anything done and come out as a viable candidate for re-election. Anyway, it would take a person of distinctively strong will and conviction to rise above the fray, but, as they say, it takes two to tango (or 60 to break a filibuster in the Senate) and so we have gridlock.
While I imagine there’s some truth to Pelosi’s remarks, I would offer the addendum that the changes have been positive in our ability to participate more actively in the public discourse about our nation’s governance and our ability to organize around the ideas we feel most strongly about, but representative democracy of the sort that takes place in the musty old halls of Congress is a thing of the past as long as it’s so completely dominated by the ethic of print. For the record, the ethic of print is crucial to any enduring set of beliefs, and so we truthfully need our Congress more than ever. It’s simply unlikely that it will survive the radical changes that electronic communication has brought about in its present form.