The Internet vs Federalism

Such memories as today remain of the late “Tip” O’Neill are, I suspect, propped up by his grammatically tricky dictum “all politics is local.” I don’t really remember Tip, and relied on autocomplete for the spelling of his last name in fact, but I remember this. That having been said, I have increasingly remembered this maxim in a context of something obsolete, as years have gone by.

Today, though, some impressively precocious grouchy-old-man scolding from Millennial pundit Matthew Yglesias suggested one or two new wrinkles to the intersection of local politics and 21st-century America. Yglesias makes the point that plenty of politics is still local or at least sub-national, even though Democrats’ focus (and, I would argue, America’s generally to a great extent) has been swallowed up by the presidency.

I don’t disagree with this, but I did have to question Yglesias’s grounds for his tone of righteous lecturing. Both his own product and that of his employer, Vox, as a whole devote much much more attention to national and above all presidential politics than to anything else. (Consider that America has elections this fall but about 99% of Vox‘s considerable  elections coverage in 2015 has been about 2016 races.) Thinking about this, though, I had to ask myself: what gets more clicks?

This is, I will emphasize, pure zero-research “citation needed” guessing, but I am going to guess that as a very dependable rule of thumb, stories about national politics attract substantially more clicks, likes and shares than stories about state-level or local politics. Basic audience math: an entire set is greater than any components within that set. (If we further presume a preference for personal contests over issue writing, then the fact of only one nationally elected office in America explains even more.) If modern, detailed metrics of audience engagement may be presumed to influence what media professionals write and publish, particularly through apportionment of online media’s advertising-dependent revenue… well, where does this leave us, aside from the obvious?

One might interrupt that sites like Vox are national publications, and quite reasonably ought to prioritize national activity anyway. I submit that this ultimately leads back to the same issue, however. Because: what else is out there?

I don’t think I’m on shaky ground when I propose that in between very small communities and national media, American journalism has been going to shit. National media, even with its endless clickbait and other flaws, is probably on the whole as good as it has ever been. Likewise, I have a feeling that the little town weeklies or biweeklies, flimsy as they are, were probably not realistically a whole lot more substantive in any past “golden age.”

In between, though? Such dedicated journalism as these levels of society do receive is basically just the hollowed-out wreck of 20th-century metropolitan daily papers. Which isn’t a pretty picture. Where mid-to-major cities like Des Moines or Cleveland once had two or more robust local newspapers, there is now usually one miserable “survivor,” producing a web site full of sports coverage and a thin paper wrapper for retail sale pamphlets. I don’t believe TV news or online content are really providing a substitute.

If I’m wrong, by the way, someone please tell me. I think I would be up for reading more thoughtful, informative coverage of state and local affairs (particularly after spending 2015 fighting plans of a local consortium that has thrived on secrecy and public ignorance.) Where do I go? I’ve made occasional visits to the web sites of Ohio’s other legacy newspapers, and they all look about as dismal as cleveland.com. If someone is producing a brilliant news magazine about news and politics of Ohio, or Cuyahoga County, I hope they will tell me.

For now, though, I’m going to presume that between the White House and suburban city halls, quality reporting is a struggle for most Americans to find. Which seems like a problem given the importance of an informed citizenry not only to democracy, but to federalism.

I can access plenty of international news these days, and news from Britain in particular serves as a regular reminder of the differences in our systems of government. Scotland and Wales have local parliaments with limited powers, but for most British citizens, the overwhelming majority of government appears to consist of an elective dictatorship based in London (i.e. the prime minister and his or her appointees). While this does not seem perfect, even for a polity rather smaller than the United States, it does seem quite adequately served by a media ecosystem where most of the attention goes to one national power center.

In the United States, though, we have all of these states which still retain considerable power over both their internal affairs and, via influence on election rules, on national government as well. But who is minding the store?

Thus I suggest a tension between federalism and the internet. To be fair to the internet, I think the shift of attention from local media to national coverage actually began before the World Wide Web rose to prominence. The combination of 24/7 cable news and consolidation/starvation of metropolitan papers by absentee owners was probably pushing American media in this direction even in the 1980s when Tip himself presided over Congress. The omni-networked culture of the internet, however, seems to have boosted the process faster and further.

What Is To Be Done? Once again, I don’t know. I could propose various schemes for what could be done, but most of them would depend on some kind of intentional, collective action to enhance the general interest over one or more concentrated private interests… i.e. exactly the sort of reform that seems ever less likely amid the very cultural and political trends that I have just been examining. As usual, I expect that what is to be done in the foreseeable future is therefore not a whole lot. I was already proposing a few years ago that the public good of well-funded, well-staffed, professional and often competing news publications local to every major city in the country might prove less an inevitable corollary to democratic society, and more an accident of history that is now ending, regardless of how socially negative the result may be. I have seen little since to persuade me that I was guessing incorrectly.

The reality of American culture, at least at present, is that activity is by default viable based on whether it provides a profit, rather than on whether it provides a service. For market fundamentalists, of course, a service that cannot be profitable by means of capitalist enterprise alone is not possible, so there’s no difference… for the rest of us in the reality-based world where public goods and market failures are real phenomena, however, solutions regularly require tools other than individual consumer purchasing decisions…

…but that’s what we have, for now, so some solutions just don’t happen, and others that have functioned previously are subject to being “disrupted” by a new model that isn’t on-balance actually better.

So, we have increasingly a winner-take-all economy, and a winner-take-all attention economy, but for now still have a substantially distributed politics. One or more of these things probably should change, and while it may not be the one(s) that I would choose, I feel it likely that in the long run one or more of these things will change.

But, well… yeah.

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