Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and the truth about politics in the Internet era

Last Wednesday night, the Bernie Sanders campaign hosted what it claims to be the largest event of the 2016 election so far. More than 100,000 people RSVP’d, and with the mere click of a button, they were able to attend. The “campaign event” was actually a livestream of a speech Sanders delivered especially for more than 3,000 watch parties across the East Coast.

This event is the perfect symbol of a new period in American politics that began roughly a decade ago. In today’s presidential race, it’s impossible to win an election without also winning the Internet.

This phenomenon first became evident during the 2004 election cycle, when Gov. Howard Dean’s (D-Vt.) campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination developed many of the innovations in digital political mobilization that we take for granted today—including linking fundraising appeals to breaking (and trending) news stories and using the Internet to organize local gatherings. 

Although Dean failed to win the Democratic primaries, both parties’ eventual nominees incorporated aspects of his method into their own campaigns. Democrat John Kerry raised far more money online than any candidate before him ($87 million to the $50 million raised by Al Gore in 2000) and Republican George W. Bush used the Internet to more efficiently mobilize his supporters.

While the 2004 election may have been the starting point, the Obama era has proven to be the period in which the Internet’s political potential has truly come of age. Indeed, President Obama owes his very election to the Internet. How could Obama—a relative newcomer—pull off an upset victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries? Political consultant Joe Trippi, who managed Dean’s campaign, explains, “Barack Obama won every single caucus state that matters, and he did it because of those tools, because he was able to move thousands of people to organize.”

In today’s presidential race, it’s impossible to win an election without also winning the Internet.

Additionally, the Obama campaign was the first to really take advantage of YouTube for free advertising, creating online videos that were watched for 14.5 million hours during the course of the campaign (Trippi estimated that a comparable amount of effective TV advertising at the time would have cost $47 million). Although Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012 lacked the trailblazing edge of its 2008 predecessor, its use of Internet fundraising and social media-based organizing were instrumental in the president’s victory that year.

Of course, the same resources that were used to help elect and reelect President Obama have also been employed in creative ways by those who have sought to defeat him and/or his agenda. “The Tea Party is, in many ways, a small-d democratic movement that used the Internet to build a massive political movement,” observed Derek Thompson of the Atlantic. The Tea Party emerged as an umbrella movement that unified grassroots conservatives opposed to President Obama under a single banner outside of the mainstream GOP, while individual chapters were able to focus on the issues that mattered most to its specific members (including illegal immigration, gun rights, and opposing health care reform).

“The difference between being an early-20th-century Democrat and an early-21st-century Tea Party member is the Internet,” further noted Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. “With it, the middleman is eliminated—in this case an actual political party, Republican or Democratic, which was once called the organization because it actually organized. Now that’s done laptop to laptop so like-minded people can get together, even if they do not actually get together.”

In short, regardless of party or ideology, it’s clear that the real “winners” in the Internet age are grassroots voters who care enough about specific issues or candidates to mobilize online, as well as the politicians and causes that are savvy enough to effectively use the medium. While this may help make American democracy somewhat more literally democratic, however, there are also costs to the Internet’s newfound influence.

For one thing, despite its potential usefulness as a tool for facilitating debate, the Internet instead tends to exacerbate partisan and ideological divides. A Pew study last year found that Americans on the far left and right—who make up about 20 percent of the public but have disproportionate political clout due to being more likely to vote, donate, and volunteer—use the Internet to access news sources and other media outlets that reinforce their preexisting beliefs. 

“When it comes to getting news about politics and government, liberals and conservatives inhabit different worlds,” wrote survey authors Amy Mitchell, Jeffrey Gottfried, Jocelyn Kiley, and Katerina Eva Matsa. “There is little overlap in the news sources they turn to and trust.”

How could Obama—a relative newcomer—pull off an upset victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries? 

Similarly, today’s online political culture often amplifies extreme voices to such a degree that it becomes more difficult for centrists and moderates to be heard. As John Avlon, a senior political columnist for the Daily Beast, explained, “The Internet is allowing us to self-segregate ourselves into separate political realities. It’s become in some cases an incubator for extremism, where people who are like-minded can incite each other to greater heights all day.”

What’s more, the Internet frequently creates a false sense of confidence in people about their understanding of complex issues. As a 2013 study published in Psychological Science discovered, political extremists rely the online echo chambers they create for themselves instead of doing legitimate research. 

Not only does this make them less well-informed about politics in general, but it makes them more susceptible to being swayed by political contenders skilled in the art of “trolling”—further igniting the passions of the extreme factions of the party instead of offering reasoned opinions (a point made by the Daily Dot’s own Ben Branstetter about Donald Trump earlier this month).

While giving a greater platform, thus, to the Trumps of the world, the Internet hasn’t done that much to diminish the importance of money in politics. “Successful collective action happens on the Internet when an external stimulus propels sufficient numbers of independent actors to coalesce in opposition—not because those independent actors first bring themselves together in concert,” Salon’s Micah Sifry explained last year. “The Internet is good at no; it’s not good at yes.”

This means that it is easier for genuinely spontaneous Internet movements to arise when the main goal is simply to oppose someone—as in the case of the Tea Party and President Obama—than it is to cultivate and promote constructive solutions to major issues and political problems. When it comes to the nitty-gritty of political fundraising and lobbying—which actually shapes how policies solutions are constructed—the power still rests where it always has: with the handful of donors and corporate interests who give most generously to Democratic and Republican political campaigns.

None of this means that we should be cynical about the Internet’s future impact on American politics. The medium is still young, and as the diffuse Republican candidate field and insurgent Democratic candidacy of Bernie Sanders both demonstrate, its full potential has yet to be realized. If nothing else, however, now is the time to fully appreciate how far we’ve come and how greatly the Internet is likely to further transform politics in the future.

Matt Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University, as well as a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, MSNBC, and various college newspapers and blogs. Matt actively encourages people to reach out to him at [email protected].

Illustration by Jason Reed

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University and a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, and MSNBC.