Interview with Nicholas Lemann: Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism

Interview with Nicholas Lemann: Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism

Fri Jun. 29, 2007 2:00 AM EDT

Nicholas Lemann: If I could put it in a headline: I am tremendously for open-source politics. I question whether this model never existed until now. I think that's a little ahistorical. I would like to persuade you that the way to understand this as a cyclical phenomenon rather than as an on/off switch.

When I was your age, I interviewed a man named Richard Viguerie. He is a really important person in American history. He is the person who invented the rise of the right wing that led to the rise of Reagan and now George W. Bush. He was in the direct-mail business, which was then a new political technology, and he made the argument that there is this miraculous new technology that has become available to political practitioners and it is going to break up the lock of the old elites. It is going to empower those who have been shut out, such as those who believe that abortion is murder, and we are going to turn American politics upside down—and they did. So that is my way of saying, be careful of the idea that you are seeing unusually powerful waves hitting the shore. This is a big wave, but it is not the only wave there has ever been.

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Mother Jones: Could you give me your definition of "open-source politics"?

NL: There are basically three forces in American politics. One is experts, one is the two main political parties, and one is groups. The nature of American politics changes constantly as the relative importance of the three forces changes. There is a constant struggle between these three models of politics: the group model, the party model, and the expert model. And then new stuff keeps entering the space of politics. Some new things are technologies and some are cultural changes. TV probably strengthened the hand of the political parties more than anybody else. I think the Internet tends to favor groups, although it is very heavily used by parties as well. I think it will decrease the importance of network broadcast television advertising and increase political participation and political organizations. Now often what happens is, when something comes along that empowers groups, the parties then get in the act and try to woo those groups into joining.

With the Internet you see a flourishing of group politics, which is healthy because it encourages civil society and ground-level participation in the political system. And then, as time goes on, some of the groups will become more established or important than others and then those groups will tend to affiliate with one or the other political party.

MJ: What term would you use in lieu of "open-source politics"?

NL: I guess I would call it pluralism, which is just an old-fashioned political term. There is one other thing that I want to say to you as a caveat to this whole thing, just because you write for Mother Jones. It is entirely possible that what you are calling open-source politics will end up empowering conservatives much more than liberals, and I ask you to leave yourself open to that possibility. The Republicans are all over this as the Democrats and the left are. They are very heavy users of the Internet as an organizing tool. The Internet makes it very easy to target specific groups who care about specific things. Some of those people care about concealed-carry laws. That is a huge and incredibly powerful organizing issue on the right, which obviously makes the establishment very uncomfortable. It is never going be part of the national party platform and it is never going to be in the keynote speech of the Republican National Convention. This increases the conviction of concealed-carry advocates that they are outsiders and are being ignored by the establishment and that they need to practice a new brand of politics through the Internet. And they are doing it; they really are. The anti-abortion people are doing it. The flat-tax people are doing it, and on and on it goes.

MJ: Many people we have spoken to think the Democratic Party has really taken open-source politics and utilized it in its favor.

NL: Don't rest on your laurels because of the '06 election and assume this is an issue that is owned by the left and that conservatives don't get the Internet or are sort of asleep at the switch here.

MJ: Would you say open-source politics encourages candidates to cater to their base or to move to the center?

NL: It encourages them to be more pluralistic. If you go on Hillary Clinton's web page, you will see on the right-hand columns a list of 17,000 little positions. She has decried bias in textbooks. She has a position on nutrition levels in children's cereal and a position on the plight of dairy farmers. I don't know if you call that moving to the center. I call it trying to assemble a coalition by reaching out to groups that care about one specific thing. So I think that is what it will encourage. I tend to believe that TV political advertising is generally a bad force in American political life. I am more pro-open-source stuff, but TV advertising does drive you to the center, because you are trying to appeal to an undifferentiated mass of people.

MJ: Will open-source politics affect most Americans?

NL: Again, I don't buy your terminology. What you are calling open-source politics has always existed; it just has more powerful technologies for doing it than ever before.

 

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