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The Blogosphere's Mandatory Script

By Jason Steck

Skimble, a political blog, is closing up shop out of annoyance with the endless triviality of the election debate in 2008. Over at TalkLeft, Democrat partisans have diagnosed the problem predictably as being one of insufficient extremism -- being moderate or centrist is, to them, the worst sort of boring. (The fact that right-wing blogs just completely ignore these posts merely reinforces my point.)

Skimble gets the symptoms right and TalkLeft gets the diagnosis precisely wrong, though. This election has become too annoying to write about. But the problem is not the lack of partisan zealotry, the problem is the relentless and predictable scripts of partisan zealotry.

Take a step back and review any political blog you like and you will immediately be struck by the sameness of the posts. They take the story of the day -- invariably some substance-free "gaffe", photo op, or partisan charge of corruption -- and attach a laundry list of catastrophic impacts foretelling the end of the world if that candidate would be elected. Any reference to actual policy issues will be brief, insubstantial, and driven entirely by stereotypes. Comments threads will be infested by cut-and-paste repetitions of well-worn slogans and talking points, bereft of any engagement with the issues of the real world or any recognition that disagreement could indicate anything other than demonic possession. The scripts rule the day without any tolerance for deviation or criticism of any kind:

Mandatory Script #1: Obama is a "socialist" who is simultaneously too intellectually lightweight to be President yet a Machiavellian genius enough to be bamboozling everyone

Mandatory Script #2a: McCain is "McSame" seeking a third BushHilter term so that he can sell Social Security to Halliburton and bomb every country where brown people live in order to establish an American Empire that will revoke the Bill of Rights in order to establish a theocracy.

Mandatory Script #2b: McCain is "Juan McCain" who will allow an invasion of brown-skinned immigrants that will destroy American culture by ruthlessly picking vegetables and mopping floors.

Mandatory Script #3: Ron Paul (pronounced RONPAUL!!!) is the "only honest man in Congress", a tragically misunderstood savior (like Lyndon LaRouche before him) put down by a vast conspiracy of party elites and the media who is nonetheless the only man who can save The Constitution from the other conspiracies of the Council on Foreign Relations, Da Jooooz, Ze Bilderbergs, The Illuminati, socialists, neocons, fiendish flouridators, Federal Reserve, communists, gray aliens, United Nations, and the vast right wing conspiracy.

It is the comic book election, where the only roles anyone is allowed to play are "Captain America" and "the Legion of Doom". What bunk.

Who to blame for this trend? Ourselves. A recent study found that blog readers are overwhelmingly prone to only read blogs that simply reiterate scripts that they already agree with. There is little market for creativity or honesty in analysis. Blogs that attempt it are quickly marginalized in the market by readers from both left and right who object vociferously to their heresies and vote with their feet.

The result is a blogosphere dominated by "group-think", a psychological phenomenon whereby ideologically homogeneous groups become steadily more extremist and unrealistic as members compete within the group to one-up each other in their purity and passion and reinforce the group against incursions from demonized outsiders who might question precious presumptions.

What a waste of time. But the study findings are devastating in their implications. The extremist political culture blogosphere simply lacks the tools to even consider change, let alone reward those who attempt it. Thus, even blogs that attempt to break the hardened ideological mode (either by including multiple perspectives, like this one, or by a self-conscious commitment to equality of criticism), find themselves shunted out of the networks of link sharing in favor of more ideologically reliable sources. Many blogs that began with strong commitments to independence have long since surrendered themselves to de facto ideological purity tests on key points. In comments threads, either cut-and-paste spammers rule or else the posts go ignored. The sad end result is the same.

What to do? I have no idea. Few in the blogosphere seem interested in any change that would require them to give up their intellectually dishonest and ideologically-driven cherry-picking of available information. I predict that few will even read, let alone respond to this post. I am a heretic, long since condemned to the dustbin of the blogosphere for my obstreperousness and complete inability to shut up in the face of blind regurgitation of ideological scripts. I like Barack Obama and I like John McCain and I think Ron Paul is a ridiculous figure disengaged from the real world. That means I dissent from all of the Mandatory Scripts and have no significant audience to appeal to in the blogosphere.

Most of what I can find the time to write any more focuses on more analysis of foreign affairs where a lack of public knowledge about anything beyond a very narrow range of issues (e.g. Iraq) has inhibited the writing of hardened partisan scripts that can be enforced by the blogosphere's ideological stormtroopers of far left and far right. That means I can indulge in my inexplicable compulsion to share my opinions, but I'm not likely to encounter many readers who care about what I am writing about.

I care deeply about this election, but I find that writing about it publicly is pointless. Welcome to the brave new world of politics, where morons rule by rote.

Jason is an editor and regular contributor to