Listening to and reading along with President Obama’s Twitter TownHall event today left me thinking about the illusory nature of political progress. Throughout the first 150 years of the republic’s history, the only way citizens could hear the sound of their president’s voice was by being lucky enough to hear him speak in person. Until the advent of radio, newspapers and printed accounts of speeches were the sole form of access to the presidency outside of personal appearances. Since then, our access to the presidency has been gradually expanded via film, television and now the Internet. Once upon a time it was thought that technological advances would bring with them a similar advance in the nature of our civilization and our politics.
Our communication technologies have certainly advanced, but we should not be under the illusion the advent of these technologies has brought us a higher form of democracy or access to greater wisdom.
The founding fathers would have distrusted a system that limited communication to 140-character messages. But they would have liked the idea of being able to communicate with the entire nation as easily as Barack Obama did today. Perhaps even some of those wise heads might have thought such a system might have enabled American democracy to more closely resemble New England town hall meetings where all may be heard.
Yet the fact remains while politicians can be better heard these days, the essence of political speech and debate is a function of those individuals speaking–not the technology by which their views are broadcast. It is all well and good the president can speak on the Internet and actually field questions in this manner from citizens and even fellow politicians. But if all this forum produces are presidential statements that are cliché-ridden class warfare demagoguery (such as that broadcast by President Obama this afternoon), then we must realize that progress is a relative term. The Twitter TownHall was a fascinating exercise, but it was nothing more than a partisan presidential stump speech with moderated questions and answers. We learned nothing new about either him or his policies. Nor was the controlled forum anything resembling genuine democratic debate.
The self-satisfied and arrogant manner in which the president took questions today, dismissing the views of his opponents and characteristically setting up straw men to knock down in a disingenuous attempt to play the moderate, was merely politics as usual. It would be foolish to expect anything else from him. For all of the self-congratulation routinely heard today about the improved and more immediate modes of communication, there should be no pretense it has brought about a similar advance in what is actually being communicated. As President Obama proved again today on Twitter, more access does not guarantee a more elevated form of political discourse.