Americans have sought technological explanations for their politics longer than they’ve been Americans. It’s no coincidence that the First Amendment guarantees the freedom of assembly, religion, and “the press,” which, in the 1790s, meant the freedom to operate a discrete technology.
And surveying today’s deeply divided political parties, Americans still do the same. Many have blamed not only Citizens United for the strangeness of the 2016 president election, but also the Internet and social media. After all, Donald Trump runs a thoroughly unfiltered Twitter account, and Ezra Klein has written about how Vox devoted more coverage to Bernie Sanders once it discovered how well stories about him did on Facebook.
Speaking at the 2015 Washington Ideas Forum on Thursday, Al Gore did blame a technology for the race’s unpredictableness—but not the one people might think of.
“I think there’s a big wheel turning slowly and we’re now in a phase where our politics have been debased,” he told The Atlantic’s James Fallows.
He described this wheel—this cycle—as profoundly technological.
“When our country was founded, our information ecosystem was formed by the printing press, and it had certain characteristics where individuals could easily enter the public square. The ideas were treated more according to a meritocracy.”
“Television pushed the printing press off of center stage, and now—still—the politicians spend 75 percent of their money on 30-second TV ads,” he said. “Political candidates have to spend three-quarters of their time begging rich people for money to get into the television square.”
And then, said Gore, “human nature being what it is,” politicians wind up thinking more about the interests of donors than the interests of constituents.
So where does Gore turn to for hope? He sees the Internet as only beginning to empower individual voices again. He praised “the wisdom of crowds,” an important idea to both democratic capitalism and the Internet, and he said it was important to ensure democratic principles of the press succeed online.
Swinging back to a more democratic public sphere, he believes, is the only way to make sure that democracy in the United States survives and plans for the long-term—which, to him, especially means preventing and planning for climate change.