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From Big to Little Screens: Recurring Images of Democratic Credibility and the Net

Mark Rolfe

There are many who believe the World Wide Web is a blessing that increases participatory democracy because everyone can be involved through blogging, citizen journalism, YouTube, Web 2.0 and other exciting possibilities of the internet. However, my paper explores the continuing need for people to project images of political credibility through the internet to our computer screens. I want to concentrate here on some aspects of the internet that represent less an upheaval and more a continuation of old politics by new means.

My main point is that much of this display of credibility, called ethos by the ancients, is mistaken for an increase in participatory democracy and thus a brighter political future. Excitement for the internet gets the better of many people who jumble a language of technological progress to describe the opportunities for discussion and information with a deep respect for democracy as the proper basis of political society. They proclaim new eras and great possibilities for citizens and rational discussion in a truly deliberative democracy. This concoction is understandable since writers and their audiences subscribe to the traditional discourses of democracy and modernity. It has then been easy for them to extend these common linguistic resources to the net. In other words, writers of the internet carried past habits over to the internet as part of the general fact that offline beliefs determined online activities.

Therefore, there is less of a rupture with the past than is so often portrayed in our discussions of the net. In fact, discussions of the internet that depict new interdependent borderless worlds continue a tradition of hyperbolic rhetoric that goes back to the 1920s with the radio, airplane and telegraph (Pemberton 2001 & 2002) and to the nineteenth century with the telegraph (Standage 1998) when many thought such technology heralded new dawns in history.

There may very well be opportunities to improve democracy through the internet in the future but we need to sort them from ethical appeals that do nothing to increase citizen participation. In fact, an understanding of ethos leads to an awareness of its unruly sibling called ad hominem. Any attempt by a speaker to project their credibility is likely to elicit an equal and opposite character assassination, often in the form of political satire, which undermine the ideals of rational discussion so beloved by enthusiasts for a Habermasian-style deliberative democracy.

Even though these ethical, satiric and ad hominem appeals represent ‘politics as usual’ rather than novelty on the net, this statement should not be taken as a dismissive or world-weary claim. There is a certain amount of reinvention of the democratic wheel in discussions of the internet but this is no more than is necessary to the continuing conversation that we call discursive democracy. Democracy has to be continually reinvented with each age and society.

It is easy to find authors from a broad array of disciplines who acclaim the potential of the internet to restore democracy and transform political society. In the back of their minds is usually some nostalgia for American New England (see Shane 2004: 72; Barber 1998-99: 582; Froomkin 2004: 3, 17) or even ancient Athenian models of participatory democracy in which citizens gathered to rationally discuss and decide issues affecting their community. Like many others over the last 150 years, the default mode of these writers is that such communal involvement is best and is possible with everyone wired to the web. More to this point of what is deemed good, political participation by all via the net is assumed to somehow reduce the need for politicians (See Ferdinand 1999: 6). Al Gore has not only enthused about the need for curbing global warming but has also imagined a “New Athenian Age” with the internet (Quoted in Buchstein 1997: 249). Howard Rheingold saw a “utopian vision of an electronic agora, an ‘Athens without slaves’” (Rheingold 1995; also see Francis and Brants 1998: 21).

Understandably, numerous authors see the internet as a means for improving deliberative democracy, that branch of political theory that depicts the discussion of citizens rather than the rule of public institutions as the source of legitimacy in democracy. They have married this enthusiasm to either the Habermasian public sphere or the Jeffersonian town hall meeting as historical models for the conduct of rational discussion (Froomkin 2004; Bohman 2004; Witschge 2004; Beierle 2004). This acclaim for Jeffersonian democracy represents a romantic strain that recurs in American political culture as a measure for new media. When Walter Lippmann warned in the 1920s of propaganda on the mass media subverting the rational decision-making of the citizenry, he was judging against this Jeffersonian model and found the public wanting (Sproule 1997).

However, the Athenian participatory ideal was not as great as many would have us believe. As many know, women, children, foreigners and slaves did not count as citizens, thus whittling the eligible numbers of voters from 250,000 to 40,000. More to the point here, most citizens were too busy surviving with farms and businesses to turn up for meetings of the assembly that governed the city-state. It was left to the 6,000 who turned up, who mostly did not address the gathering, and whose deliberations were guided by an influential few. As much as the ancient Greeks loved politics, there was much else to do. As much as the golden age of Athens is remembered for direct democracy, it is also famed for the few leaders like Pericles and Callisthenes. A few orators and decision-makers, in other words leaders, were necessary to provide the direction that could not be given by an amorphous group. Moreover, there were nasty things in Athens that sour modern tastes, such as the ostracism of those disliked by the assembly and no independence of the law.

In other words, there were none of the rights that we inherited from nineteenth century liberalism and none of our political and legal mechanisms to adjudicate tensions between majorities and minorities. Majority rule is often mistaken as the basis of democracy. Although majority is a useful principle, it is merely one mechanism for deciding a winner within a complex and conflicting package called democracy. The basis of sovereignty in democracy is not the majority of people but all of the people, both majority and minority (Sartori 1987, 22-33). The implication of this is that a stable democracy requires that majorities and minorities fluctuate rather than fix with issues and the tensions that are inherent in political society never threaten the political order.

Many authors glide past such complications to use a language of rupture with the internet to describe a revived democracy with true participation by citizens. Apparently, more online voting and the majority principle roping politicians to the will of the people will restore trust in public institutions and cure widespread apathy. Gerry Stoker is a well-known political scientist who mourns the disrepute held for politicians across modern democracies and the declining rates of voter turnout at elections, but he sees the internet as an answer with increased participation, “engagement” and “democratic governance”. He cites the well-known Minnesota E-Democracy project and the Hansard Society in the UK as examples of how people can be more easily engaged in politics by the web (Stoker 2006: 190-2). However, if people can be easily engaged in politics by the net, then they can be just as easily disengaged from it. Just as for the Athenians, so for us time, money and effort can determine the nature of political involvement. Therefore, one needs to probe the depth of political attachment involved with the web. Similar to Stoker, David Wyld at Lousiana University enthused about the potential of blogging, wikis, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and web 2.0 for increased democracy because there is increased participation through “social networking” that taps the “wisdom.of the crowds” (2007: 43).

Whether it is termed by analysts as Web 2.0, user or consumer-generated media, or social networks, there is a sea change occurring wherein the web has become a truly participatory media. The rise of what has been alternately referred to as consumer- or user generated media (content) has been hailed as being truly revolutionary in nature. (2007: 12)

He approvingly cited a report in the IBM Center for the Business of Government series that stated how “reshaping how government works and, in reality, how we as citizens relate to and think about our government” (Wyld 2007: 10). He was presenting a monograph in the IBM e-government series by a corporation that is investing much effort in this area.

Many excited voices mention the electoral campaigns of Jesse Ventura in 1998 or Howard Dean in 2003 as milestones when the candidates bypassed traditional political, in particular party, structures to either win or shake the landscape by gaining money and support from ordinary people through the web (for example, Eggers 2005: 161-6; Rheingold 2005: 89; Trippi 2005: 6). Equally, there are claims for a “Digital Democracy” of “Citizen-centered government” that provides information and “customised”, “personalised” public services that increases accountability in a truly “Transparent State” (Eggers 2005).

In a similar vein, one writer noted the video clips placed on YouTube during the 2007 Australian federal election by both Prime Minister John Howard and opposition leader Kevin Rudd have “the potential to make politics more accessible and democratic. Online media will force politicians to become more open, accountable and human” (Hills 2007). Closer to the source, the Welcome to Kevin07 campaign blog stated:

“Elections are about choices. They give you and all Australians the chance to have your say. Here at KEVIN07, we’re doing things differently. This space is not about us – it’s about you. It’s yours to share ideas, learn more, get the ‘behind the headlines’ stories and help drive a fresh new vision for Australia's future. We want to hear from you – your ideas, hopes and concerns”. (Gartrell 2007a)

However, these statements provide a clue to the more traditional political methods pursued by Rudd. As Aristotle noted, an orator must establish their good character with an audience. With the internet, there is still the need for ethos, which is the most important of the three modes of proof in rhetoric, as a speaker will not be believed unless the audience trusts them, no matter how rational their argument. The reader may be more familiar with the modern notion of branding which was a reinvention of ethos in American consumer society of the early twentieth century.

There are three elements to ethos which is an image presented through speech. The orator must appear to have practical wisdom (phronesis), to have a high moral character (arête), and to be benevolent (eunoia). Ethos must be adapted to the values and shared knowledge of the audience, known as doxa. In modern political society, this means showing a concern and identification with ‘the people’ and this has particular resonance in democracy because of the positive evaluations associated with the term. Claims of representation with the people are, in effect, statements that such similarities ensure there are similar high-minded values and future decisions will meet the approval of people. Hence, politicians emphasise their similar origins as examples of character and emphasise their sole concern with the people’s good as proof of eunoia. Apart from constant iteration that their policies exhibit ‘common sense’, politicians also use technology to demonstrate their affinity with ‘the practical’ and to connect with what good they will do in ‘the future’.

Like many leaders before him, Rudd pitched his appeal for the top job as a man of the future, of a new generation who was in touch with the concerns of ordinary Australians in comparison to a prime minister who was arrogant, out of touch and stuck in the past. He was not the first politician, let alone the first Labor politician, to do this. It was a constant refrain of Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating to deride the Rip van Menzies’ years when past opportunities were lost and to proclaim their policies for a future Australia (Rolfe 1999). This is normal partisan language that is to be expected, not only because of the language of progress, but also because, of the three genres of rhetoric, the deliberative is the genre of politics and deals with the future. A speaker must convince an audience that things will be better with them than with opponents who failed in the past.

There is no better way of claiming affinity with the future than the use of new technology. Rudd has taken Facebook, YouTube and a broadband revolution to the heart of his campaign for “Fresh ideas”, for an education revolution that is digital and on broadband. The Kevin07 Team stated that “This Federal election is making history for its use of the internet as a forum for genuine expression and debate” (Gartrell 2007b), which was contrasted with the deceit of Howard who was damned by Rudd with faint praise as a “clever politician”.

The promoters and politicians of the internet infuse their ethical appeal with the language of modernity. Although ideas of evolutionary progress and world history dissipated over the course of the twentieth century, there is still a more mundane belief in technology and progress and “sense and perception of rapid, cumulative change” (Gellner 1965: 42, 45). There is still the promise of progress with each new wave of technology. There is still the appeal of what is new and contemporary and the disdain for what is old. Such thought engenders a language of new beginnings and rupture from the past. With such assumptions, it favours a speaker or writer to include the new and wonderful internet in their argument.

Hence, Web 2.0, blogging and wikis are acclaimed for their potential to revolutionise citizen participation and this sense of departure is heightened by comparing its interactive and participatory nature to the passive consumption of old media (See Anderson 2007 and Walker 2007). It is ironic that it took several decades to get rid of the idea that people are merely passive spongers soaking up the old mass media without thought, only to return in a way that enhances the worth of new media.

Now far be it for me to draw any parallels between Kevin Rudd and Adolf Hitler, but there is at least one. Both men associated themselves with the appropriate technology of their decades. In the 1932 election campaign, Hitler was the first politician to stump Germany by plane when flying was still dangerous, and was thus an energetic and daring contrast to the aging President Hindenburg. Hitler was ‘The Fuhrer over Germany’ in name as well as in election slogan in four campaigns between April and November, descending from the skies to 148 mass rallies of 20-30,000 people each. In one six day period he spoke to rallies in twenty cities (Kershaw 1989: 41). He was seen and heard in person or on the silver screen by millions of Germans.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Hitler over Germany 1932

Figure 2

Figure 2: Hitler Over Germany 1932

Hitler was the star of a well-oiled Nazi propaganda machine under the poisonous Joseph Goebbels who used state power to create the “Fuhrer myth”. This heroic and popular image of Hitler as a divine saviour and infallible universal genius of Germany was central to the legitimation of the Nazi regime in the eyes of the people and therefore vital to integrating various conflicting social groups (Kershaw 1989: 2-4; Welch 2003:93). Thus, Leni Riefenstahl was entirely in keeping with this cult in 1935 when she opened Triumph of the Will with shots of clouds seen from a cockpit of the plane. Then the airplane comes into view and it is like the hand of God gradually lowering his messenger to earth, to the people of Nuremburg we see below as so many anonymous ants. Only the Fuhrer is seen by the camera as an individual riding in his car or plane above the adoring masses. This was the only film made about Hitler in the Third Reich because “it said all that needed to be said” (Evans 2005: 126). He was a heroic leader yet he was also one of the people from humble origins and the trenches of World War I who represented in an authoritarian way the will and essence of the ordinary people of a united community (Kershaw 1989: 19).

Figure 3

Figure 3: Scene from Triumph of the Will

As may be gleaned so far, public image is not a new concern of politics when Aristotle, Cicero and Machiavelli are remembered. One can see it in the 1920s when the new methods of American advertising were applied to politics. Bruce Barton was a significant figure of American advertising who applied his public relations skills in 1928 to Herbert Hoover, getting him to speak briefly, simply and more emotionally and to be photographed on fishing trips to show he was like other people (See Herbert Hoover, YouTube). Thus began Barton’s long career of political advice to the Republican Party (Sproule 1997: 35).

In Australia at that time, new skills of the nascent consumer society were applied to the cinema advertisements of conservative prime minister Stanley Bruce during the 1925 election. He got into parliament in 1918 as a decorated but wounded Gallipoli hero, thus exhibiting an arête valued by many in a country at war. As prime minister, the silent films focused on Bruce to the exclusion of his party (Young 2003: 99-100), capitalising on his standing as a man of solid business sense and experience who could guide the country through the boom decade. That is, there was also an appeal to phronesis or practical wisdom. Such historical background provides some sobriety to arguments that in the last three decades politics has been Americanised by media techniques and thus consumed by superficial image and personalisation of campaigns rather than concerned with political parties and ideology.

As I hope is clear so far, technology often infuses presentations of political image in representative democracy. However, this also means that the language of modernity often confuses discussions of democracy, in particular of e-democracy, leading many to believe that the problems of democracy can be resolved by technology. Therefore, such arguments appear very persuasive because they fuse the general favour associated with progress with the high repute connected to democracy. Since 1945, most countries in the world have described themselves as some sort of democracy, which meant its value was a central part of the common knowledge of these societies, known as doxa, which must be appealed to by a speaker. Whether such societies were liberal or not, democracy was held in high repute as an inherent good and the basis of these societies. Therefore, democracy was not a neutral term. In fact, it has always been an evaluative-descriptive term, like many in the vocabulary of politics, which mixes appraisive judgements with descriptive arguments.

Aristotle noted that in Athens it was easy to praise Athenians but necessary to gain a hearing. Similarly, in democracies, it has been easy but necessary for speakers to describe themselves as democratic (Saward 2003: 3) to glean the favour associated with democracy and its attributes, to praise the people as wise and to emphasise their similarities with ordinary people. Again, there is nothing new in this ethical appeal to prove a moral and benevolent character. In the 1870s, William Gladstone was known as “people’s William” who took the cause of the ‘masses’ against the ‘classes’ and made it “central to national politics” in Britain. With the Reform Act of 1867 expanding the franchise, British politics changed from being the preserve of a privileged minority to being the concern of ordinary folk. Prime ministers now had to appeal across the nation to the unfamiliar masses. Gladstone grasped this new situation and popularised his image with his hobby of tree-felling. The people flocked special train excursions to see the ‘woodman’ at his family seat of Hawarden Castle in what “was a harbinger of more modern cults of the politician as one of us” (Joyce 1991: 50, 56). Hitler hated democracy, nevertheless he did identify with ordinary people through his own humble origins, as I noted earlier.

Such cults have persisted since the nineteenth century with varying degrees of plausibility not only in Britain but also in Australia and the United States. More importantly, they have contributed to a tradition of people’s expectations of politicians that have proliferated from big film screens to small television and computer screens.

When Labor Parties formed in the Australian colonies in the early 1890s, they attempted to capture the banner of democracy and the high moral ground by claiming that since they were working class parties, the parties of the ‘masses’, then they were also parties of democracy, unlike their opponents which they claimed were parties of the ‘classes’. Hence, Labor relied on a nineteenth century equation of democracy with the working class to make a claim of greater representation because they dressed in ordinary working class clothes, dressing ‘like a shearer or navvy’ as one paper called it, rather than the fancy dress of top hats and tails which barely covered the girth of the fat capitalist (Figure 4. See Rolfe 2007). Similarly, one US Congressman was mentioned in a 1901 Australian newspaper as not wearing socks as a sign of his commitment to the poor working class and democracy (29 January 1901, Daily Telegraph).

Figure 4

Figure 4: The Fat Capitalist in  The Australian Worker, 24 September 1914

This institution of democratic appearances continued on the silver screen. In the 1939 satire Mr.Smith Goes to Washington director Frank Capra pitted the newly elected, innocent and plainly dressed senator Jefferson Smith (Smith signifying the ordinary Everyman of democracy; Jefferson derived from Thomas Jefferson, the epitome of the American democratic ideal) against a corrupt ‘machine’ involving a plutocrat called Taylor and his ‘bought’ party officials. Smith not only had the appearance of one of the people, he was also doing what the people wanted. A mere ten years ago, Australian televisions were the avenues for a woman who had made a virtue of her ordinariness as a sign of her common sense and principle. Pauline Hanson complained bitterly of an elite that was subverting the people’s will and thus affirmed that she would return democracy to the people, although what she promised was for the most part more effective representation of citizens rather than more effective participation by citizens. Despite her claims of ordinariness and distinction from corrupted political parties, one can actually see the sort of makeover in Hanson’s appearance that is necessary in politics these days, from a ordinary woman into the ‘people’s champion’.

Figure 5

Figure 5: Hanson before makeover

Figure 6

Figure 6: Hanson after makeover

Here we come to the crux of the matter. Despite claims of greater participatory democracy with the internet, closer examination often reveals nothing more than claims to better representation by a politician who is providing for constituents more avenues of communication than the opposition. Mark Latham declared himself at the 2004 ALP Conference “a believer in grassroots democracy” (2004). Thus, he embarked on a bus tour of New South Wales of numerous meetings with groups of locals. It was part of a political strategy to portray himself as an outsider from western Sydney who was standing up for the underdogs of the suburbs against the power elite which was represented by prime minister John Howard and which he would dissolve. Latham claimed he would “broaden[…] our democracy” as prime minister (2004). It was the same strategy that Rudd employed in 2007.

Latham’s greater capacity to listen to voters was evident with his earlier e-democracy project called Direct Democracy in Werriwa, which involved him asking questions of his electorate through his website and promising to “act on the majority view” of responses submitted. He claimed this would make him “more accountable as an elected representative” and “We need to give people a direct say in the decisions which affect their lives” (Bishop et al 2002: 56-7). However, this was no more a restoration of direct democracy than the bus tour and was merely a reinvention of the delegate mode of representation that the ALP institutionalised in the 1890s and which promises to be totally faithful to the desires of the voters. It stands in contrast to the Burkean mode which endeavours to take account of the wishes of voters but mainly concentrates on the national interest of all. The delegate mode seems ideal but the weakness of this mode is that it gives no room for manoeuvre to accomplish in parliament the sort of political compromise that is necessary for a stable political society but may not be pursued by dogmatic constituents, nor does it allow for the politician’s initiative to deal with unforeseen events. In contrast, the Burkean mode gives too much freedom to the politician and too little account of voters’ desires. A balance of both means of representation is needed.

In other words, Latham was revitalising an old ALP tactic of proclaiming organisational forms as giving greater democratic credibility. Here is a lesson for those who proclaim Web 2.0 and blogging are more participatory and therefore democratic by nature. They are not the first to employ this argument. At the beginning of its political life, the Australian Labor Party adopted an organisation that they claimed was more democratic than its opponents because it ensured representatives served the working class through the delegate mode of representation. The Australian Democrats and Green Party have always promoted themselves as grassroots parties with greater participation in their organisational structures than the major parties, which they portrayed as anti-democratic. Yet in all these parties, there have been tensions and splits between the representatives and the grassroots who have taken participatory ideas seriously. It was not possible to do without politicians, even though in 1914, at the height of the first Labor golden age under Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, the stalwart Labor newspaper The Worker declared that the structure of the party represented ‘a phase of evolution infinitely in advance of the days when workers had to be led. They have no use for leaders’ (Cited in Maddox 2000, 459). Such tensions between representatives and the rank-and-file are inherent to large modern complex representative democracies and will continue despite attempts to increase participatory democracy through the internet. As much as the internet provides the decentralisation which encourages many to think of the opportunities for participatory democracy, there are just as many opportunities for centralisation which encourages major political parties (Sükösd, M. and E.Dányi, 2003a: 213-217 & 2003b: 287-8).

Latham was a more prominent example of the tendency amongst Australian politicians who want to show they are good representatives by using websites to personalise party messages and to highlight their views and their electoral work (Ward et al 2007). This personalisation, observed also in Britain (Sükösd and E.Dányi  2003a: 213), aims to increase credibility with voters. Even the staff of US Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi and Republican Jack Kingston argued over who were the better bloggers (Glover 2006).

Like Latham, Rudd was claiming to be a better listener when he said “Facebook is such a terrific vehicle for communicating with people and listening to what you have to say that I've decided to start a group to do just this” (Facebook 2007). As noted earlier, Rudd was celebrating the internet as a forum for “genuine expression and debate” in contrast to Howard who was portrayed as a ‘clever’, that is deceitful, politician who was not listening to people. The Kevin07 “space was not about us – it’s about you...We want to hear from you”.

Yet Rudd was not the first politician in 2007 to say this. Hilary Clinton and John Edwards aimed for history and democratic appeal by first announcing their bids for the presidency of the United States on YouTube and email. In January 2007 Clinton flaunted her democratic credentials against an opponent by stating she wasn’t just starting a campaign but “a conversation – with you, with America, because we all need to be part of the discussion if we are all going to be part of the solution” (Clinton 2007). It is

a conversation about the future of our country — about the bold but practical changes we need to overcome six years of Bush administration failures. I am going to take this conversation directly to the people of America, and I’m starting by inviting all of you to join me in a series of Web chats over the next few days. (Associated Press 2007)

In December 2006, Edwards blitzed the media with his presidential announcement that included an email and a YouTube video that showed him in a neighbourhood of New Orleans devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Thus, he affirmed his place with ‘the people’, especially the ‘have-nots’, and emphasised he was running a “grassroots, ground-up campaign where we ask people to take action” (Balz 2006).

Despite the similarities noted so far between Australian and American politicians, there are important differences between them. Aside from Rudd, Australian politicians have not taken up blogging as enthusiastically as their American counterparts (Ward and Cahill 2007) nor have they taken policy initiatives on their websites. That is, they are party loyalists in the tradition of Australian politics who stuck to the party line. Party discipline has always been greater here than other countries, particularly the United States, and has increased over the last 20 years. Rebellion is almost unheard of. In other words, the online presentations of Australian politicians were extensions of their offline activities (Ward et al 2007). Therefore, cultural context is important when understanding the use that is made of the internet and the construction of websites. The inroads into the political system made by the internet campaigns of Howard Dean and Jesse Ventura are less surprising when one considers the weak party discipline and greater checks and balances of the American political system. Moreover, ideals of local decision-making like the Jeffersonian New England town hall have not been pursued in Australia, which has always had a more centralised system.

There is a further important point to be made about the difference between representation and participation. Increased blogging and wikis, greater amounts of online information and more use of Web 2.0 by citizens does not necessarily mean more participatory democracy when viewed from the angle of public power. It may just be more people talking or finding more avenues for talking rather than them acting collectively on the deployment of public power, which is binding and legitimate in its directions for the whole community. Merely focusing on participation as a choice-driven consumer individual activity ignores questions of the community and public power. One can point to overseas examples such as Michael Powell, who was once chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission. He lauded blogging as a tool of democracy and started one in July 2004, said Wyld who cited him as saying:

One reason I am participating in AlwaysOn Network’s blog is to hear from the tech community directly and to try to get beyond the traditional inside the Beltway Washington world where lobbyists filter the techies. I am looking forward to an open, transparent, and meritocracy-based communication — attributes that bloggers are famous for! (Wyld 2007: 15)

Yet Powell had such public power by virtue of his appointment by the US president — and he used it to the dissatisfaction of many. In 2003, he presided over the decision by the Republican members of the commission to weaken regulations that limited the concentration of ownership in American media. This was done with little advance publicity, with a denial support for the Democrat members of the commission to hold public hearings, and with a disregard for almost all of the 750,000 Americans who responded to the public consultation process but opposed the Powell changes. This change favoured the giants of the traditional American media gobbling up the new media (Calabrese 2004).

American management academic David Wyld shares with his compatriot William Eggers a simplistic faith that more information means greater government transparency and accountability in the net revolution. An example Wyld approvingly cited was a bill by US Senators Barack Obama and Tom Cockburn and signed into law by George Bush, which set up a website with information about federal government contracts and grants (Wyld 2007: 35). Similarly, Eggers commended the Howard government (2005: 43) as an example of providing “seamless government” and “citizen-centred government”. However, during the 2007 election, the Australian Privacy Foundation rated the governing parties of the Howard Coalition badly and at the bottom of all parties in its commitment to privacy issues, in particular citing the proposed Access card (Browne 2007).

My last point to be made about ethos and participatory democracy concerns those authors who see the internet as a means for improving deliberative democracy and for delivering a Habermasian public sphere with rational discussion. Froomkin is one of these authors, who nevertheless noted that even Habermas’ modified form of ideal discourse “calls for a far more demanding type of discourse than one commonly encounters in the political arena” (2004: 5). His standards for rational discussion are problematic yet are supposed to have a historical precedent. However, as Conal Condren notes, Habermas mythologised early eighteenth century England as a period with a public domain of rational and free political discussion that should be admired (2002: 79, 82). Such mythology, projected by Habermas from the twentieth century upon eighteenth century, has bounced back to become a serious model for deliberative democracy generally and the internet in particular.

For every attempt to substantiate political credibility on the net there is also an attempt to destroy it. For every ethical appeal there is an ad hominem and this character assassination can often take the form of political satire. In his admiration for the Augustan Age of England, Habermas mentioned Jonathan Swift, John Arbuthnot, Alexander Pope, and John Gay and failed to consider the nature of satire (1992: 59). They were party men, satirists for hire, who eagerly joined propaganda campaigns to trade in exaggerations, ridicule, insulations and humiliations, and then complained about partisan prejudice and irrational political debate. They lived in an age of vituperative political debate, with fierce partisanship and extensive propaganda in the numerous coffee houses and flourishing newspapers that Habermas so admires. They were aware of advice from Aristotle and Quintilian that to make an audience laugh at one’s adversary is both persuasive and aggressive. Scorn or ridicule of an adversary is a kind of victory and almost animalistic. As Samuel Butler observed no man laughs fully without baring his teeth. Such impulses were most obvious in Pope who believed that satire should be vicious and set a moral example by cutting an animal from the herd. Arbuthnot’s book The Art of Political Lying was a satire of political culture and party allegiances at that time in which lies were a currency of debate. In other words, political discussion was not ‘nice’, respectful discussion (Condren 2002:85-88).

If such was the case in eighteenth century, I don’t think we can one expect any more from the twenty-first century internet when one takes account of this additional avenue for satirically savaging those who would prove their credibility with us. For every attempt by Hilary Clinton to establish her ethos on the net, there will be something similar to the Big Brother satirical mashup (See Hilary 1984 2007), which was made by a supporter of Barack Obama. That is, it was old politics by new means. In Al Gore’s Penguin Army on YouTube, Gore is seen boring penguins to sleep with his lectures on global warming which causes all sorts of problems, including Lindsay Lohan’s thinness. The film has the appearance of an amateur YouTube mashup to gain credibility but was in fact created by the public relations firm DCI which has Republican sympathies and Exxon as a client (Tapper and Culhane 2006). Similarly, for all the attempts to engage young Australian voters through YouTube, the satires and mashups of John Howard proved more popular than his video releases. The ALP also satirised Howard for his failure to recognise global warming by a clip that showed him asleep in bed.

Proliferating wikis have provided numerous temptations for people to edit entries that affect public reputations. The most famous examples so far are the changes to Wikipedia by Chevron; by staff of the Liberal Party of Australia who deleted references to the ‘children overboard’ affair which damaged John Howard and who also removed references to treasurer Peter Costello as Captain Smirk (Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2007); by Hill & Knowlton to references of political repression by its client, the Maldives. In other words, traditional battles over ethos have spread to the wikis.

One should not gather from this paper that there are no opportunities on the internet for increasing participation by citizens nor should one conclude with clichés such as ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ or ‘History repeats itself’. I think it is simplistic to think there is either no change or complete rupture with the internet. Rather, the internet became part of the continuing conversation that is called discursive democracy, which has a more expansive view of rhetoric than other theories of deliberative democracy (See Dryzek 2002). There is no single model of democracy that can be applied to all societies regardless of time and context. Despite some common traits, there are republics and constitutional monarchies, centralised and federated systems, unicameral and bicameral representative systems. Each country must work out its own version of the idea and continue to work it out because of its own culture and history. In fact, there is nothing more to politics than language and, therefore, there is nothing more to democracy than language, than talk. Rather than a single model of Habermasian rationality, there are Gadamerian conversations that take account of the doxa and audience of each society (Walhof 2005). Democracy must be constantly remade through the conversations of a society.

Cited Works

Australian Broadcasting Corporation (2007) Defence blocks staff's Wikipedia access, ABC News, 24th August,, accessed December 21 2007.

Anderson, P. (2007) “What is Web 2.0? Ideas, technologies and implications for education”,JISC Technology and Standards Watch, Feb. 2007,, accessed December 1 2007.

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