New Discussion Paper Links Rise of Internet with Presidential Primary Shake-up

January 31, 2008
Doug Gavel

CAMBRIDGE, MA – The ascendancy of the Internet as a political organizing tool has fomented a revolution in the presidential primary process. That is the argument being made by veteran journalist and Harvard Kennedy School visiting lecturer Tom Fiedler in a new Shorenstein Center Discussion Paper.

The paper, titled “The Road to Wikipolitics: Life and Death of the Modern Presidential Primary,”is one of a series of analyses published by the Kennedy School’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

Fiedler contends that the rise of the “new media,” accompanied by the descent of the “old media,” has paved the way for a more egalitarian political process, whereby candidates and supporters can bypass traditional alliances, networks and procedures in order to raise money, build support, and project messages. Beginning with the 2000 campaign, Fiedler argues, the post-1968 presidential primary structure began breaking apart. And by 2008, with the primary “front loading” in Florida and elsewhere, the structure had essentially become anachronistic.

"My hypothesis is that the existing primary framework—the one wherein the political parties and the mainstream media worked in concert to control the campaign machinery—no longer fits the changing environment," Fiedler writes. "We are witnessing the dawn of a ‘new’ order in the post-McGovern-Fraser era where countless citizens connected by the Internet are grabbing power from the old gatekeepers."

Whether the changes auger well or ill for the American democracy is still a subject of debate, according to Fiedler.

"Many say the process will follow one of two paths. The first leads to a place where debate in the public square is ungoverned, a kind of Wild West where the mob is able to overwhelm the sheriff who tries in vain to enforce civil conduct…The second future is more optimistic, what some might call Wikipolitics. In this scenario, the Internet is a place where the better elements of the mob—the wise members of the mob—quickly and consistently gather to face down extremists when they emerge," he writes.

Fiedler is former investigative reporter, political columnist and executive editor of The Miami Herald, and is currently the Visiting Murrow Lecturer of the press and politics at the Shorenstein Center. The Discussion Paper is posted on the website:

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