Review: Rebooting American Politics: The Internet Revolution

Rebooting American Politics: The Internet Revolution. By Jason Gainous and Kevin M. Wagner. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011, 221 pp.

Rebooting American Politics: The Internet Revolution. By Jason Gainous and Kevin M. Wagner. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011, 221 pp.

Gainus and Wagner’s explore how “the internet is the stimulus for the change” we have seen in our society in their book, The Internet Revolution.  They examine questions that currently are being asked by politicians and strategists as well as government and politics students in universities about the implications of the internet’s enhanced political role:  Is the electorate more informed?  Are they informed correctly?  Can votes be swayed?  Has the electorate been polarized?  Gainous and Wagner examine these questions using statistical data and provide a good baseline for assessing the status of internet media and politics in the wake of the 2008 presidential campaign.  However, this study leaves a lot to be examined down the road, as the authors state that their data do not definitively lead them to a particular conclusion.  Academic works about the internet typically hit a wall as they are studies of a new communication tool that continues to reinvent itself each election cycle.  Although the answers may be in flux, Gainous and Wagner do an excellent job of articulating and shedding some light on questions that are plaguing Internet and democracy experts. Their work provides a good context for observing the 2012 election, as social media and the internet will once again be center stage, especially as the mobile web becomes increasingly accessible.

Technology has long had an effect on elections. Gainous and Wagner rightfully point to the 2000 presidential election and issues with the butterfly ballot in Florida as an example.  As internet access continues to grow and applications expand, there will be a push to allow e-voting, which they cite was used in the 2000 Arizona Democratic Primary (more recently Washington, D.C. has considered e-voting for absentee voters). While the authors highlight e-voting as a possibility, they rightfully warn that access to any technology has always broken down along sociological divisions. They warn that while some citizens might enjoy or become more engaged through an online environment, it is unlikely that the entire voting population will get on board, and physical polling places will still exist. They state that age continues to be a factor in internet engagement: “For persons over sixty-five the negative relationship with Internet voting is apparent.” Age is a systematic issue for Gainous and Wagner as non-digital natives continue to rely on their “tried and true” methods even as the internet ages and develops.

Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and the current tea party movement have reinvigorated the idea of small donor campaigns.  Research on has highlighted that Internet fundraisingcrosses sociological divides and has swayed elections of various types. Gainous and Wagner write about the philosophical arguments that surround campaign donations and the key questions: Who is donating and how much?  People continue to connect a donation to influence even as the Supreme Court associates money with speech. However, internet fundraising allows campaign workers to spend less time fundraising, and there can be more clarity about who donates through campaign disclosures. The internet is a “limitless resource” to Gainous and Wagner that could compound the issue of managing suspected influence while also being the route to a candidate without corporate support.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is: “The Internet: Two One-Sided Information Flows?” Gainous and Wagner discuss the problem of an informed, or mis-informed, electorate in the internet age. The polarization of American politics is not just on Capitol Hill but also on the Internet as a user specifically can seek and find one-sided information. Gainous and Wagner state, “The internet can transform this ambivalence into more one-sided opinions as it increasingly becomes people’s primary source of information.” The new internet media allow users to find information from non-traditional sources which are frequently one-sided. The authors lament the “us versus them” mentality that the one-sided information flow has created for political institutions and voters.  Although there is evidence to back their claims, they offer no solution to the problem.

Gainous and Wagner conclude that politics have radically changed due to the internet—a generously vague statement supported throughout their book. They have researched and explained how the Internet engages voters and politicians.  At points the book is heavy with statistics and academic jargon; however their audience is primarily the classroom. The proper background material and research presented throughout set up a springboard for the countless academics ready to look at the Internet’s implications in the 2012 elections.


Related links:

Rebooting American Politics(Amazon)

Polarizing Politics(The Washington Post)

4 ways technology will impact politics in 2012(CNN Money)

Featured Image credit: Photosteve101 on Flickr