The Talking Dog

December 22, 2007, TD Blog Interview with Cass Sunstein

Cass Sunstein is the Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor of Jurisprudence, Law School and Department of Political Science, University of Chicago. He is a contributing editor to The New Republic and is a frequent witness before congressional committees. After clerking for Justice Benjamin Kaplan of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and Justice Thurgood Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court, he worked in the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department as an Attorney-Advisor. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Law Institute. He has written numerous books and articles, including recently " 2.0," a discussion of, inter alia, how current technological and social trends (including blogs) intersect with democratic ideals and the American democratic structure. On December 22, 2007, I had the privilege of interviewing Professor Sunstein by e-mail exchange.

The Talking Dog: My customary first question (derived from my office being across the street from the WTC that day, as well as this) is where were you on September 11, 2001? You have, of course, lamented the polarizing trends that the internet accelerates; how would you respond to my proposition that the polarization was more greatly accelerated by other developments (talk radio, cable news screaming, objection to the Bush Administration's war policies after September 11th decried as treason, etc.) moreso than by internet developments-- i.e.polarizing blogs are merely following (albeit potentially accelerating them as well) other broader unfortunate societal trends?

Cass Sunstein: I was driving to my office in Chicago, listening to a sports talk radio show (a highly partisan one, I might add; pro-Chicago teams). I think you’re almost certainly right that the major polarizers have been the Bush Administration and talk radio (not including sports-focussed ones). It’s a clichÈ but true to insist that the Bush Administration should have been far less partisan, both after Bush v. Gore and after 9/11 – its “my way or the highway” approach has been a disgrace and a disaster. I say this as someone who had high hopes for the Bush Administration and who thinks that Bush’s major 9/11 address, before Congress, was among the greatest presidential speeches in the last quarter-century. What horrible disappointments since that time! What opportunities squandered, for the nation and the world.

The Talking Dog: Let me jump right in with your analysis of blog "echo chambers", which you believe are inconsistent with a healthy vibrant democracy because people should be, in your view, exposed to "unexpected" views more common in a news "general interest intermediary" such as an evening newscast or newspaper... how would you respond to my proposition that rather than a newscast, the big lefty blogs (I'm unsurprisingly somewhat less familiar with the big righties, though Instapundit doesn't have comments, I believe, although I once was more familiar with them)... still, taking the highest traffic liberal blog, for example, The Daily Kos (especially since Markos Moulitsas is, or was before Newsweek snagged him, anyway, much more likely to describe himself as a "political activist" or "Democratic activist" rather than as a "journalist"), if you look at The Daily Kos or Atrios or other similar blogs (at least on the liberal side) as the equivalent of a vibrant and virtual political club (like a party, Kos even has yearly conventions!)-- or a "deliberative enclave"--and while conveying facts and links and so forth, are doing so in the context of public policy advocacy and if generating an "echo chamber" doing so for the purpose of actually advancing an agenda within the democratic process-- i.e., attempting to aggregate the kind of power necessary to get anything done in our system? And indeed-- the fact that an unmoneyed citizen acting on their own (at least without an accompanying campaign contribution check) is unlikely even to get an appointment with their own member of Congress let alone have a serious chance to influence legislation a bigger part of the problem than these attempts to (my words) level the playing field?

Cass Sunstein: Sure, you’re right, partisan blogs are participating within the democratic process. No doubt about that. And the Internet allows more voices to be heard, which is a good thing, even a great thing. On balance, the Internet is good for democracy. (My 2006 book Infotopia explores some of the positive sides; it’s the happy sibling to the darker 2.0.) But two things may both be true, if they do not contradict each other. It is also true that echo chambers, made possible by the Internet, can increase (unjustified) extremism, decrease diversity among like-minded people, increase errors, and make people see their fellow citizens as enemies or adversaries in some kind of quasi-war.

The Talking Dog: I take it that you are familiar with research to the effect that public radio and television listeners and viewers tend to have not merely a more liberal view of the world, but a more accurate view of the world for example, at least on some issues, reality having a distinct liberal bias according to Stephen Colbert). Do you view that observation of a "news service" apparently engendering misinformation (as I do) as more troubling than a blog "echo chamber"... or IS that precisely what happens in an echo chamber, i.e., the very problem is the lack of conflicting views leading to a failure of an actual basis to ascertain accuracy?

Cass Sunstein: More than one thing can be troubling. (AIDS is troubling, so is terrorism, so is climate change.) The problem with echo chambers is that those who live there tend to end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk – and that is unhealthy for participants and for democracy, at least if people have not heard conflicting views. Terrorism itself is an extreme version of what I’m exploring here. (By the way, reality has no liberal bias, though liberals may like to think it does.)

The Talking Dog: Of course, individual politicians (and as you note, your own faculty at the Univ. of Chicago) have blogs of their own, and in their own name; however, other times, blogs seem to be bearding for broader political agendas. Do you see it as a problem when political parties (and while I think both parties are guilty of this, the right does a far more effective job of this than the left, as alleged liberals such as me tend to be more unable or unwilling to follow marching orders than our friends on the right). This includes managing to coordinate talking points with blogs at the same time that figures in the media are repeating them and politicians may be giving speeches on the floor of Congress using the same talking points... what Peter Daou has called a triangle between political parties (or "the political establishment"), blogs ("the netroots") and the media... While I view that trend-- coopted blogs-- of either party-- as a potentially serious problem for democratic discourse--though at the moment the right is far more effective at this-- especially when done without disclosure of the relationships-- how do you see it?

Cass Sunstein: This is a definite problem. If there is an association between a party and a blog, disclosure is important. People should know if there is a lack of independence.

The Talking Dog: Similarly, you recognize that one of the government's functions in the course of "regulating the internet" is the prevention of fraud for example; what's your view of fraud BY the government (as I.F. Stone would say, all governments lie) such as Armstrong Williams being paid to pretend he is an objective journalist rather than on the payroll of the Dept. of Education or other paid political advocacy masquerading as public service announcements (whether on the taxpayers' dime or not)?

Cass Sunstein: This sort of thing is terrible – an indefensible abuse of public trust by all involved, and damaging to the democratic process as well.

The Talking Dog: My friend Lindsay Beyerstein turned down the job of John Edwards campaign blogger , before it was famously offered to Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan; Lindsay then noted, among a number of problems with the offer, that many things she wrote would likely prove to be liabilities to Edwards. It was observed that the bloggers chosen by the Edwards camp were popular precisely because they were likely to throw red-meat to their hungry fans, i.e., preach to the choir, and in the strongest of terms; both Ms. Marcotte and Ms. McEwan famously resigned in an episode somewhat damaging to Edwards, for precisely the reasons that Lindsay anticipated. That said... do you recognize the empirical "chicken-egg" problem in your analysis of "blog echo chambers" (i.e. in the most popular blogs, either side, there is an overwhelming volume of liberals linking to liberals and conservatives linking to conservatives)... to wit, these blogs are popular by and large because they tell their audiences what they want to hear... in other words, large numbers of people WANT an echo chamber as compared to a general interest intermediary, at least when it comes to their blog reading, and the blogs likelier to be "general interest intermediaries", at least in the political realm, are by and large likely to be less popular because people LIKE their echo chambers? Or in your view is that precisely the problem... people like "The Daily Me".... and if given the opportunity, prefer to drown out views they disagree with?

Cass Sunstein: Sure, many people like echo chambers. A little social science: It turns out that if people find that others agree with them, they tend to rate those others as more competent and more likable -- and that if people find that others agree with them, they tend to rate themselves as more competent or more likable. So there is a natural human tendency to congregate with like-minded types. But from the democratic point of view, that tendency should be resisted.

The Talking Dog: Again, going back to my earlier question, is this at all a bad thing if what people are actually doing is banding together for political action, rather than for the equivalent of watching the 6:00 news (which they can effectively do if they follow all of the links provided, which often lead right back to newspapers and conventional media, i.e. general interest intermediaries); or put another way, the Louis Brandeis adage you cite about our greatest threat to freedom being an inert people... to the extent that "echo chambers" are in fact hotbeds of political activism, and actually providing necessary leverage to get a viewpoint across in our democratic process-- even arguably at the risk of generating some degree of extremism in some people?

Cass Sunstein: Great question – discussed at length in the book. A virtue of echo chambers is that they can increase activism. Another virtue is that they can create what Yale law professor Heather Gerken calls second-order diversity – that is, diversity across sources of information, rather than diversity within such sources. These are important points to consider.

The Talking Dog: Whether or not blogs are "echo chambers", there are tens of millions of them and counting on an internet with effectively infinite variety. By contrast, there are still only a handful of broadcast media, and as vast as cable is, still a comparative handful of outlets there. Worse still, these few outlets (and the handful of print media with circulations larger than Daily Kos) tend to be "the respectable" media in terms of their influence on political discourse, at least inside the Beltway. Further, you've noted the tabloidization effect of regular media (which I believe explains the popularity of the most popular political part... not to mention the popularity of Sean Hannity). That said, and given that the broadcast media, at least, operate effectively on a free government gift of their broadcast spectrum, you have suggested that a fairness doctrine for them did not work and wasn't all that good idea (because it often led them to NOT air certain viewpoints altogether, lest they have to air alternatives). My question is... why is that a BAD thing... in other words, doesn't this greatly act as a form of "self-regulation" ensuring that broadcasters (at least) will have to be eminently more careful in their pronouncements... again, for "general interest intermediaries"... why wouldn't this be a good thing, on balance... (in many ways, far more important than whether or not Janet Jackson has a 'wardrobe malfunction", i.e., the current obsession with broadcast regulation)? Or am I mistaken that you intended your discussion to go beyond the internet itself, which we both agree is sufficiently vast and open not to require such rules?

Cass Sunstein: I think that the fairness doctrine is ill-suited to the current era, simply because there are so many sources of information. Television has lots of stations, not just a few, and so requiring CBS, NBC, Fox, and ABC to attend to dissenting views, or to cover public issues, probably is more trouble than it is worth. Voluntary self-regulation is great for broadcasters as for all others, certainly if the self-regulation leads in good directions!

The Talking Dog: Let me turn briefly to your former Univ. of Chicago colleague Senator Barack Obama (and coincidentally my college classmate at Columbia)... and I understand you are informally advising Sen. Obama. You have commented that you believe he is less disposed to surround himself with his own "echo chamber" than other politicians, and is the kind of person encouraging of contrary views... how would you rate his use of the media amidst his overall campaign themes (Facebook recruiting, web fundraising, Oprah, etc.) in light of your best hopes for how a democratic discourse best operates?

Cass Sunstein: I am a big admirer of Sen. Obama, and I think his overall campaign has been excellent, in terms of democratic discourse. He’s almost always generous to those who disagree with him, he’s substantive, he’s among the fairest candidates in the last decades, and he doesn’t condescend to the electorate. Sometimes he even tells people things that they don’t want to hear. I haven’t followed his use of Facebook and web fundraising, but I think the founders would be impressed with his campaign.

The Talking Dog: There are many who believe that the Clinton campaign official (Mr. Shaheen) who recently tried to get Sen. Obama's "youthful drug use" into the press and Senator Bob Kerrey's repeated references to Obama's Muslim ties were classic examples of surrogates being used -- so apologies could be issued later, if at all, while trying to insulate the candidate herself from the smear. In fact, they DID create news stories about these "issues." Is this kind of tactic (used to perfection with "Swiftboat Veterans for Truth"-- which your book observed really took off after some bloggers challenged Kerry's contention of "Christmas in Cambodia")... particularly new, and anathema to democratic discourse, or is this particular kind of negative campaigning (including this sort of surrogate attack-- now made faster and arguably easier to cover up at internet speed!) as old as the republic itself, and just "part of the playing field"? Further, without necessarily disclosing advice you may be giving him (!), how do you think Sen. Obama-- or any other candidate-- should counter the further use of this tactic in the future in a way that is consistent with both advancing democratic discourse and still preserving their campaign's viability?

Cass Sunstein: I don’t know enough about the history of campaigning to answer the first question. (Apologies.) On the second, I guess I think the best response is to point out what is true, and also to say something about what is fair. I’m a lawyer, though, and hardly a specialist on how to run campaigns!

The Talking Dog: Finally, my traditional lawyer's final weasel question... is there anything else I should have asked you but didn't, or anything else that my readers and the public needs to know on these vitally important subjects?

Cass Sunstein:Do we have space? (I put most of what I know into the book; admittedly, it’s short!) Terrific questions and many thanks.

The Talking Dog: I join all of my readers in thanking Professor Sunstein for that interesting interview, and interested readers should take a look at " 2.0".