Matt Marks provided Crikey readers with some interesting observations on the relative position of the American and Australian blogospheres yesterday:

Unlike Australia, the political blogosphere in the US breaks news, is deep, extremely well developed, is regularly quoted in the mainstream media, and, particularly for the Democrats, speaks for the base in a manner that talk radio does for the Republicans.

However, he fell into a trap that many writers do — he failed to understand the basic differences that make comparisons somewhat pointless, as I’ve argued previously in my academic pieces on political blogging.

America’s political culture is quite distinct from Australia’s. While any number of differences could be cited, the relevant ones here are voluntary voting and a much stronger tradition of civic and political engagement. American blogs have given life to the Democratic base, because they’ve given it a voice it didn’t have when the party was an empty shell called into existence every election cycle to suit the needs of big donors and prominent candidates. Thus, in an environment where the danger for both parties is that their own base won’t be sufficiently engaged to turn out in large numbers, the Rove strategy of mobilising your own core supporters does have much to commend it.

While one could argue that the ALP is similarly disengaged from its base of supporters, compulsory voting means that in large part, Labor can take its voters for granted and focus on swinging voters. (The American notion of “independent” voters really describes a somewhat different phenomenon.) Does this render the political blogosphere irrelevant, as Marks claims?

I’d argue that it doesn’t. One thing that should be absolutely obvious from this year of polls and spin without end is that perceptions matter in politics. The classic texts on political sociology, most importantly the work of Paul Lazarsfeld as long ago as 1948, demonstrated that most voters pay little attention to political news.

But, conversely, the role of opinion formers — those in the community who do take an active interest — is key. People interested in politics often have more influence than news media and pollies themselves on their family, friends and workmates. It’s precisely that sort of engaged citizens who are the core readers and commenters on political blogs. Parties that can’t enthuse their own faithful have a big problem. It’s interesting, then, to observe that compared with a few years ago, the right-wing blogosphere devotes far less attention to domestic politics — perhaps a sign that the momentum of enthusiasm is with supporters of Labor and the Greens.

It’s also a poor argument to suggest that the Australian blogosphere lacks importance because it’s rarely cited in the media. The blogosphere matters, because, both left and right (and the more non-partisan blogs), it’s one of the few vehicles, aside from Crikey, New Matilda and On Line Opinion, for genuinely critical commentary at a time when the quality and focus of the mainstream media’s reporting of politics could hardly be lower. It’s one of the places you can go to for intelligent and informed discussion of issues such as climate change and the politics of work and the economy, and one of the places where the spin quotient of the commentariat can be called for what it is.

Marks is right about better broadband, though. Aside from a much smaller population, the lag in net use in Australia does make a difference.

Mark Bahnisch is a political blogger at Larvatus Prodeo

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