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Author: Michael Tager
Title: Cass Sunstein's
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
April 2003

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Source: Cass Sunstein's
Michael Tager

vol. 6, no. 1, April 2003
Article Type: Book Review

Cass Sunstein's

Michael Tager

Marietta College

Cass Sunstein,, Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.

In his short, provocative book, Cass Sunstein examines the harm the Internet may do to democratic discourse and politics. He fears that people increasingly can and will customize their news sources on the Internet to create what he calls "the Daily Me" (7) in which they only hear "louder echoes of their own voices" (16). Sunstein cites social scientific evidence that individuals, when part of like-minded groups, become more polarized and extreme in their views (65-66). While people filtered their information previously, the web greatly facilitates such filtering and the construction of homogeneous virtual communities. As more people bypass mass media outlets like the three big television networks, opportunities for shared experiences decline, thus exacerbating social fragmentation. At its worst we see things like the proliferation of white nationalist hate web-sites used to recruit new members (63), and "cybercascades" of misinformation, such as the claim that HIV does not cause AIDS, which the web-surfing president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki took from "denialist" web-sites and then repeated in speeches, sadly undermining efforts to stem the AIDS epidemic in his country (82-83). But aside from the extreme examples, Sunstein believes that the growth of balkanized "cybercommunities" will impair the deliberation between different kinds of people needed in a democracy. The consumer in the electronic marketplace of ideas threatens to replace the democratic citizen who listens and speaks to diverse others.

Assume for the sake of argument that people can electronically customize their sources of information as readily as Sunstein claims. How persuasive is his thesis? It seems consonant with the demographic trend of suburbanization, which might be considered a shift from cities with diverse populations to smaller, more homogenous communities. The automobile carrying one person or family has replaced mass transit as the primary means of transportation, and the shopping mall has replaced the more diverse downtown street as the locus of commerce. Market forces may well drive information down an analogous privatizing path. Sunstein's argument parallels earlier work by scholars like Robert Bellah about the rise lifestyle enclaves in American culture. It also might account for why a political centrist like Bill Clinton became such a polarizing figure in the 1990s. However, some reservations come to mind. The social glue provided by popular culture (sports, movies, fashion, fast food, etc.) and twelve years of school remains fairly strong. And for every closet racist fortified by a narrow web-site, perhaps others from marginal groups have found a voice on the Internet. Statistics besides the numbers of white hate-sites would be useful here. Many have attributed the recent rapid mobilization of large numbers of anti-war protesters in Washington DC and other cities to the Internet. Sunstein perhaps underestimates the continued power of the traditional mass media to amplify the government's views on subjects like terrorism and regime change in Iraq, and how the Internet allows dissenters to assemble and respond to the dominant discourse. He notes the value of such "enclaves" (75, 193), but does not assess their overall significance. And if virtual communities lead members eventually to engage in politics (admittedly a very big "if"), then they likely will encounter people who don't agree with them, and have to recognize other perspectives.

To counter the fragmentation and polarization accompanying increased Internet use, Sunstein advocates new electronic public forums. His six proposals include the creation of "deliberative domains" (170) on the Internet, perhaps publicly subsidized, to encourage discussions between people of different viewpoints, and requiring political web-sites to include a section of links to ideologically opposed web-sites, or to hyperlink textual references to opposing groups to those groups' own websites. Given the serious problems he sees caused by electronic information customization, Sunstein's solutions seem rather tepid. He argues longer and more persuasively against First Amendment absolutism and the libertarian preference for deregulation than he does for his own reform proposals. Will racists accessing the Aryan Nations' web-site really peruse the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance web-site if provided with a link? Will deliberative domains on the Internet attract a greater audience than current call-in programs on C-SPAN? It seems unlikely.

Sunstein refers several times to James Madison's ideas about deliberation to support his case. Madison argued that representative institutions would filter popular passions and allow political officials to deliberate on the public good. Sunstein extends Madison's notion of deliberation among elites to include deliberation among informed citizens (38), but this resembles more the political ideal of Jurgen Habermas. At least in Federalist Paper Ten, Madison expects people to form factions to promote zealously their private interests at the expense of the public good. He argued that elections in large districts comprised of many factions would free elected officials from dependence on any one faction, and enable them to genuinely discuss the public interest. If the Internet makes factions more passionate or narrow-minded than did the often very partisan newspapers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, then Madison's theory still addresses that problem. It's hard to know whether Sunstein's somewhat idealized notion about the deliberative capacity of U.S. politics overstates the threat to democracy posed by the Internet. Should his fears prove justified in this decade, we may need to go beyond the modest reforms that he proposes. His book grew out of two lectures delivered before the 9-11 attacks. Ongoing terrorist threats probably have made regulation of the Internet to forestall extremist groups more palatable than before. At the least alerts readers to the paradox that the vast array of information sources provided by the Internet ultimately may impoverish rather than enrich our politics.