Netroots v. Wonkosphere

Matthew Yglesias complains:

The cute meme of the day seems to be that the health care reform debate is breaking down along the same lines as the Iraq debate. Which is to say that since, for example, Matt Yglesias was wrong about Iraq he’s also wrong about health care and we should listen to Howard Dean. I think the theory that this is how the debate is lining up is just factually mistaken. Atrios opposed the war but says he doesn’t want to kill the bill. … A lot of the leading Netroots opponents of the health care bill, like Jane Hamsher, weren’t blogging back during the winter of 2002-2003 when this was being hashed out. Paul Krugman was against Iraq and supports the bill. It’s true that views about the Iraq War line up with views about health care only if you exclude (a) all politicians, (b) all conservatives, and© the most prominent liberal pundit in the country. But that’s a mighty arbitrary way of looking at the universe.

I suspect he’s referring to this Daily Kos post. But without wanting to get into the specifics of the fight over who is right and who is wrong here, I would bet large amounts of money that a network analysis of the larger blogs of the left blogosphere would show:

(1) That there are cliques (in the network theory sense of the term – in this context groups of bloggers that link to each other much more often than to bloggers outside the group) within the left-leaning blogosphere that can roughly be identified as ‘netroots’ and ‘wonkosphere.’

(2) That bloggers in the netroots clique are much more likely to be opposed to the health bill in its current form than to support it.

(3) That bloggers in the wonkosphere clique are much more likely to support the health care bill in its current form than to oppose it.

These divisions seem to me to be pretty longlasting (I speak on the basis of casual empiricism, not serious research). And I think they are important. But the problem is that even if we can say that bloggers in the wonkosphere are much more likely to support the bill than bloggers in the netroots, we cannot say why without good research. I can see at least three plausible causal mechanisms.

(1) Homophily (birds of a feather flocking together). Potential bloggers who have certain kinds of personal dispositions, or specialist knowledge, or ideas about political organizing are much more likely to link and engage with others like them when they start blogging. Homophily is well documented across a variety of social arenas.

(2) Internal group dynamics. Bloggers who associate with each other may tend to influence each other, and hence become more like each other over time in dispositions, political beliefs etc. Cass Sunstein notably argues that this is a bad thing—but it is also arguably an enabling condition for collective action under many circumstances.

(3) Shared exposure. If bloggers belonging to a particular grouping are exposed to a common factor that is external to the group, they may become like each other, or indeed come to identify more strongly as a group (social identities are frequently imposed from outside). This may lead to important differences between groups. If one group of bloggers is ‘taken seriously’ by powerful actors in the political mainstream, while another group is ignored or treated with hostility by these actors, we might plausibly expect divergences in these groups’ attitudes to mainstream politics over time.

My best guess (and it is no more than a guess) is that #2 is a key causal factor in the current split. Very few bloggers in either of these groups familiar with the intricacies of the current health care proposals, but most of them believe it to be important. Given that (a) it is costly to acquire the relevant information (it is technically dense and complex), but (b) bloggers want to be on the right side of the argument, they are likely to turn to trusted sources in order to tell them ‘how’ to think about the proposals. All of us outsource important parts of our thinking to other people—we couldn’t function otherwise. But whom one considers to be a trusted source will often depend on which network you are embedded in. Hence, I suspect, the very stark differences between the netroots and the wonkosphere on the topic. Not that the persistent snubs from the Obama campaign helped the netroots’ attitude any either.

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