Did You Know This Election Turned On Network Neutrality? Why Washington Has Its Head Up Its Rear End.

Apparently, the election results last Tuesday were a “national referendum” on network neutrality. I’m not sure how I missed this, but the constant repetition of this idea in the blogosphere and on Twitter has now utterly convinced me and everyone else in the Washington Echo Chamber that is totally true. In fact, I am assured that the only reason I refuse to acknowledge this fundamental truth is that I am in deep denial.
For those readers outside Policyland, you may wonder how government officials entrusted with making decisions that actually impact your lives could come to believe something so plainly ridiculous. In all of the various “lessons learned” pieces out of the election, no one outside the Telecom neighborhood of Policyland has even suggested this is the case. But, through the amazing combination of narcissism that puts us at the center of everybody else’s universe, the utter certainty with which people around here make ridiculous statements, and the sheeplike willingness of people on both sides of the debate to retweet this at each other, I now have people asking me about this and whether I think it’s true.

This is why Washington is broken and out of touch with America. There is a difference between stuff that is incredibly important because it has real impact on people’s lives, which applies to a lot of the policy work here in DC, and stuff that people care about, which is not a heck of a lot that goes on in DC. I wish it weren’t so. I would love it if we lived in a nation of policy wonks where the difficult details of national policy are the stuff of kitchen table conversations and earnest discussions at social gatherings.
However, I can assure you from personal experience that trying to engage people in detailed conversations about telecom policy is about as popular with normal people as the intimate details of your last root canal.

Still, as a case study in how conventional wisdom evolves in Policyland, this may amuse some of you non-DC folks. More below . . .

As I’ve written before, net neutrality is a classic “base issue.” Most folks don’t know about it, and if confronted with it (as happened with Google/VZ last summer) they may have a general opinion, but it is not central in their lives. For progressives, there are a large number of these sorts of issues from network neutrality to high-speed rail investment. Conservatives have them too, ranging from broadcast indecency to privatizing highways. Republicans are absolute geniuses at using these like chocolate sprinkles on a crap policy sundae, turning around to their base and saying “Look, we made you a Sundae! And it has chocolate SPRINKLES! Who loves you?” And the base goes “Ooooooohhhh!!!!! A Sundae! With SPRINKLES! Sure, it’s crap flavor, but it’s a Sundae!!! We Loooooooovvvve you!!!!” and then they all show up to vote in November. By contrast, Democrats seem to delight in dressing up as the Nightmare Lunch Lady, slamming a big bowl of crap in front of the base, and saying in a raspy chain-smoker voice: “here’s your bowl of crap policy. Now eat up, it’s good for you.” When progressives say “could we at least have some sprinkles on that?” Lunch Lady Emmanuel turns around and snarls “Sprinkles! You want fucking SPRINKLES! You are so fucking retarded!” Then Democrats wonder why they have an “enthusiasm gap.”

In any event, one of the quaint election year rituals between the candidates and the base is the Signing Of the Pledge aka The Running With The Bull. If you are running as a particular sort of candidate, you will generally try to suck up to elements of your base so they will help you get elected, generally by pledging to do the Thing They REALLY Care About. Happily, they generally separate themselves out into single issue orgs, and you can align yourself based on (a) whether you basically agree with them (conservatives and Family Research Center), (b) how effective they are (Democrats and labor unions), and (c) whether they embarrass you (anybody and NAMBLA). So, if you are running where guns are popular, you sign the NRA pledge (“I pledge to pass legislation to allow embryos to carry concealed weapons”). If you are a fiscal conservative, you sign the American’s For Tax Reform pledge (“I will spit whenever I say the words ‘federal government’”). If you are running for Senior Patrol Leader, you give the Boy Scout Pledge (“I pledge my honor to do my duty, to God and my country . . . and no poufdas!”)

So Adam Green over at Progressive Change Campaign Committee decided to take advantage of this quaint little custom and get candidates to sign on to the “Network Neutrality Pledge.” Granted, one might question the wisdom of doing this a week before the election where it would be unlikely to get noticed, even by the base, especially for candidates certain to lose. OTOH, that is also the time of maximum desperation for candidates – particularly these candidates, who were all struggling against the Republican wave and not going to turn away anyone they thought they could get out to the polls. And had any of them won, it would be nice to have them committed up front.

Among normal humans, this would rate a shrug as one more bit of election year noise. But another truth of modern politics is that for every element of your base, there is an element on the other side that cares just as much as you — but wants exactly the opposite of what you want. If you a progressive who supports investment in high-speed rail projects, there is a conservative group that HAAAAAATES high-speed rail as an Socialistic attempt to force cities to gay marry their infrastructure. If you are against broadcast indecency, there is a group on the progressive side that thinks that if the FCC can fine a radio host named “Buba The Love Sponge” for describing sex acts between children’s cartoon characters in language that no bleeps can hide, then fascism has truly come to ‘Amerika.’ This merely confirms my opinion that American politics is really the result of an unfortunate transporter accident that split the body politic into “Nice Wimpy Kirk” and “Evil Strong Kirk.”

In any event, if you care passionately about getting network neutrality into law, then one of your polar opposites is Scott Cleland. Cleland responds to network neutrality much the way that the Grinch responds to the sounds of Christmas in Whoville. So when Adam Green circulated his list of 95 protectors of Net Neutrality for all five people still undecided who cared, Cleland seized on this to make an even MORE ridiculous statement. In a blog post reminiscent of Dr. Evil gloating to Mr. Bigglesworth and Mini-me, Cleland explained how PCCC and Free Press (which had circulated PCCC’s announcement) had fallen into his clever clutches by making the election a “national referendum” on network neutrality. Bwaaahahahahahhahaha!!!!! This was, of course, a rather silly thing to say. As noted above, PCCC was merely engaged in the time honored ritual of trying to get politicians to suck up to you – not to be taken any more seriously then when someone tells you after the third drink that they deeply respect you as a person and would love to see your collection of etchings back at your place for their artistic value.

So we come to the election and – Surprise! Surprise! — all 95 democratic challenger candidates go down to flaming defeat. Cleland, of course, emerges to do his victory lap and claim how this proves, PROVES I say, how the national electorate has firmly rejected network neutrality as a policy because, of course, that’s what Cleland said it would prove. And here the whole silliness should have ended.

But of course, it didn’t. Everyone who agrees with Scott Cleland that net neutrality is a Bad Thing, regardless of whether they actually believed Scott was right on this particular post, retweeted Scott’s victory lap post — because when you support a position these days you automatically retweet anything that supports your position no matter how silly. All this noise prompted the trade press to make note of it. After all, the day after election is a slow day for actual news around here and an idle press corps is the Devil’s workshop.  Besides, the press folks were not agreeing with it one way or another, merely noting that Cleland said it and leaving it to the readers to decide for themselves if they wanted to swallow it. This, of course, prompted a whole new round of people who had originally tweeted Cleland’s piece to retweet the coverage of Cleland’s piece as if it were a separate, confirmatory piece of coverage rather than simply saying “Scott Cleland wrote this.”

This presented the PRO-net neutrality side with a conundrum: continue to ignore this silliness, and leave the impression that this was serious analysis, or go after it, and risk keeping it alive. For better or worse, folks chose to respond. The more substantive among us noted that while the 95 Democratic challengers lost, the House incumbents who signed the Inslee letter urging the FCC to take action won reelection handily, while the more whimsical (such as yr hmbl obdn’t) could not resist finding other correlations for this “national referendum.” For example, all 95 defeated Democratic challengers wore underwear. Was the public rejecting boxers and briefs? All 95 had body temperatures of approximately 98 degrees and none of them ate brains. Was the public endorsing zombies? Would Democrats have done better to have run Jonathan Coulton? All of this, of course, prompted yet another post from Scott Cleland, once again claiming total victory. With all of this, of course, being thoroughly retweeted.

And so once again I expected the matter would finally die – until someone with an actual position in DC Policyland asked me in all seriousness whether I thought the election results were a referendum on net neutrality. At which point I decided that DC has its collective head thoroughly up its rectum that there is simply no use fighting this anymore. After briefly considering giving up and becoming a Yak herder, I did the only thing I could do: blog about it.

Hey, when Rome, do as the Romans. When in Policyland, blog and hope you get retweeted.

Stay tuned . . . .


  1. Harold, as you know, Scott Cleland exists as a counterweight to his more excessive and less thoughtful counterparts on the left. His job is to trumpet and exaggerate, just as Free Press tends to do.

    I certainly agree that the fact that all 95 signers of the Net Neutrality pledge lost doesn’t mean that their Net Neutrality position cost them the election. However, it may indicate that strong supporters of the most extreme version of Net Neutrality are not part of whatever makes up the mainstream today. The problem with Net Neutrality is that its definition shifts whenever one talks about it. Why not move back to more neutral principles and try to reach agreement on what ISPs should and should not do, and perhaps get these principles established as industry standards?

    I recognize that industry standards on how to handle traffic may not please all Net Neutrality advocates 100%, but they will, if appropriately crafted, benefit Internet users nationwide.

    Likewise, there should be grounds for agreement on “managed services” instead of arguments about shifting the Internet to private walled gardens. The Internet is not a managed service. Your ability to view a Youtube or Netflix video over the Internet depends on what traffic is flowing over the Internet between you and the provider. You might not be able to view it in the desired HD mode because the Internet connection isn’t good enough. If your ISP offered improved Youtube and Netflix access as a managed service that would allow guaranteed HD quality, that is something that both Youtube and Netflix might find attractive, and the user might also be willing to pay for better video. I don’t see any good reason to say that providers should be absolutely barred from providing a service enhancement that might be desirable to both consumers and content providers.

    Of course, I could just use BitTorrent.

  2. Conservatives have privatizing highways as a base issue? I don’t know if even libertarians do. You might have used “tort reform” as a better example.

    But more substantively, your retelling is mighty sparing to Adam Green, whose PR incompetence teed up this opportunity for Scott Cleland. What both are doing is seeking to influence the public. Adam has done a bad job of it, and Scott has capitalized (pun!) on that.

    Why is Adam just doing what they do, and Scott a drooling demagogue? Don’t you think that Adam would do the same when handed an opportunity by his opponent?

    You might like Washington, D.C. to operate as a high-toned debating society, but it ain’t gonna happen. It’s a war of all against all with rhetoric as the weapon rather than knives and guns. Peace would be better, which is what you get outside of Washington, in the voluntarily organized part of society.

  3. @JimHarper Fair points. I will confess to a rationalization bias that prompts me to give Adam the benefit of the doubt. And, while I like Cleland fine personally, I have often found his statements on his blog and in the public debate to be so over the top that I tend to regard much of them as unduly silly.

    My chief beef is not with Cleland, or even with any specific actor. It’s that the system now produces increasingly absurd results. We have both been around long enough to remember a time when it didn’t use to be that way. I don’t claim it was a cerebral paradise where all issues were decided on the merits. But there used to be some threshold of basic silliness. No one in 2006 would have claimed that the election was a national referendum on COPE.

    There is at least a plausible reading of the election results that the electorate rejected “big government” even in the role of consumer protection, and that if this election was a rejection of the philosophy behind the healthcare reform act and the financial services reform act it is likewise a rejection of the philosophy behind network neutrality. I don’t happen to agree with that, but it is at least as plausible as the argument that in 2008 the “American People” rejected “radical free market deregulation.” But the idea that the American electorate rejected network neutrality by name is silly. The idea that it is proved by the outcome of the 95 challenge races is sillier — even if Adam set it up. That the current system of endless repetition makes it possible for something to move from clearly ridiculous to conventional wisdom is, IMO, an indicator of what is seriously wrong with our current system of policy development.

  4. @Harold I hear ya’. But I wonder if you’re not looking back (and forward, hoping) with rose colored glasses on.

    I’m reminded me of a couple of posts of mine from a few years back about “political facts” — facts generated by consensus rather than any measurement or observation. “The recent election was a drubbing for net neutrality regulation” is being made into a political fact. (I don’t mind that because of where I stand on the issue. You do because of where you are.)

    Is there really going to be a system where people who are indifferent to the substance of almost all issues almost all of the time — I’m talking about reporters and politicians — will be able to dance from issue to issue and acquire just the right information at just the right time, producing fundamentally sound decisions? The reason why there are shorthands like “political facts” and massive delegation of decision-making by members of Congress to staff, to other members, to the executive branch, and to lobbyists/interest groups is because there is no way to capture all relevant, correct information in one brain at the right time.

    There is a different way!… Relive your college days, Harold! And I’m not talking about that experimentation, I’m talking about this experimentation…!

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