It is a commonplace that Barack Obama’s use of the internet and new technology gave his presidential campaign an important edge over that of his rival John McCain, in terms both of reaching voters and of raising money. In the last few weeks we have again seen this technology in action in the politics surrounding the general election in the United Kingdom. In truth, the blanket news coverage, the instant updates on events, the slick graphics, the tweets, and the blogs can be highly addictive. I think that this was particularly the case in the short and swift British campaign; the American presidential campaign seemed to go on forever and following it closely throughout demanded a remarkable level of stamina. The American example also lacked the high drama which followed the election results in Britain, as the leading parties entered unfamiliar and uncertain negotiations to form a ‘strong and stable’ government.
As this storm of media coverage now begins to die down following the exchange of vows between Clegg and Cameron in the leafy surrounds of the latter’s new back garden, I am left wondering about the challenges that will face historians in the future as they set about studying such episodes.
As an early modern historian, I am keenly aware of the limitations of the source material available to me. However, it would appear that when historians eventually get around to examining the phenomenon of election campaigns driven by the new media, they will face a very different set of problems. If we accept that the many bloggers and tweeters who provided commentary on the campaign actually had some influence on how politicians behaved and on how people voted -that after all was their primary purpose- then we must recognise that it will be necessary for the future historians of these weeks to take account of their views and arguments. For this to happen, the mass of ‘source material’ generated will have to be preserved in some way. On the other hand, if a way can be found to preserve all of this opinion, historians seeking to harness it might well be overwhelmed.
While affording prominent space to bloggers allows 24-hour news channels to satisfy their need for a constant stream of ‘breaking news’, it may also be a symptom of lazy journalism. Opinionated bloggers may relish being interviewed alongside government ministers and other more conventional ‘experts’, but does this democratisation of political analysis dilute its ultimate quality? The answer to that question is far from straightforward.
One thing that is clear is that the historians of the future may be spoilt for choice when it comes to studying the outcome of elections and establishing the views of the ‘ordinary people’. Things have come along way since the Tamworth Manifesto.