Information, communication, and infrastructure: how citizen activists use information technology to transform American party politics
Whalen, Robert Alexander
MetadataShow full item record
Communication infrastructure underlies all group interaction in an extended republic, yet the role of its evolution in the development of American political parties remains relatively unexplored. Rather than examine how attributes of this infrastructure might act as variables shaping organization and behavior, traditional models of party development assume it to be a neutral element of the larger context within which partisan actors operate. The model developed here brings the evolution of infrastructure into the foreground, exploring its role in shaping American political parties over time. The most widely accepted models of parties locate the source of change with the actors who create and control party institutions, but by viewing control itself as a potential variable, the model developed here is able to isolate how infrastructure development itself alters power relations over time. The central contention of this work is that changes to the nation's communication and information infrastructures alter the opportunities and constraints for political action, driving the evolution of parties over time. As new infrastructures are deployed, the patterns of partisan interaction throughout society change, opening windows of opportunity during which party leadership is more likely to change hands. Particularly important are decentralizing infrastructural changes, which can provide previously marginalized actors with the tools necessary to challenge their exclusion from party activity. Citizen involvement in party politics is thus demonstrated to vary with both the nature of the available infrastructure and the content that infrastructure carries. This new infrastructure-driven model of change is tested through an examination of party development in two eras: 1790-1835, between the expansion of the post office and the development of the telegraph; and 2000-2012, when the Internet first became an important infrastructure for organizing party activity. The model is found to be quite useful in explaining the evolution of party conflict in both eras, highlighting similarities that demonstrate how the decentralization of communication infrastructure creates opportunities for political outsiders to drive change.