Dan Drezner and Kevin Drum are mulling a question that I had a couple days ago -- are blogs really bringing down high-profile targets like Trent Lott, Howell Raines and Eason Jordan, or is it something else?
The answer, I think, is that the role of the blogosphere is being dramatically overhyped. Here's why. Within any institution, there are a number of possible coalitions that could be organized against its leader(s) depending on what issues are relevant. The problem their opponents face is that, even if the leaders are unpopular, there is no easy way to coordinate on an angle of attack when the system is in equilibrium. But when a leader trips up and a blog-fueled media frenzy ensues, it shocks the system out of equilibrium and provides what Thomas Schelling, one of the giants of game theory, called a "focal point" that opponents can coordinate around to construct a new majority coalition. So when a leader goes down, the underlying cause is the coalition of forces pushing them out, which in most cases is only partly driven by whatever provoked the blogs in the first place.
The evidence suggests that this has been the case for almost all of the prominent "blog scalps," which capitalized on pre-existing discontent or vulnerability to push someone out of an institution where they were forced to answer to a constituency. Think of Howell Raines at the New York Times or Jordan at CNN. A similar process is going on right now at Harvard (though blogs have played a relatively minor role there) -- deeply rooted faculty opposition to Larry Summers' leadership has coalesced in an attack on his comments about female underrepresentation in math and science. If he goes down, will his comments have been the cause? Only in a very shallow sense. Or consider the flip side of this phenomenon. Many other public figures who've been targeted by blogs (Michael Moore, Ann Coulter, Maureen Dowd, Brit Hume, etc.) have ridden out the storm because they either don't answer to a constituency or have institutionally secure positions.
It's time to stop getting so carried away with the influence of blogs -- helping make it possible to take out a few public figures with a weak grasp on power is consequential, but not exactly earth-shattering. And the jury is still out on whether the political blogosphere is playing a positive role in the national debate. As we wrote in All the President's Spin, blogs can be an important voice for good by fact-checking the media and politicians, but the reality is that the trend is increasingly going in the other direction -- we're seeing growing factionalization and an incentive structure that rewards bad polemics, precisely what Cass Sunstein warned about in his book Republic.com. I hope he's not proven right.
Update 2/19: My former Spinsanity co-editor Bryan Keefer has a good post along similar lines about partisan hysteria and the thirst for scalps in the blogosphere.