Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Early Indications November 2016: Beyond Party Realignment?

At the risk of getting confused for a political scientist or Beltway blogger, I want to look at the recent US and UK elections through the lens of technology and media rather than interest groups, policy, or even candidates. We are in the midst of a fundamental transformation at the global level, and the way information and opinions move among people (I’m not sure the word “audience” is solid any more) is changing a wide variety of institutions. Political parties are among them.

Let’s start with the basics. According to a standard US government textbook, a political party has several functions:

-To select candidates, formally through primaries and informally through social and organizational networks at local, state, and national levels
-To gather support for the party through media, organizing, and mobilization efforts
-To organize representatives in legislatures, in part by ideological and policy stand-To synthesize ideas into party platforms and other points of view that can function like a brand to lower information costs.

In the UK and US, founding documents made no provision for parties; the Labour party only dates to 1900, while in the US, political parties weren’t major factors for the first 50 years after the America evolution. After World War II, US political scientists had about a century of experience to analyze, and led by Harvard’s V.O. Key, some argued for a notion of party “realignment.” Key saw the beginnings of Franklin Roosevelt’s era of Democratic rule in the 1928 election, in which the Catholic Democrat Al Smith lost to Herbert Hoover while performing well in the urban Northeast where Republicans had historically been strong.

As John Judis notes in The Washington Post, in 1967 the MIT political scientist Walter Dean Burnham built on Key’s concept and predicted that party realignments would happen every 30 or 40 years; it’s what the US has instead of revolutions, he posited. Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968 was another turning point as Republicans captured many Southern voters dissatisfied with racial integration and other aspects of the Kennedy/Johnson years. Did Bill Clinton usher in a new era in 1994? Or is instability now the dominant motif, given the disconnect in the number of Republican governors with the Obama presidency, the large numbers of women and Latin voters who sided with Donald Trump, and the surprising success of the two party outsiders — Trump and Bernie Sanders — who reshaped the 2016 election from outside party orthodoxy and even affiliation. (As of 2008 Trump was registered as a Democrat; Sanders is officially an independent and describes himself as a democratic socialist.)

Judis applies conventional political logic to argue whether 2016 is a realignment or what others have called a “recalibration,” but I am taking a different tack: the power of social media, the broken economics of the news industry, and the loss of critical thinking amidst the identity politics that follows in the wake of those two developments point to another reading. Given both Brexit and the Trump victory, as well as various European struggles to reconcile national identity with global economics (burqa bans, austerity debates, free speech battles involving cartoonists), I’m suggesting that the political party itself is facing an existential challenge: realignment marks a change in what parties stand for; I’m suggesting parties must redefine what they do.

Let’s go back to those functions of a party:

In terms of selecting a candidate, the Republican party establishment did not “choose” President-elect Trump. In terms of governing, the Republican party platform is not the guidebook for the Trump presidency, particularly on foreign affairs. And in terms of branding, the Trump campaign was run in many ways as a repudiation of the Republican party, instead building on the candidate’s media experience and personal brand. The free airtime granted by cable news and print media amounted to far more exposure than ads could have generated, and Trump’s wide and confrontational use of social media made it a factor in ways it never has before. How the president-elect manages traditional media (will there be more YouTube announcements?) and a so-far not-very-presidential Twitter feed will be of critical importance. The traditionally symbiotic relationship between news media and elected officials, stalwarts of their parties, is eroding from both sides. The many contradictions embodied in the White House Corespondents’ Dinner may soon fracture that institution, for example.

Going forward, Brexit and the US election both suggest that lowered barriers to media access have unintended consequences. The founding mission statement of The Economist, dating from 1843, asserts that the periodical was intended to participate “in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.” This same thinking, phrased less ornately, can be said to have motivated the early World Wide Web: if knowledge can be more widely disseminated, humanity will benefit. As uncontroversial as that might seem, Internet history fails to bear out the optimism. Cat videos were massively popular, cute, and pretty harmless; “fake news” was more popular on Facebook than fact and deeply dangerous; ethnic and racial harassment via social media, sometimes by software bots, is another threat to civil society.

Echo chambers are a major factor in modern Western political discourse; and what echoes is often patently false. As Jack Burden learned while watching Willie Stark (the barely disguised Huey Long) numb audiences with his tax plan in Robert Penn Warren’s brilliant novel All the King’s Men, policy rarely incites a crowd. The Trump campaign was light and often inconsistent on policy details, but between the pre-existing television persona of a decisive “boss” who fires people with delight and long-smoldering dissatisfaction among the white working class mobilized at rage-fueled rallies, policy wasn’t the main attraction. Dispensing with party orthodoxy was seen not as a flaw but a feature of the outsider campaign: making America great “again” allowed sympathetic voters to fill in the blank with a nostalgic evocation of whatever period they liked, concrete details be damned. That news media repeated the slogan literally millions of times without pinning down the candidate is one legacy of this peculiar election.

In both the US and UK, the question of “now what?” looms large. Decrying orthodoxy, winning elections with outright lies and racial antagonism, and economic consequences of rejecting the norms of globalization have unintended consequences yet to be discovered. In such a landscape, what is the role and function of a political party? Where is the “farm system” of candidates for 2018, 2020, and beyond — for both major US parties? Will 2016 mark the end of the Clinton-Bush era of semi-dynastic candidacies? If so, who will step up and — much more important — how will they do so? By adopting the Trump (and Huey Long) playbook of us-against-them? Or by simultaneously innovating and drawing on the deep history of US optimism, national pride, and civic decency?

From the party perspective: Is grass-roots organizing no longer worth the investment, especially as industrial labor unions continue to decline? Will facts continue to be so widely and enthusiastically disregarded in favor of appealing social media/cable TV nuggets? Can good people be persuaded to enter the fray of personal attacks, physical intimidation (especially of females), and lack of compromise, whether for city council, state auditor, or Congress? Will the Republican vision of minority outreach, articulated in the 2012 postmortem, gain traction as white voters continue to decrease as a percentage of the electorate? Can Democrats articulate a compelling alternative to Trumpism rather than only reacting vigorously (crying wolf?) to everything that emanates from this presidency — and unite behind a candidate who embodies that alternative? While Republican presidential hopefuls of all sorts and ages emerged in the 2015-16 cycle, Democrats need to rejuvenate: Hillary Clinton is 69 years old, Bernie Sanders is 75, and Elizabeth Warren is 67. 

From the media perspective: Can Facebook and Twitter police the misuse of their services, or will monetization of clicks continue to drive profitable lying, regardless of its costs to democracy? How will news and semi-news organizations (cable channels especially don’t typically win Pulitzers) adapt to the unprecedented behavior of President Trump? What, in 2017, is “the public interest”? Who can be trusted to monitor and nurture it?

Most centrally, what will people be talking about four years from now, in the aftermath of the 2020 election? Will parties reinvent their mission, or will social media amplify single-issue politics, leveraging the highly salient yet divisive “solutions” we saw in 2016? Can politics regain some of its luster as a call to civic service, in part through revitalized parties, or are we being pulled into ever more cynical directions by the sound bites of fear-mongering opportunists who don’t have and don’t need a party organization to help them succeed? Can a new kind of news media business model emerge to pay for the kinds of reporting an informed electorate requires? None of these questions have simple answers, but the costs of not addressing them could not be any higher.