Politics as We Know It Is Doomed
Politics as we know it is doomed and the democratisation of propaganda is to blame.
Politics has been dominated by large “broad church” political parties for a century or more. Most democracies have evolved into a left-right duopoly. Conservative vs Labour, Republican vs Democrat. Nationalists, socialists, and greens, cling onto the sides.
But this system is doomed. Large political parties that appeal to broad swathes of the population were a product of broadcast media. Branded political parties manufactured packages of beliefs and left- or right-leaning newspapers and television stations broadcast them to the mass market.
The advent of social media has broken apart the media business. The branding power is gone. The broadcast channels are gone. The mass market is no longer massed. Political parties are adapted to an environment that no longer exists. They will go extinct.
We need to understand what the new niches in our information ecology look like and think about the kind of institutions we want to inhabit them.
Three times in human history, we’ve change the scope of our communications abilities. First, we learned to talk. Then we learned to broadcast. The we connected everyone into a planet-wide network.
The first change was 70,000 years ago when we moved past animal vocalisation and learned to tell stories, gossip, and lie.
All communication was originally “one-to-one” communication (or maybe “a few-to-a few”). It’s what we’ve done in small groups since pre-history. The postal system, the telephone, the telegraph, and email have enhanced the range of one-to-one communication, but its basic character has remained the same.
Writing transmitted information across space and time but didn’t alter the essence of one-to-one communication because even when writing was aimed at more than one person audiences were still tiny. Neither Babylonian accountants impressing cuneiform characters into clay tablets nor Franciscan scribes illuminating manuscripts were engaged in mass production.
Printing caused a revolution second only to the acquisition of language. Printing isn’t just better writing. It is a new one-to-many mode of communication. Printing gave us the first broadcast media. The work of a single author can be read by thousands of people simultaneously.
What broadcast media gain in scale they lose in directionality. A two-way conversation becomes a one-way lecture. Letters to the editor are a very narrow feedback channel. The shift from one-to-one communication to one-to-many fundamentally changed the dynamics of the communication.
Social media introduced many-to-many communication, which shifts the dynamics again. The rewards from delivering advertising and propaganda over broadcast media were huge but running them was expensive. Blogging platforms, smartphones, and video sharing mean that anyone can publish to the world at near zero cost. Because anyone can publish and follow large numbers of other new publishers, social media not only increases the scope of communication but makes it bidirectional again.
Make Christendom Great Again
Social media is blamed for a lot of things, but a lot of these problems are things we’ve seen before.
Fake news is not unique to the Internet age. Gossip and rumour have been around for as long as humans have been able to tell stories, but the printing press brought the power of mass production to lies and wishful thinking. In 1588 reports swept Europe that the Spanish Armada had crushed the English fleet. The exact opposite was true. Anyone making decisions based on early reports would have been in trouble.
When news was delivered face-to-face, the credibility of the messenger was paramount. Even when couriers carried letters from one royal court to another, the letters would often simply attest to the courier’s trustworthiness while the actual message was delivered verbally. Printed news pamphlets were often met with scepticism. Without meeting the author, how could you tell whether something was true?
Ferocious competition in the sixteenth century news pamphlet market encouraged authors to optimise for liveliness over reliability. If people like interesting stories more than they like true stories, the market will provide. In that case, how can the news be trusted?
News pamphlets were fiercely partisan. Martin Luther used printed pamphlets to magnify his Reformation message and wrote in German rather than Latin to appeal to a wider audience. He wrote short pithy insults to annoy his enemies and amuse his supporters. ‘Shitposting’ is a 21st century word, but Luther was doing it five hundred years ago.
Catholic-sponsored presses fought back in kind. Protestant and Catholic news sources “manufactured consent” amongst their audiences and built sectarian “echo chambers” to push or counter the Reformation. The divisions they stoked helped ignite the catastrophic Thirty Years’ War.
Luther saw a corrupt Church and desired a return to some imagined golden age – to Make Christendom Great Again – but the Reformation and the new mass media generated an unexpected new world. The Church lost its total grip on every day life, giving way to the nation state and eventually modern politics. Printing reshaped – you could say, invented – politics.
Radio Killed the Oratory Star
Andrew Jackson was the first American presidential candidate to “go viral.” In 1828, he and Democratic Party co-founder Martin van Buren used an expanding newspaper network to spread Jackson’s message. Van Buren realised that the old guard wasn’t interested in anything as crass as campaigning and that the key to the White House was to turn Jackson into a celebrity.
Since the American Revolution, presidents had been aristocratic figures, chosen by the political elite. Jackson used new media to appeal directly to ordinary American voters. On March 4th, 1829, Jackson, having defeated the establishment candidate, was inaugurated as the Democratic Party’s first president.
Abraham Lincoln’s campaign added the telegraph to the mix. Lincoln’s reputation was built with transcripts of his debate victories, transcribed in shorthand, rushed by train to Chicago, and distributed by telegraph to the nation’s newspapers. Within 24 hours, Lincoln’s speeches appeared word-for-word across the country. In troubled pre-Civil War 1860, Lincoln came from nowhere to become the first Republican president.
A hundred years later, television was the new medium and John F. Kennedy was the new face. The Democratic Party was reinvented for the civil rights era.
In a one-to-many broadcast world, money is the key to the many. Broadcasters have spent a fortune aggregating an audience, which they then rent out to advertisers. To reach a mass audience in a one-to-many world you need to buy a lot of advertising, you need to own the broadcaster, or you need to pay in kind by granting favours once you have political power.
Big brands dominated everything from breakfast cereals to politics because only they could pay the entry price.
The revolution will be Instagrammed
“You can’t really beat big money with more money. You have to beat them with a totally different game,” according to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In June 2018 she won the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th congressional district, defeating sitting Congressman and Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley. She beat him with “a totally different game.”
Crowley had all the money, all the connections, and all the experience. Ocasio-Cortez had hustle and Instagram-savvy.
Social media offers a way around the machine. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has three million followers on Instagram and four million on Twitter. Audiences that size cost a fortune on television. Posting to Instagram is free and it can be a direct, authentic experience with little editorial control. The party machine doesn’t own a candidate’s followers.
Personal branding will kill corporate branding in a many-to-many world. The Democratic Caucus of the United States Congress has eight hundred thousand Twitter followers to Ocasio-Cortez’s four million. Nobody wants to read the sanitised public relations output of a large, risk-averse organisation when they can watch the reality TV adventures of a young woman finding her way round Washington.
Garbage disposals are unusual in New York and when Ocasio-Cortez discovered one in the sink in her Washington apartment, she Instagrammed it. In amongst the climate change and healthcare advocacy was a weird, naïve-sounding post about the garbage disposal unit. Trolling aside, most of the replies were funny stories about people’s garbage disposal mishaps. Even as a personal brand grooming exercise, it was engaging in a way that a corporate PR account never could be.
Informal networks of candidates will become more important as political parties decline. Ocasio-Cortez was endorsed by many organisations including Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, political action committees specifically designed to act as insurgencies within the Democratic Party.
These organisations can form, act, and disband as required without the heavy machinery of a political party. They operate like loose affiliates rather than a company. Their actions are designed to be copied. Candidates don’t need to join an organisation – they can act independently and pick up an endorsement later.
The primary target for these insurgents has been establishment Democrats who they see as getting in the way of their progressive goals. Attacking them is not seen as friendly fire, but a deliberate attempt to clean house. For the new breed of politician fighting against entrenched interests, garbage disposal is not limited to the kitchen.
Andrew Jackson and John F. Kennedy were underdogs, but they weren’t outsiders. The Republican candidate in 2016 was supposed to be Jeb Bush. Bush had the Republican establishment’s backing, but he didn’t have Trump’s thirteen million Twitter followers. Social media, with its lack of editorial control, its informal networks, and its low cost removes many of the obstacles that outsiders face.
There’s no going back to normal, to the days before Trump, and pretending it was all a bad dream. Many-to-many networked politics is not going away. The old aristocrats never made it back into power after 1828. The party of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Quincy Adams was gone forever. Mass media only grew in importance and candidates have needed to be celebrities ever since.
Ad hoc organisations and direct-to-voter campaigning with instant feedback are here to stay. Mass market pre-packaged politics is yesterday’s news. Political parties were designed and optimised for a one-to-many ecosystem of newspapers and television. Many-to-many communication has robbed them of their monopoly on talking to voters.
We’ve had fake news as long as we’ve had news. Much of the angst about social media is not because propaganda is a new problem but because propaganda has been democratised. Many-to-many propaganda is disorienting. Powerful tools are in inexperienced hands and we don’t know how they work yet.
Like the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, established political parties will watch helpless as they cede power to those who grasp the new tools available.
 (Harari, 2011)
 (Pettegree, The Invention of News, 2014), p3
 (Pettegree, Brand Luther, 2015)
 (Pettegree, The Invention of News, 2014), p8
 (Bartlett, 2016), 14:00
 (Spencer, 2016) 6:50
 (Lears, 2019)
 https://www.instagram.com/ocasio2018/, May 2019
 https://twitter.com/AOC/, May 2019
 https://twitter.com/HouseDemocrats, May 2019
Bartlett, D. (Writer and Director). (2016). Jackson vs Adams [Television series episode]. In Race for the White House. Cable News Network.
Harari, Y. N. (2011). Sapiens. London: Vintage.
Lears, R. (Director). (2019). Knock Down the House [Motion Picture].
Pettegree, A. (2014). The Invention of News. London: Yale University Press.
Pettegree, A. (2015). Brand Luther. New York: Penguin Press.
Spencer, C. (Writer and Director). (2016). Lincoln vs Douglas [Television series episode]. In Race for the White House. Cable News Network.