Sunday, March 14, 2004

Changing Communications Infrastructure and Party Affiliation


Matthew Stoller, of the Blogging of the President, had a terrific reply to the last post, Last of the Independents. It was so well done -- interesting and thoughtful -- we decided to put it up as a a guest post:

"You got me going on this topic. It's a very complicated question; I would boil the issue down to television, its attack on group cohesion, and resulting resentment. 
The Last of the Independents is an interesting problem, but it's not just a political partisan issue.  You know how bands don't like being constrained by one genre, or people don't like being labeled as 'punks', or Elks and Masons and societies like that don't make any sense?  That's the same overall cultural rejection of traditional group labels, because their institutional values are stuck in the past. Essentially, marketing over the past fifty years has been about slicing people into demographic groups and hassling them according to what they are most likely to buy or consume. This is both economic - shampoo, soap, etc - and political.  The communications infrastructure, which is largely one-way, has produced a situation where people are grouped into imperfect cultural channels and then served according to those channels, and they pretty much can't talk back.  Part of this is because of TV, part is because of the isolation from different walks of society produced by suburbia.
The political consequence of a broadcast infrastructure has been to move power from city machines which, while corrupt, were relevant to local citizens, towards political consultants and media pundits, who then slice and dice votes according to hot button issues and fear.  The political response is cynicism, apathy, and a rejection of labels.  Who wanted to be a Democrat if it meant being manipulated by George Stephanopoulos? Likewise with the Republicans and Lee Atwater.  Because parties ceased to be social institutions, but just become clearinghouses for whatever kinds of issues you personally care about, the incentive to be a Democrat or a Republican declines (what's in it for you?), and the incentive to be an Independent goes up.  On a cultural level, the response to this communications infrastructure has been towards expressions of authenticity (like Rock, Hiphop, punk, etc) that are quickly coopted by a consumer system.  Look at the quick destruction of grunge, or all the bling bling nonsense around rap that is a beautiful art form expressing authentic emotions. 
Anyway, back to politics. You've seen three responses to the devolution of power away from individuals and towards media centers. One, people don't vote. Two, those who vote tend to become Independents.  Three, those who remain in the parties harden their stances on issues, because it is only through working through special interest groups and the media power they command that the parties can deliver value to you.
In other words, being a Democrat didn't used to mean buying into Al Sharpton's nonsense or hating the free market (in fact, it was the Hoover businessmen who hated free trade and competition, whereas the New Deal liberals were often trying to force less oligopolistic systems), but being part of a social group that bought into a basic notion that government can and should help people, and if it does not, our republic cannot survive.  This harkens back to promoting the general welfare, and all that.  There was also the notion that being a Democrat meant protecting a white supremacist Southern culture, which obviously got transitioned out of the party during the civil rights movement.  Being a Republican didn't use to mean tax cuts, war, corporate subsidies and hating gay people - it used to be about being part of a social group that bought into a basic notion that government should try to stay out of the way, that civil rights were generally a good thing, and that personal responsibility was important.   But really, in neither case were specific policies important - politics was local and social, and calling yourself a Democrat or Republican didn't mean that you supported policy X or Y.
The key insight here is that parties aren't about specific issues, and they never have been. They are social institutions within which are competing groups that share some overlap in basic cohesion of philosophy, but also institutions that made a deal with their members that they were going to help them out with their daily lives by providing a social network and political help. As this deal fell apart, you've seen an increasing amount of stridency in the core of both parties, because through stridency comes media power.  This is often taken to be extremism, but it is not. Only the Republican party has moved to the extremes; the Democrats have just become fantastically incompetent and micro-issue based.
This trend of the political system (and most of our institutional systems, actually - look at how terrible health care is nowadays) away from relevance to individual people has been a long road, and it's far advanced.  Even though 80 or 90 percent of the public buys into global warming, somehow, that problem isn't being addressed.  That's how little relevance our political system has to the citizenry that ostensibly run it. And look at Albany or Massachusetts, if you need another bipartisan example of the problem.
Fortunately, this trend is reversing, because the internet has allowed for individuals to reclaim their voice and pushed our communication systems back to two-way or multi-way operational status. Rather than pundits judging whether someone did a good job on a Sunday morning talk show, the candidate can see the donations coming in - or not.  This is a direct attack on the power of the media elite, and a move to vest power in the hands of those to whom that candidate is most relevant.  A party of the middle class cannot be financed by the rich, but up until now, that's what both parties have pretended to be.  You're now seeing, slowly, the reorganization of the parties to be of greater relevance to their constituency bases, and not on the isssues, but in terms of structure.  It's a slow process, because people like Spitzer will succeed and have the political base to truly govern only when the parties have figured out that they are not just vessels for fundraising and wonkery, but are also institutions that should seek to define a governing philosophy and live by it.
At any rate, what you're basically saying, in describing your politics, is that you like people who are open and honest about their philosophy, and who respect disagreements. You don't like the dogmatic approach of the dishonest paranoid right or the dishonest dovish anti-free trade far left, and tend to respect empirically driven results. You recognize the value of the free market, and you want the government to handle cases of market failure, though your standards in terms of when the government should step in are relatively high. You want the government to promote economic stability and human rights abroad, with military force even, and have a sense of moral duty in foreign and domestic policy, tempered by pragmatic recognition of realistic limits on our power.
There's a lot of coherence there. As far as I can tell, you seem to be a Robert Rubin Democrat. It's not that you're not a party man, it's that the no party has been able to convince you that you belong there. 
As for me, well, I basically buy into a pragmatic model of liberal governance. If there's a problem, find a solution that looks likely to work without too many adverse consequences, try it, and if it doesn't work, get rid of it. I'm offended by the right's attack on science, empiricism, civil rights, and their whole plan to roll back the enlightenment with self-serving ideological drivel.  I was pro-war for the same reason I was pro-war in Kosovo, although it was quickly apparent that the administration in Iraq is not going that well, and that I never should have trusted these guys to carry out nation-building in Iraq when they did it on the cheap in Afghanistan. 
Anyway, that's probably more than you wanted.  There's a lot more at the Blogging of the President at"

Good stuff. Thank you, Matt.

Posted at 07:19 AM in Politics | Permalink


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Thanks for the link - Matt has indeed done a tremendous amount of great work over at Bopnews.

Posted by: Stirling Newberry | Mar 14, 2004 7:02:58 PM

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