The Voters Decide

Stratechery is not a political blog, and this is not a political post. Rather, my focus is the business and strategy of technology, something that is inextricably linked with the effect technological change has and will have on society broadly — and that includes politics.

To that end I read with interest Hans Noel’s op-ed in The New York Times on Tuesday. Noel is, along with Marty Cohen, David Karol and John Zaller, the author of the 2008 book The Party Decides, one of the most influential books in U.S. political science, and Noel opened his piece by summarizing the book’s central thesis:

We argued that the leaders of party coalitions have great influence over the selection of a presidential nominee. Before [we wrote The Party Decides], the conventional wisdom was that such broad and diverse coalitions of politicians, activists and interest groups within parties were largely shut out of the nominating process by primaries and caucuses in the 1970s. This led to a free-for-all among narrowly factional candidates. In 1976, Jimmy Carter emerged from a crowded field to win the nomination despite having no connections to most leaders in the national party.

We argued that since that 1976 contest, party leaders had been exerting influence by coordinating on their choice during the “invisible primary” — the period before any voting when the leaders observed, met with and vetted candidates — then supporting that candidate throughout the process. When party leaders work together, they nearly always win, we said…

This year’s election has not followed our script. Mr. Trump is the clear front-runner, but is loathed by the party establishment.

To Noel’s credit, the reason for writing the op-ed is to self-critically examine what he and his co-authors may have gotten wrong; he has three potential theses (beyond noting that the Republican establishment may yet rally, and that Democrats have largely fallen into line):

  • Maybe the political environment has changed
  • Maybe the party is falling apart
  • Maybe Mr. Trump just got in the way

I think Noel’s scope is too narrow: politics is just the latest industry to be transformed by the Internet.

The Evolution of Politics and the Web

A few weeks ago Clay Shirky wrote a tweetstorm that is worth reading in full; for this post, though, I wanted to highlight the parts describing how the Internet has, election-by-election, fundamentally reshaped presidential campaigns:

Social media is breaking the political ‘Overton Window’ — the ability of elites to determine the outside edges of acceptable conversation (link). These limits were enforced by party discipline, and mass media whose economics meant political centrism was the best way to make money (link). This was BC: Before Cable. One or two newspapers per town, three TV stations; all centrist, white, pro-business, respectful of authority (link). Cable changed things, allowing outsiders to campaign more easily. In ’92, Ross Perot, 3rd party candidate, campaigned through infomercials (link).

After Cable but Before Web lasted only a dozen years. Cable added a new stream of media access. The web added a torrent (link). This started with Howard Dean (the OG) in ’03. Poverty was the mother of invention; Dean didn’t have enough $ to buy ads, even on cable (link) but his team had Meetup & blogs… (link). After webifying Perot’s media tactics, Dean pioneered online fundraising. Unfortunately for him, his Get Out The Vote operation didn’t (link). That took Obama. Obama was less of an outsider than Dean (though still regarded as unelectable in ’07) but used most of Dean’s playbook (link). And then there was vote-getting. Facebook and MyBarackObama let the Obama campaign run their own vote-getting machine out of Chicago (link).

The new scale Facebook introduces into politics is this: all registered American voters, ~150M people, are now a medium-sized group (link). Reaching & persuading even a fraction of the electorate used to be so daunting that only two national orgs could do it. Now dozens can (link). This set up the current catastrophe for the parties. They no longer control any essential resource, and can no longer censor wedge issues (link)

There are a few key concepts at the foundation of this analysis:

  • Previously information was gated by newspapers and TV stations with geographic monopolies; this began to break down with cable and was completely swept away by the web
  • The Internet made it possible to connect directly with voters to share information, collect money, and drive get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts
  • All of those voters are reachable via just a handful of platforms, especially Facebook

Long-time readers should recognize the tell-tale signs of Aggregation Theory.

Aggregation Theory Redux

Facebook and newspapers is an excellent example of how Aggregation Theory plays out:

  • Previously newspapers integrated editorial and advertising copy into a bundle that was delivered to a geographically captive audience. Said newspapers’ market dominance was secured by their control of production and distribution, but their growth was capped by the challenges of scaling said production and distribution beyond said geographic area.
  • Facebook (like Google before it) built a powerful relationship directly with users by delivering content users cared the most about. This, then, made Facebook the front door to the Internet for most users.
  • Facebook’s direct connection with users was a double-whammy for newspapers: first, Facebook is better-positioned to serve advertising, and second, users increasingly find all their news and entertainment via Facebook

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 12.35.22 AM

The end result of this process is that newspapers have been modularized and commoditized into effective Facebook-filler, competing on an equal basis with everything from new media startups like BuzzFeed to personal blog posts to pictures of your cousin’s new baby. It’s hard for publishers to break through with content, and publisher-centric advertising is dying: better for ad buyers to get as close to the customer as possible and buy space on the service that has aggregated users on one side and leveraged that into commoditizing and modularizing suppliers on the other.

There certainly is room for all the ads: thanks to the Internet reality of zero distribution costs and zero transaction costs, an aggregator can scale nearly perfectly to effectively every user on Earth, as we’ve seen with Google, Facebook, Amazon, and increasingly Netflix and Uber.

Parties and Voters

For a moment, though, step back to the world as it was: the one where newspapers (and TV stations, etc.) were gatekeepers thanks to their ownership of production and distribution. In this world any viable political campaign had to play nicely with those who ran the press in the hopes of gaining positive earned media, endorsements, etc. Just as important, though, was the need to buy advertising, as that was the only way to reach voters at scale. And advertising required lots of money, which meant donors. And then, once the actual election rolled around, a campaign needed an effective GOTV effort, which took not only money but also the sort of manpower that could only be rustled up by organizations like labor unions, churches, etc.

It is all these disparate pieces: partisan media members, advertisers, donors, large associations, plus consultants and specialists to manage them that, along with traditional politicians, made up the “party” in The Party Decides. Noel and company asked in Chapter 1:

Why tie parties so closely to party leadership as such? Why not view parties as larger coalitions that include not only top leaders but activists, fund-raisers, interest groups, campaign technicians, and others? Certainly the larger set of actors has great influence on party behavior. We therefore propose to theorize parties, and to study them in practice, as coalitions of the larger set of actors. Politicians will be important but not necessarily dominant; interest groups, activists, and other policy demanders will be permitted large roles in party decisions. Our theory will focus on why diverse political actors might attempt to form parties and what kinds of candidates they might seek to nominate.

What is critical to understand when it comes to this more broad-based definition of a “party” is that its goals are not necessarily aligned with a majority of voters. The authors explain in Chapter 2 (emphasis mine):

The most important party business is the nomination and election of office seekers who will serve the interests of the party’s intense policy demanders. The italicized phrase marks the key difference between our theory and most other contemporary theorizing about parties. In our theory, parties — that is, the groups that constitute parties — do not care about winning for the sake of winning office. They care about the policy gains. And they make those gains not simply by the election of someone nominally affiliated with their party. They make them by the election of someone committed to the maximum feasible achievement of group goals…

It is natural to think of parties in a two-party system as majoritarian. Ours, however, are not. They want to win elections, but they do not necessarily wish to represent a majority of voters. As a by-product of their wish to govern, parties must offer a degree — perhaps a large degree — of responsiveness to popular majorities, but responsiveness to voters is not why parties exist. They exist to achieve the intense policy demands of their constituent groups. One might criticize parties for lack of deference to majority will, but their groups would not much care. Intense policy demanders nearly always believe their demands are just and that it is their duty to work for these demands whether or not most voters agree with them.

To summarize: parties are not just politicians, but coalitions of actors who care intensely about certain policy outcomes. These actors work together to get politicians elected who will serve their interests; voter interests are a means, not an ends. And, according to Noel and company, such parties succeed because they control all of the apparatus necessary to win elections.

Aggregation and Politics

This brings us back to today’s world, and admittedly, the leap from a description of Facebook and Aggregation Theory to politics is not an obvious one: I’m not proposing that Donald Trump or anyone else is an aggregator. Indeed, given their power over what users see Facebook could, if it chose, be the most potent political force in the world. Until, of course, said meddling was uncovered, at which point the service, having so significantly betrayed trust, would lose a substantial number of users and thus its lucrative and privileged place in advertising, leading to a plunge in market value. In short, there are no incentives for Facebook to explicitly favor any type of content beyond that which drives deeper engagement; all evidence suggests that is exactly what the service does.

Said reticence, though, creates a curious dynamic in politics in particular: there is no one dominant force when it comes to the dispersal of political information, and that includes the parties described in the previous section. Remember, in a Facebook world, information suppliers are modularized and commoditized as most people get their news from their feed. This has two implications:

  • All news sources are competing on an equal footing; those controlled or bought by a party are not inherently privileged
  • The likelihood any particular message will “break out” is based not on who is propagating said message but on how many users are receptive to hearing it. The power has shifted from the supply side to the demand side

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 12.35.04 AM

This is a big problem for the parties as described in The Party Decides. Remember, in Noel and company’s description party actors care more about their policy preferences than they do voter preferences, but in an aggregated world it is voters aka users who decide which issues get traction and which don’t. And, by extension, the most successful politicians in an aggregated world are not those who serve the party but rather those who tell voters what they most want to hear.

In my initial description of Aggregation Theory I noted:

This has fundamentally changed the plane of competition: no longer do distributors compete based upon exclusive supplier relationships, with consumers/users an afterthought. Instead, suppliers can be aggregated at scale leaving consumers/users as a first order priority. By extension, this means that the most important factor determining success is the user experience: the best distributors/aggregators/market-makers win by providing the best experience, which earns them the most consumers/users, which attracts the most suppliers, which enhances the user experience in a virtuous cycle.

The term “user experience” obviously refers to a product; in the case of politics it is, apparently, at least in the case of some substantial number of Republican voters, “telling it like it is”, aka what voters, not parties, believe.1

From The New York Times
From The New York Times

And so, without any of the apparatus traditionally provided by parties, much of it obsoleted by the Internet, and thanks to the ability to connect directly with voters (because of aggregation), Donald Trump is marching on in direct defiance of the Republican Party’s decision.2

Voters (and users) decide.

  1. Note that this too is why the media covers Trump to such a significant degree: they are just as subservient to what their viewers want []
  2. And yes, Trump primarily communicates via Twitter, but he is dominating Facebook []