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How Both Parties Became Host Bodies for Third Party Candidates

We will know by March 15 whether a major party's apparatus can be hijacked by mere voters.


I started writing about both parties becoming host bodies for 3rd party candidates. Instead of an essay, it turned into 50 tweets [reassembled here in essay form]. Here goes.

Social media is breaking the political ‘Overton Window’—the ability of elites to determine the outside edges of acceptable conversation. The Overton Window was imagined as a limit on public opinion, but in politics, it’s the limit on what politicians will express in public.

Politically acceptable discourse is limited by supply, not demand. The public is hungry for more than politicians are willing to discuss. This is especially important in the U.S., because our two-party system creates ideologically unstable parties by design. In order to preserve inherently unstable coalitions, party elites and press had to put some issues into the ‘Don’t Mention X’ category. These limits were enforced by party discipline, and mass media whose economics meant political centrism was the best way to make money.

This was BC: Before Cable. One or two newspapers per town, three TV stations; all centrist, white, pro-business, respectful of authority.

Cable changed things, allowing outsiders to campaign more easily. In ’92, Ross Perot, 3rd party candidate, campaigned through infomercials. That year, the GOP’s ‘Don’t Mention X’ issue was the weakness of Reaganomics. Party orthodoxy said reducing tax rates would raise revenues. Perot’s ads attacked GOP management of the economy head on. He was the first candidate to purchase national attention at market rates. Post-Perot, cable became outside candidates’ tool for jailbreaking Don’t Mention X: Buchanan on culture war, Nader on consumer protection.

After Cable but Before Web lasted only a dozen years. Cable added a new stream of media access. The web added a torrent. What’s special about After Web—now—is that politicians talking about “Don’t mention X” issues are doing so from inside the parties. This started with Howard Dean (the OG) in ’03. Poverty was the mother of invention; Dean didn’t have enough money to buy ads, even on cable. But his team had Meetup & blogs and their candidate believed something many voters did too, something actively Not Being Mentioned.

In ’03, All Serious People (aka D.C. insiders) agreed the U.S. had to invade Iraq. Opposition to the war was not to be a campaign issue. Dean didn’t care. In February of 2003, he said, “If the war lasts more than a few weeks, the danger of humanitarian disaster is high.”

Dean said, “Iraq is a divided country, with Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish factions that share both bitter rivalries and large quantities of arms.”

Dean said “There is a very real danger that war in Iraq will fuel the fires of international terror.”

For All Serious People, this was crazy talk. (Dean was, of course, completely correct.) This was also tonic to a passionate set of voters. Mentioning X became Dean’s hallmark. Far from marginalizing him, it got him tons of free news coverage. Trump is just biting those rhymes.

After webifying Perot’s media tactics, Dean pioneered online fundraising. Unfortunately for him, his Get Out The Vote operation didn’t. 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. Besides charisma, he had two advantages Dean didn’t have. First, the anti-war position had gone from principled opposition to common sense. Obama could campaign not just on being prescient (as Dean also was) but on having been proved right years earlier.

The second advantage was that Obama’s voter mobilization strategy—the crown jewels—was superior to that of the Democratic Party itself. This was the last piece. Perot adopted non-centrist media, Dean distributed fundraising, Obama non-party voter mobilization. Social media is at the heart of all of this. Meetup and Myspace meant Dean and Obama didn’t have to be billionaires to get a message out.

Online fundraising let outsiders raise funds, and it became a symbol of purity. Anyone not raising money at $25 a pop is now a plutocrat. And then there was vote-getting. Facebook and MyBarackObama let the Obama campaign run their own vote-getting machine out of Chicago.

McLuhan famously said “The medium is the message.” This is often regarded as inscrutably gnomic, but he explained it perfectly clearly. The personal and social consequences of any medium result from the new scale introduced into our affairs by any new technology. The new scale Facebook introduces into politics is this: all registered American voters, ~150M people, are now a medium-sized group. All voters’ used to be a big number. Now it’s less than 10 percent of Facebook’s audience. “A million users isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion users.”

Reaching and persuading even a fraction of the electorate used to be so daunting that only two national organizations could do it. Now dozens can. This set up the current catastrophe for the parties. They no longer control any essential resource, and can no longer censor wedge issues. Each party has an unmentionable Issue X that divide its voters. Each overestimated their ability to keep X out of the campaign.

Jeb(!) Bush, who advocates religious litmus tests for immigrants, has to attack Trump’s anti-immigrant stance, because it went too far.

Clinton can’t say “Break out the pitchforks”, because Democratic consensus says “We’ve done as much to banks as our donors will allow.”

In ’15, a 3rd party candidate challenging her on those issues from inside the party was inconceivable. (“I don’t think that word means…”)

So here we are, with quasi-parlimentarianism. We now have four medium-sized and considerably more coherent voter blocs. Two rump establishment parties, Trump representing ‘racist welfare state’ voters, and Sanders representing people who want a Nordic system. Trump is RINO, Sanders not even a Dem. That either one could become their party’s nominee is amazing. Both would mark the end of an era.

We will know by March 15 whether a major party’s apparatus can be hijacked by mere voters. (Last time it was: McGovern.) But the social media piece, and growing expertise around it, means that this is now a long-term challenge to our two-party system. Over-large party coalitions require discipline to prevent people from taking an impassioned 30 percent of the base in order to win the primaries. The old defense against this by the parties was “You and what army?” No third party has been anything other than a spoiler in a century.

The answer to that question this year, from both Trump and Sanders, is “Me and this army I can mobilize without your help.” Who needs a third party when the existing two parties have become powerless to stop insurgencies from within?

Clay Shirky studies the effects of the internet on society. He is the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (2008) and Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (2010).