America’s ‘Arab Spring’

January, 2016

Everybody, including me, seems to have misread the direction where elections in America are going this time around. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ‘Citizens United’ decision, it was clear that to be a credible candidate, one needed to have his or her own billionaire backer. As well, given the Obama victories in 2008 and 2012, it was also clear that the ‘ground war’ was superior to the ‘air war’, something that required a long-term large-scale organizational effort rather than just a big ad-buy program. All of this suggested that there had to be a resurrection of the party structures in order to get the ground war set up before the nomination was settled. The prophets of this revolution were David Plouffe and David Axelrod on the campaign strategy and Nate Silver on the interpretation of big data.

We got the billionaire part sort of right, but nobody suspected that at least one billionaire would decide to put himself forward as a candidate, or that another might consider doing so as well. Other billionaires have weighed in for one or another candidate. What was missed was that elections are being disrupted by the same forces that have made a mess out of everything in society, from book and newspaper publishing, to overnight rentals to retail sales to…well you get the picture. It seems that candidates just don’t need the traditional media like they used to. The case in point is the standoff between candidate Donald Trump, a longtime media personality, and Fox News, a television channel whose viewing audience has made it a major player in Republican political circles.

In one of the early debates, a Fox interviewer questioned Trump about what she thought was his poor attitude toward women. Trump quickly developed a poor attitude towards her and then extended his lack of regard to the whole channel. Before another debate, he criticized the cable media owners and managers for being greedy in exploiting the advertisers and the raft of candidates by not sharing the debate ad revenues with some charities. The capitalist candidate was pointing the finger at the capitalist media for behaving like capitalists. Fox’s reaction suggested it was both outraged by Trump’s getting out of line and shocked by him saying he really didn’t need them anymore. Trump’s reply was since Twitter could reach his target audience and he could control his own Twitter-feed, what did he care. He could also use mass rallies to get his supporters energized.

What Trump is doing is to recast the connection between candidates and the electorate. The almost incessant parroting of the Republican mantra about right-to-life, Second Amendment gun rights, immigration restrictions, etc., has not provided Trump’s opponents with any traction against him. They all seem to be pallid in comparison and cautious in their statements and in their quest for endorsements. The two elements to Trump’s campaign are his exploitation of his personal celebrity (think: ‘You’re fired!) in order to hog the spotlight and the use of mass rallies in all parts of the country to allow people everywhere, not just in the places where early primaries are being held, to see the celebrity in person. This also was useful to build interest in all the States and feed his Twitterverse. Obama’s people may have invented the data-driven ground war and the use of social media as a means of contact. Trump has gone further and invented celebrity status and the use of social media to bypass the traditional media. Meanwhile, the party bureaucracies that should have been strengthened by what happened in 2012 are being bypassed by candidates in both parties. The candidates are connecting directly to the grass roots. Twentieth Century political behavior is reeling.

Now, I am not sure if all this disruption is going to seriously change a lot of things in the short run. After all, retail stores are hanging in there, newspapers may have diminished or folded, but still exist, bookstores are reinventing themselves and mass media may have deserted cable for wireless streaming, but cable still exists. But politics has been disrupted to some extent and likely will see even more of the same next time.

Nor am I sure that Trump, the innovator in this election, will succeed in getting elected. Someone once said the pioneer is the guy with the arrows in his back. Trump seems to have too much ego to keep himself from going off track and locking himself into an embrace with the 20% or so of Americans who strongly back him. He may wander off into a third party run or confuse the scene enough so that alienated Republicans sit on their hands on Election Day, or the ‘establishment’ may find a way to ever so delicately deny him his prize. Who knows? The Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and in the Gulf all generated different outcomes.  Only in Tunisia did the pioneers get a semblance of what they wanted.

Trump may have devised or stumbled into the tools of disruption and these may have thrown the party ‘establishments’ into disarray, but, as in the Arab Spring, the forces of the status quo have not been destroyed and, regardless of who wins the US Presidential election this time out, it is pretty clear that the political road is going to be tougher for any aspiring candidates in the future. He or she will have to act a lot more like celebrities a long time before an election. He or she will have to at least appear like they think for themselves and they will need to either be or have a good friend who is a billionaire.

Finally, I don’t think either American political establishment has a General Sisi in the wings to re-establish a status quo ante.  The singer Kanye West has ruminated about running for President in 2020. Definitely not too early to be thinking about it, given this context.

 Copyright Jim McNiven 2015

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Jim McNiven’s latest book is The Yankee Road: Tracing the Journey of the New England Tribe that Created Modern America.

Jim McNiven

James McNiven has a PhD from the University of Michigan. He has written widely on public policy and economic development issues and is the co-author of three books. His most recent research has been about the relationship of demographic changes to Canadian regional economic development. He also has an interest in American business history and continues to teach at Dalhousie on a part-time basis.






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