Politics is not immune from trends that drive the rest of society, but the costs of ignoring those trends can be very, very high. The key trend for 2016’s presidential cycle is “disruption.”
The stirrup disrupted European battle tactics forever, but the ancients in India developed it 200 years before Christ. It took 700 years to get there. During World War II, the German army still moved most of its supplies on horse-drawn wagons. Electronic computers were invented in the 1940s, but it took until the 80’s before computers really made it into our homes. Now, something comes out on Kickstarter and everyone has one by Christmas.
In business, disruption makes and breaks companies; whole industries disappear. I have warned executives of the danger of ignoring industry disruption. Just when you’re doing well selling CDs, or renting videos, or selling photographic film, someone comes along and wipes you out. Or if you’re Hillary Clinton, you might feel like you’ve missed the boat (again).
Donald Trump is a master disrupter, and Hillary is being disrupted. Hillary should know better–she had eight years to prepare for this run after getting blindsided by Barack Obama in 2008.
According to Democrats close to the Clintons and involved with her campaign, Mrs. Clinton and the former president are also unnerved by the possibility that Mr. Sanders will foment a large wave of first-time voters and liberals that will derail her in Iowa, not unlike Barack Obama’s success in 2008, which consigned Mrs. Clinton to a third-place finish. They have asked her advisers about the strength of the campaign’s data modeling and turnout assumptions in Iowa, given that her 2008 campaign’s predictions were so inaccurate.
One candidate who appears to be well-prepared for the disruption, while sticking to the fundamentals, is Ted Cruz. And fundamentals do (still) matter, at least for the candidates. But it’s the media who are about to get clobbered, because the pace of disruption in the world is increasing logarithmically.
With media industry disruption going into hyperdrive, we now face changes capable of changing society on the order of what the stirrup did to England. (Read up on the Battle of Hastings in 1066.)
Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and the rise of Internet celebrities will soon wipe out television and cable news as the public’s primary source of information. Political candidates who want to spread their message need to learn to deal with these new technologies or they are going to become irrelevant.
Mike Huckabee, Lindsey Graham, and, of all people, Rand Paul (whose dad practically invented some of the political disruption methods being used today) found out the hard way that the old methods don’t cut it. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson used social media as his primary fundraising tool, to good advantage in 2015 (raising a stunning $20 million in the third quarter), but he couldn’t capitalize on his huge mailing list, and discord within his campaign robbed his campaign of its sizzle.
So what’s coming, and when?
Television, or more succinctly, live media content, is going to be more about choice and entertainment than a passive exercise in watching a screen. The term “programming” and “schedule” are losing their meanings, and it’s only a matter of time before ancient regulations governing broadcasting go away to cope with the reality of unplugged consumers. In other words, we won’t be tuning in to the 6 p.m. news broadcast anymore. We will surf our media with the same deftness a thirteen-year-old uses SnapChat.
In fact, it’s been quite a while since I’ve watched the local news, and I’m a late baby-boomer. Ad buys in traditional television won’t have much effect with Gen-X’ers and younger (unless you buy during football season). To get a message out, candidates will have to focus on viral content and getting free media time. If you’re not on board with the cable cord-cutting generation, it’s probably too late for you.
Hear that, Jeb Bush?
This disruption isn’t coming, it’s already here. Look at the newest Apple TV, or Roku, and you’ll see the future. Look online at any of the broadcast networks’ websites: before the last GOP debate was over, Fox News had clips of the highlights up on the web. Why watch the whole thing when you can just surf the highlights? Why watch at all when you can just filter through Twitter?
Trump gets Twitter–it matches his personality perfectly. That, plus the fact that many of his “fans” (I hesitate to call all of them supporters in the political sense) would defend him if he sacrificed a goat to Satan at midnight at St. Paul’s Cathedral, makes him immune to online attacks. The networks, staring down at their own graves, need Trump more than he needs them, and that is bad for journalism (or is it?).
It might be a good thing that Trump showed up in time to pull down the media’s pants and expose their profit motive to the world, unadorned and “unrated.” Matthew Ingram wrote of journalism’s future in 2013:
[New York Times columnist Frank] Bruni goes on to say the videos made by Clinton and Bachmann are “harbingers of an era in which YouTube is the public square, and the fourth estate is a borderline obsolescent one.” And he admits some may see the decline of the journalistic sector as a good thing, given the level of mistrust many have in the media — which he blames on “our cynicism, superficiality… and tendency to see all politics in terms of the contest rather than the content.”
True, the public is cynical about the media, not because they’re biased (they’ve always been biased), but because they pretend they’re not in it for the money. When the New York Daily News runs a 64-point headline reading “Drop Dead Ted” is it because they genuinely wish the Texan’s demise, or is it to sell newspapers? Answer honestly.
Newsprint is dying, magazines are dying, and network television is dying. They are all in different phases of the “five stages of grief” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) with cable networks the closest to acceptance as they move to anytime, any-format, pay-as-you-go content. They should all go pay homage to Wayne Huizenga (former CEO of Blockbuster) and invest in sports teams and garbage hauling.
Disruption is here in full force. Why is this so important to our society and politics?
As a body politic, we owe it to the next generation to keep up with disruption. America survives by informed citizens participating in governing. Unlike, say, Russia or China, where a relatively small group of “deciders” get to choose what everyone does, we need information to make good choices. The Millennials and Gen-Y’ers aren’t seeing the same choices and information the rest of us see.
They see everything through fake-glamour eyeglasses and weed-smoke. To many of them, the people running America are irrelevant clowns and cheaters with less authority than Ryan Reynolds or Kelly Osbourne. Most of them have never heard of Meet the Press except from their parents. They get their political news from Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Myers, and Trevor Noah. Stephen Colbert is hopelessly old and out of touch, but still capable of being funny.
We realize that elections have consequences, yet we treat them like the Miss Universe pageant. This does a tremendous disservice to the next generation. The problem is more than just dealing with a fad–it’s a total disruption of the process by which our candidates are chosen. Trump, for example, has made it almost impossible to verify statistical relevance for pollsters, leading to wild predictions of either his triumph or calamity.
As the Millennial generation grows up and takes charge of the country, those who are leading the transition to their power can’t ignore the effect of disruption, and especially the pace of disruption. Consultants who care more about their 15 percent commission on ad buys than ensuring their candidate’s message reaches people who need to hear it are doing more than chiseling donors–selling shares in a photo film factory in a digital age–they are keeping the next generation from participation in American democracy.
That has dual effects, both of them bad. First, it increases the younger generation’s cynicism about politics and government. Second, it preserves the ossified and corrupt elements running the country. Eventually it leads to a complete break (as it did after Watergate).
Disruption back then moved half as fast as it does today. It took 20 years for Nixon vs. Kennedy’s TV debate to soak into the political mainstream. As we hurtle towards a post-TV future, we can’t afford to become the Blockbusters or Kodaks of politics. If we do, the Millennials will pay for it and blame us for handing them the bill.