In the Obama war room, Stephanie Cutter could see what was happening. The debate was being lost in the opening fifteen minutes because of a medium that had not even played a role in the campaign four years earlier.
— Dan Balz, Collision 2012: Obama vs Romney and the Future of Elections in America
Social media is not an aberration, but a revelation of human nature.
— @CosmosTheInLost (via Twitter)
At the time it probably didn’t seem like much. Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign was state of the art, equipped with the latest data-mining and social-media bells and whistles and driven by a theory of the electorate that was thoroughly vindicated on Election Day. But that made what happened on the evening of October 3, 2012, even more noteworthy.
That was the day it looked as though the strategy that worked so well up until then was suddenly thrown off track. Some say it was simply a case of Mitt Romney surprising an unprepared Barack Obama with an aggressive debate performance. But according to Dan Balz in his book Collision 2012: The Future of Election Politics in a Divided America, it wasn’t the debate but what took place on a relatively new social-media platform that could have undermined the best-laid plans of the Obama campaign.
On Twitter, Chuck Todd of NBC said, “An old Clinton trick by Romney, using real people stories to make his point.” Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic tweeted, “Romney did better on the subject of Obama’s anniversary than Obama did on the subject of Obama’s anniversary.” . . . A tweeter dubbed @LOLGOP sent out a comparable message: “I think Mitt Romney had his first Frappuccino tonight.” . . . In the Obama war room, Stephanie Cutter could see what was happening. The debate was being lost in the opening fifteen minutes because of a medium that had not even played a role in the campaign four years earlier.”
What ensued after the disruption was a testament to the agility of the president’s campaign team. They would make sure in the next debate, regardless of what happened, their soldiers on Twitter would be ready. When the Obama team regrouped for the next debate, among their strategies was to orchestrate a Twitter barrage of positive tweets by supporters to preempt a similar catastrophe. Dan Balz quotes David Plouffe from the Obama team:
One of our goals for the second debate was within the first ten minutes to have you guys on Twitter saying, “Okay, Obama is better, he’s back.” We need the press corps to say you’re off to a good start.
Fortunately for the president, Romney’s performance in the second debate was a famous dud. The poll numbers eventually turned Obama’s way and the president would win his second term.
And yet, during that brief few weeks it looked as though the campaign that famously mastered social media could have been undone by its own tool. What would have happened if instead of a Romney campaign whose methods were stuck in the 1990’s, Obama was running against a more opportunistic rival with significant media presence and a talent for the demagogic sound bite leveraged in 140 characters or less on Twitter in real time? How would a 2012 operation that relies entirely on careful orchestration be able to run against an opportunistic insurgent with an instinct for the disenchanted political moment, leveraging social media spontaneously while other team’s pollsters are rushing to organize the next focus group?
Welcome to our coming political disorder.
In their recently published book Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action, researchers Helen Margetts, Peter Johns, Scott Hale, and Taha Yesseri venture into the new world of social media’s effects on politics and culture and what they find is anything but predictable or orderly.
There seems to be a sense of change bubbling up from the bottom rather than being triggered by changes at the top. . . . As one commentator put it, “there is something in the air that defies historical parallels; something new to do with technology, behavior and popular culture.”
Whereas conventional forms of collective action, they argue, are reasonably predictable based on demographic information, the hyper interactivity of social media amplifies the role of individual personality as a dominant variable in outcomes that resemble viral outbreaks of collective action of a very unpredictable kind.
If . . . personality rather than demographic difference is structuring thresholds, in terms of the way that people respond to social influence on social media, then contemporary collective action may become even more difficult to model and predict . . . in summary, social media injects turbulence into political life.
Citing examples such as Black Lives Matter and Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, the author’s term of art for the new age of social media engaged political disorder is “Chaotic Pluralism,” a strange choice of phrase given the movements that seem to capitalize most on this new platform seem to demonstrate a particular disinterest in pluralistic discourse.
None of this was unpredictable.
As we sit back in wonder that our politics has devolved to fights between Trump and Sanders supporters, Twitter exchanges between candidates about their wives, and political surrogates publicly threatening convention delegates, it warrants recollection that American politics was always a full contact sport, but not in the sense that we are seeing unfold today. When Alexis De Tocqueville set foot on American soil 185 years ago among his observations was the contrast he noted between the peculiarly vitriolic rhetoric found in America’s numerous newspapers compared to the relatively mild political fervor of its people. His explanation for this bears quoting:
In the United States there is almost no small town that does not have its newspaper. One conceives without difficulty that among so many combatants neither discipline nor unity of action can be established: hence we see each one raising its banner. It is not that all the political newspapers in the Union are ranged for or against the administration; but they attack it and defend it by a hundred diverse means. Newspapers in the United States, therefore, cannot establish great currents of opinion that sweep away or overflow the most powerful dikes.
As a student of Montesquieu and the Founders, Tocqueville was here acknowledging the Founders statecraft, and in particular James Madison’s. It was an acknowledgment of what Greg Weiner in his book Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule, and the Tempo of American Politics describes as Madison’s theory of the Temporal Republic. Recognizing the historic instability of republics in the face of violent public passions, Madison posited a constitution of checks and balances and decentralized powers. According to Weiner, Madison’s underlying premise was that while it was good to cultivate civic virtue among a republic’s citizens virtue was not enough, the operations of the government must be such that governing slowed down sufficiently for the collective passions to cool and let more temperate minds prevail over the more immediate impulses. Not only virtue, but also time was a key ally in maintaining the political stability of a republic.
In his book the author contrasts these two notions of republicanism as Civic Republicanism, a republic of civic virtue, and Temporal Republicanism, a republic of structural checks and balances. While many of our Founders tended to emphasize the need of Civic Republicanism, Madison, who once stated that if men were angels we wouldn’t need government, insisted virtue was not enough, a system that included sources of procedural friction and accountability in the process was also necessary. The many moving parts of Madison’s constitution were designed largely to mitigate the tendency of human affairs to devolve into what Thomas Hobbes described as our state of nature, “a war of all against all,” as indeed it did in Athens and Republican Rome.
But this picture of man’s political nature rapidly faded at the turn of the century in the aftermath of progressivism. Progressives sought to usher in a more modern system of government and eliminate the influence of political clientelism, then rampant in government, by filling its bureaucracies with a properly qualified and credentialed professional elite. Gone were the days that, as Woodrow Wilson put it, men were more interested in “controlling than in energizing government.” An educated and qualified bureaucratic class would introduce a better form of government based on expertise. But Hobbes couldn’t be entirely discounted even among the professionally educated. In place of the numerous decentralized clientelistic systems in American government, the effect of Progressive reforms would produce one dominant clientele system at its heart.
The Progressive Era reforms in the United States eliminated one particular form of clientelism. . . . It did not, however, end the practice of distributing other kinds of favors, such as subsidies, tax breaks, and other benefits, to political supporters. One of the big issues afflicting American politics in recent years has been the impact of interest groups that are able to effectively buy politicians with campaign contributions and lobbying. Most of this activity is perfectly legal, so in a sense the United States has created a new form of clientelism, only practiced at a much larger scale and with huge sums of money at stake.
— Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay
We now know that the fundamental Weberian premise of these reforms, that a professional and well educated elite can operate a modern state with efficiency and objectivity is more complicated.
Researchers such as Phil Tetlock, Deanna Kuhn, and David Perkins have demonstrated that higher levels of education does little to mitigate the tendency to interpret the world in ways that flatter the interests of one’s own ideological tribe. Rather, higher education only correlates to more-talented forms of rationalization — a tendency of what Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics describes as the “inner press-secretary” syndrome:
Schools don’t teach people to reason thoroughly; they select the applicants with higher IQs, and people with higher IQs are able to generate more reasons.
The findings get more disturbing. Perkins found that IQ was by far the biggest predictor of how well people argued, but it predicted only the number of my-side arguments. Smart people make really good lawyers and press secretaries, but they are no better than others at finding reasons on the other side. Perkins concluded that “people invest their IQ in buttressing their own case rather than in exploring the entire issue more fully and evenhandedly.”
This tendency for “Confirmatory Thought” only appears to submit if the individual believes he or she will be held accountable to an audience whose views they do not know and whom they believe is well informed and interested in accuracy, in other words, conditions not unlike that of an informed citizenry with the power to keep representatives accountable much as Madison envisaged. And indeed, what has appeared in place of our Madisonian system is a political establishment expressing this tendency of Confirmatory Thought on an industrialized scale in the form of ideological closure and the industrialization of techniques of promotion and messaging to the voting public. This is the picture of our political class which we have received from such accounts as Mark Leibovich’s This Town and Dan Balz’s Collision 2012, both of which I’ve written about at length, here, here, here, here, and here.
Call it Weberian Clientelism. As the early forms of Civic and Temporal Republicanism faded in the 20th century what replaced it was a Janu- faced political culture that on one hand formed policy largely out of the collective interests of partisan constituency and in the other created an industry to spin and message policy to the general public ensuring favorability will be sufficient to achieve 50 percent plus one on Election Day despite the perverse effects created by clientelistic policies. But even this system assumes a form of temporal restraint and demographic discipline that now looks to be overwhelmed by the new chaotic reality. When the poster child of Weberian Clientelism, Bill Clinton, finds himself sputtering to defend his record before members of a key constituency of his wife’s candidacy one has to recognize we aren’t in Kansas anymore.
In the preface to his two volume study The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama offers an artful analogy of a flight on a plane to illustrate the formation and erosion of modern political institutions. Leaving the Melanesian societies of Papua New Guinea the plane travels to the modern cities of Cairns and Brisbane Australia. In that one flight the occupant leaves one culture, structured around tribal loyalty to a single leader who maintains order by proper distribution of resources to key tribal constituencies, to a modern culture that operates on institutions that operate on professional and political processes governed by accountability. Fukuyama observes that the rise of modern political order can be described as a traversing of the distance between those two societies, and political decline as a reversion back to tribal clientelistic behavior as tribal identities reassert their power within the modern institutions designed to over-ride precisely this innate tendency.
However, what we have today is more complicated than a reversion to the primitive. It’s more primordial.
Back when the Internet first became a force of global influence in the 1990s, sociologist Manuel Castells dedicated a massive three-volume study to the new order this medium was ushering in called The Rise of the Network Society. A key insight in his study was that there appeared to be emerging a profoundly co-dependent symbiosis between a powerful global mono-culture of the Network and a retrenchment of increasingly extreme localized cultural identities offering cultural refuge for those without access to the powerful and hegemonic inner circles of information flows. The Islamic Fundamentalist, the Christian Culture Warrior, and regional independence movements are all examples of those on the outside seeking an alternative source of identity in a global mono-culture that appears to threaten identity in all its alternative forms. But because of the network the relationship is symbiotic, because the network gives these highly tribal identities a medium in which to flourish without the encumbrances of geography, or limitations on potential influence.
Today that network has achieved a degree of connectivity that is the tribalizing equivalent of a superconductor. Unlike Fukuyama’s Melenesian tribes, or modern clients, these identities evangelize in a medium unbounded by the natural limits of the primitive landscape or 20th-century political realities of scarcity of access. What appears to be unfolding looks less like chaos, and more like contagion, only the mechanism isn’t biological but a feature of human anthropology that our Weberian thought leaders and therapists thought domesticated by their expertise: the anthropology of Thomas Hobbes. Recent events suggest this assumption may be premature.
In the superconducting environment of social media, culture and influence flow unbounded by the limits of geography, lineage, tradition, and time. In this new reality, neither Madison nor Weber has a foothold, leaving us with Civic Republicanism as the last stand, and therein may lie the tragic irony of our moment.
The spirit of modern individualism, which philosopher Charles Taylor qualifiedly celebrates in his A Secular Age, what psychologist Philip Reiff far more ambivalently elaborates in his The Triumph of the Therapeutic as a new permissiveness liberating self from traditional social obligation, conservatives such as Charles Murray and Rod Dreher argue has given rise to a profound loss of social capital the effects of which sociologist Robert Putnam has chronicled for us at length. And this, they argue, has made key parts of our society more alienated and desperate.
While one needn’t agree with their critique, it may be prudent to consider that if their critique is correct, then what has been unloosed on earth is now at large in a medium for which there are no inherent features of constraint. Norms and cultural institutions that once held societies together around some notion of self-control have been displaced by a new therapeutic culture that reorders all priorities to the service of individual wants. And on this ground, the last foothold, an ethic of civic self-restraint, was lost well before Twitter.
We are now face to face with the consequences of something first observed by our ancient Greek predecessors. Our politics is now a macrocosm of the disordered souls that populate it. And, evidently, after generations of neglect, our souls are very, very, restless.