American Spring

A one party system ran the United States, and the United States ran the world.

The US had checks and balances – governing required consensus, and the people were freed from kings. To protect speech, the framers left out a rule against conspiracies to monopolize the vote.

Political parties formed to monopolize the vote. The losing parties kept ganging up until only two parties remained. Resembling vast and immortal corporations, they consolidated all political power.

The parties need mass media to win elections. Media literally intermediates reality and programs voters by framing the acceptable parameters of any debate. Mass media costs mass money.

The elites, a plutocracy of the top few percent, bought the parties. So cheaply in fact, that they bought both.

The elites are merely people that went to the right schools, grew up in the right neighborhoods, and came from the right money and the right families. It’s not a formal conspiracy – rather an intricate and distributed system, organized by the invisible hand of the market, voting with dollars and newspaper ink, and controlling the country all the same.

Within some parameters, the elites argue – bombs from the air or boots on the ground? How much should we tax income?

Mostly the elites agree to keep power with elite institutions, controlling the masses who cannot be trusted. Yes to wars, yes to mass surveillance, yes to bailouts, yes to war on drugs, yes to war on terror, yes to endless copyrights, yes to monopolies and oligopolies, no to term limits, no to wealth taxes… On these and others, pick R or D, there are no choices.

The Elite Party runs the system and it basically works. The elite stay elite. Income may be taxed, but wealth compounds. The most belligerent and implacable of the masses are sent to fight in mercifully distant wars. Crime happens in other people’s neighborhoods. The prisons are full and everyone is being watched. The pie expands, slowly and un-evenly, and all is well.

One weakness – the presidency is a single office of great visibility and power, directly and democratically elected. One person, one vote. Regardless of education, ethic, breeding, knowledge, achievement. Is everyone actually, really, equally qualified to vote, the elites wonder?

The elites lock the crown behind two massive gates – it costs a billion dollars to run for president. And incalculable, favorable mass media exposure.

This works well – so well that the elites get lazy, handing off presidential power within dynasties – between fathers and sons, husbands and wives.

Statistically speaking, what are the odds that the two most qualified candidates to be president out of 300 million people are siblings? Or married?

Barack Obama interrupts an in-process coronation. Using hope, change, and emerging alternative online media, he organizes and brings new voters to the polls. But back then, it still takes television, money, newspapers, and the party apparatus. He can’t and doesn’t do it alone, and eventually joins the elite.

Today, it’s a different world. YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook let one human broadcast to billions, without permission, without censors, without delay. Social media makes mass organization and resistance possible.

The Arab Spring is just one consequence. The American Spring of 2016 is another.

Social and alternative media dominates and disintermediates mass media. Every column brings a hundred rebuttals. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are stood like commoners next to bloggers, begging for tweets, likes, and votes. We are all journalists and editors now.

Bernie can play this game. The MoveOn crowd organizes effortlessly using the new media.

Trump can play this game. The reality show vet generates outrage and impressions, tweeting as he goes.

Meanwhile, the Internet kills the political ad. Everyone is online – skipping, blocking, or just mis-clicking.

Bernie spends a bit on ads. Trump doesn’t bother.

It’s not just publishing – the Internet lets anyone donate little bits online. Bernie taps the crowd – over a million dollars a day from small donors! Again, Trump doesn’t bother. He just self-finances.

The mass media barrier is down. The money barrier is down.

A mob is pushing Bernie. Trump is pulling one behind him.

The elites are livid. They sneer at the masses – Uneducated. Socialist. Racist. Luddite.

Throughout history, elites and plutocrats have feared direct democracy. One-person, one-vote logically leads towards mob rule. Socialism. Tribalism. The masses are always “crazier” than the elites. The elites like the status quo, so they pull policy towards the center. It’s the masses that want real change.

YouTube killed TV and Twitter ate the news. Donald’s tweeting from his jet and Bernie’s kickstarter went viral. Software is eating politics and the elites have lost control.

Now we see “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The neatly labeled bundles of “Democrat” and “Republican” are going to get re-assembled by the voters, one vote at a time instead of one dollar at a time.

Sanders’ voters think the rich stole their money. Trump’s voters think the illegals stole their jobs.

There is no more establishment. Like all things Internet, social media and crowd financing are unstoppable. Every large future election will have outsiders out-organizing, out-raising, and out-raging the establishment.

America is going from a republic of elites to a direct democracy. Look to your left, and look to your right. Wake up – the people are here.

Update: Read the sequel, American Fall.

54 thoughts on “American Spring

  1. An interesting thread in the evolving power structures of american democracy. We probably haven’t seen as big of a shift since the early 1900s when US Senatorial elections went to popular vote. The election architecture changed then.

    The information architecture has changed now. Architecture is Politics. The structure of the network, and the way we talk to each other and communicate, determines the kinds of things we can and cannot do.

    There are huge societal implications here.

    Look at #Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter. We are having a conversation in the US about police brutality and Black oppression that I’m not sure we would have without a democratizing medium. The work of advocates is important and necessary, but the conversation changed when the medium did, giving new kinds of activists a platform. These new activists are the ones you never heard from before precisely because they were marginalized.

    I think we’re seeing the first generation of activists who grew up in the world of social media start to influence the conversation. I’m curious to see what they do.

    In Ferguson, CNN tried to tell a story of unruly riots and police establishing order. CNN is a broad-cast medium: the few control the story to the many. Twitter is a multi-cast medium: The many control the story to the many. It’s such a small change, but it is immense. Twitter has problems, sure, but we are lucky they understand the value of their open, multicast medium. Remember #OccupyGezi?

    It’s not a complete switch, though. The “elites”, as you called it, have been squirreling away power in other places. State elections, gerrymandering, etc. Those pockets of power still end up in the federal level as a check on popular rule. We’re seeing a shift, certainly, but it’s not 100%. The question is whether we’ve hit a material tipping point in the US govt as a whole. This presidential election is an experiment on how much the presidential election has changed.

  2. I agree with much of what you brilliantly written here. But I think Social Media is not AS ‘neutral’ or elite-neutral as you think. Look at the Facebook Trending topics, or Twitter moments- THEY ARE STILL BEING CURATED BY ‘elites’ or the representatives of elites! That’s why stories ridiculing Trump are always ‘trending in Twitter moments’ but FBI investigating Hillary’s mail does not.
    We still have a much better control of the narrative, but even if medium is changed, Elites still hold a lot of power.
    BTW, a new reader of your blog – came here via Scott Adams Twitter:-)

  3. It feels like there are a couple things in conflict here.

    American politics seems to have become even more partisan in the past few years, which I think is the result of a bigger role of money in politics, but also the role of the larger number of media outlets (both mass media and social media) we have today. The conflict between social media and mass media reflects the conflict between capitalism and democracy pretty well.

    One of the characteristics of capitalism is inequality. It’s the reason the capitalist system works, ethical or not. Thus, capitalists are usually the elite few that use the resources at their disposal to push their agenda, which is inherently contrary to the equal representation ideology of democracy. In the same way, social media provides a platform for anybody to engage, while mass media focuses on a select few to guide the discussion.

    But all this social media stuff is incredibly new compared to the other three pieces of this conflict. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes.

  4. “the people are here” but we are stuck with a two-party system. Vote R or vote D, you have a binary choice. And don’t you dare to vote any other way. It’s a broken system.

    Germany had the same problem when I grew up. You had two large parties, and they ruled everything. Then the Green Party came along; they only had a few points in the early years, maybe 1%, %2 or 3%. Nobody took them seriously. But they stuck to their mission, and they kept crunching year-over-year because they believed in their goals.

    What people don’t realize, for a third party to have an impact, they don’t need a majority. They just need enough votes to prevent one of the other parties to have a clear majority. At that point, they hold all the power. When the Green Party reached that point in Germany, they had all the power to enter a coalition with one of the big parties.

    “You want to partner with us? You have to agree to our core issues.”

    Unfortunately, we are still a long way from that in the US. And until that happens, it’s politics as usual. Oh yeah, and it’s time to kill the eight years term limit. It prevents any proper long term planning. If the person in charge does well and has the vote of the people, let them continue.

  5. Not sure I agree on lifting term limits. That’s the only thing that prevents demagogues and dictators from hijacking the system forever. We have no term limits in congress and look at how long some of the congressmen and women stay in power. If anything, I would impose additional term limits. Politics shouldn’t be a profession.

  6. Great essay. You mentioned before, “Hypothesis: Successful 3rd party can only form on stances that the two-party oligopoly cannot undertake without suicide – i.e., term limits.”

    What if a software platform could render R’s and D’s impotent?

    Consider two simple features such a platform might contain:

    One shows how many new jobs a candidate has created, and where their wealth came from. R’s and D’s usually have created none, whereas some entrepreneur’s (E’s) have created many.

    Another shows consumers how they “vote” every time they spend money. It makes it easy to see what amount of their purchases goes toward lobbying, or to R and D campaigns.

    Such a platform could vet candidates, and any E’s on the platform would be a logical choice. They might not sign up for the service, but they could be manually added.

    These E’s will be busy, so they’ll have to draw straws, or be selected to do a “tour of duty” in office. A party of E’s would gladly endorse term limits. Plus, each E knows exactly what laws, departments, and mini-dictatorships to abandon.

    Hypothesis: Successful 3rd party is already here, but won’t emerge until a platform is built that makes doing a tour of duty easier.

  7. nice piece. democracy is another example of the principal / agent problem causing structural problems. and while democracy is a mess at the moment, it is slowly starting to work the way it is supposed to work. a lot more change is on the way, and while some turmoil will happen in the short term, later things will stabilize very nicely.

  8. Good points, but you are comparing and contrasting non-sequiturs. Capitalism is an economic system. Democracy is a political system.
    Furthermore, as long as votes are cast for people to represent those voters, you don’t have democracy, you have representative government.
    I’m not even sure what people mean when they talk about capitalism, but since most people who are anti-capitalism are talking about large multi-national corporations (yes, there are small multi-national corporations), I personally think their ire should be directed as the governments which protect and support them, not at the companies themselves.
    This has been a good thread.

  9. Nice piece, Too easy though on Obama. Chicago is a political machine you don’t rise out of without connections, and Obama ran unopposed for his senate seat.

  10. Absolutely right. While I would say that a handful of people are actively engaged and looking to improve the role of government in society, most “career politicians” have certainly become comfortable and lazy. Sadly, I can remember growing up and hearing classmates say that they’d like to be President when they grow up. I don’t think many kids say that today. I’ve said it often — the biggest problem with government is politics. Thanks for an insightful post that will hopefully stir up some more conversation and debate that pushes us to do more and better. Cheers!

  11. Great post, I don’t know much about American politics, so it was nice to read. The two things you have mentioned about the amount of money raised for campaigns+ the advantage of being the son of, or the wife of while running for president are not making any sense.
    As for the elites converging everything to only two parties, I feel like this is actually a blessing. I am from Israel, and the ability of everyone to vote for what the want (multi party structure of congress) is paralyzing, and even worst than that, creating tribes, each pushing to their own direction. Compare China’s progress with all its problems to India’s in the last 40 years, and the same conclusion comes up. People always take after their own interests and small niche, a common ground by a platform of two parties did have a good effect, you just need to clear out the mess it creates from time to time, and Obama didn’t/couldn’t.

  12. Social media is at the gold rush stage where someone with no experience can go out and hit a vein becoming very popular. The many don’t control the story to the many, as any that don’t follow the “party line” are crushed. Most of what came out of Sanford and Ferguson were fabricated lies that fit well into an appealing narrative.

  13. What I love here is in some cases ability to vote doesn’t even matter–all the people now count. I’m watching teen artists leave their Etsy shops for a moment to produce content for Bernie and undocumented young people who live in the shadows suddenly get a political voice hiding behind an avitar. If people were shocked that Obama leveraged grassroots to win, that Trump plays by different rules, or that Bernie raised a warchest out of nickels and dimes… I think they’ll be more surprised by the effect of people who can’t even vote–who are suddenly starting to care who rules their world.

  14. Meanwhile in Canada (Ontario) we elected two imbeciles. One provincially the other Federally. Your choice between Hillary or Donald is just as pathetic. I like all the comments.

  15. There is a critical difference. Germany has a proportional-representation system. America does not.

    I blogged about this a while back:

    Simply put, with our current system of government, third parties can’t gain enough of a foothold to get ANYONE into Congress, much less the proportion that they’d need to wield the kingmaker powers of a coalition government.

  16. True, but people said the same thing about the Green Party during the 80s in Germany. My point is that it takes time, and you don’t need a full majority to make a difference. People in the US are “shamed” into voting for either the Democrats or Republicans. Because if you don’t for them, you vote against them. It’s rather silly.

  17. Kai,

    Again, understand the difference. The Greens have won seats by clearing a 5% hurdle, almost solely because of proportional representation. Looking at their electoral results, I think that at most they’ve ever gotten a handful of direct mandates to the Bundestag, with the bulk of their representation coming due to the Second Vote. And it doesn’t look like they won ANY direct mandates for their first several elections above the 5% mark, so I’m guessing that the ones who won seats via direct mandate were politicians who had gained notoriety and reputation in their districts from having won their seats proportionally.

    Reading on it, the Germans have the ability to vote both for direct mandate and for party list. So even if “your guy” doesn’t win in your constituency, your party list vote is still counted for the proportional representation. Thus, you might get someone who reflects your party views even if you’re part of what one would call a “minority party” like the Greens.

    In the US, we don’t have proportional representation. Every seat is direct election of a certain geographic area. So to get elected, you can’t get by with having ~10% of the support for your party across the entire US, you only get elected by having a plurality of your own district for the House of Representatives or state for the Senate.

    In the US, Libertarians are actually one of the larger minority viewpoints. While many don’t self-identify as libertarian, the “fiscal conservative / social liberal” group is estimated as ~15% of the country. But to get even a single libertarian elected to Congress, we can’t get there by only having 15% of the vote nationally. We would have to get a plurality in a district, which means that despite being [on average] ~15% of the voters of a district, we’d somehow need to get probably 40%+ of the votes. The math just doesn’t work.

    This is why there are never stable third parties in the American system. Our voting system actively makes third parties a structurally unstable system, such that every time a third party appears, it either fizzles out and is co-opted by an existing party, or it replaces an existing party. And replacing an existing party has only happened a handful of times in 200+ years.

    Without proportional representation, minority parties like the greens cannot survive here. *You’re absolutely right that this is a broken system*, but again the problem isn’t that voters won’t vote third party, it’s that the system itself is incompatible with having third parties.

  18. I see capitalism often confused with democracy or being anti-democracy. Like you said, it has a grainy definition. At root, using a monetary system to exchange goods and services that is based on individual consumer choice is the best economic system we have so far. If it’s the large corporations abusing the system, again like you said, let’s address our representative govt which gives them the socialist perks for being big campaign donors.

  19. Sound observation on how fewer parties make for smoother governance. We simply need to elect leaders who want to do good for the nation, not get re-elected. Wise leaders will come from wise voters.

  20. One of the major flaws of third parties in America is they go after the ‘Brass Ring’ of the Presidency and it hasn’t been possible to deliver the result. Instead, one should go after the ‘Brass Knuckles’ of the House of Representatives. By focusing on the 2018 Primary election it’s totally possible for a third party to capture at least one seat, if not many more. Throughout the 435 congressional districts only 35-38 are ‘purple’ and contestable. Demographics in these districts coupled with populism (based on the populism of Trump & Sanders, makes the potential for a third party candidate.

    Looking at California’s 2014 Primary, in 38 of the 53 (71%) Congressional districts it takes only 25,000 votes to make it as one of the two candidates in the General election. The key is getting on the General election ballot to build momentum. 25K votes is not an insurmountable task. Small victories build into larger ones and followers of a new party need to have some successes to keep up and build enthusiasm and activists.

    We just need to know what that 3rd Party looks like, how it functions, what it offers its members that the other two do not. And so far I haven’t come across one. Although I do have some thoughts on what it would need to look like.

  21. Love the essay Naval! One thing that gets under my skin a little is this. In a heavily red or blue state my vote for president is irrelevant. If Massachusetts is in play for the republicans they have already won and the vote wont matter even if it’s close. Seems president is chosen by a few counties in a few states most elections. Would love to hear your thoughts.

  22. Poetic. You say in a few hundred words what took Mencius Moldbug an anthology.

    Cannot praise this enough, Naval. You kissed the sky here.

    Is the new era of direct democracy the ultimate realization of Ameritocracy? He (or she, apparently) who captivates, raises the funds, brings the voters, wins.

  23. It’s important to understand that social media is still just a component of the Mass Media, an overarching and inherently leftist entity that subverts traditional institutions (churches, political parties/systems, civic organizations, families, etc.). Where are the social networks that aren’t controlled by totalitarian-minded leftists? Zuckerberg is proud about working with the German governemnt to censor criticism of “migrants” while Dorsey at Twitter is partnering with SJWs to police “hate speech”.

    Trump has played the media like a fiddle, but social media is only peripheral to his success. He wouldn’t be in a position to win without billions of dollars in F-you money, a politically-incorrect media personality sharply-honed over 30 years and most importantly, a Middle American Revolution led by citizens whose disposession by immigration and the loss of manufacturing jobs is generating a movement that has propelled Trump forward.

    As far as elites, I’m glad to have them in society, I want to be one, the problem is when they become treasonous towards their own nation.

    Both books below go into much greater detail on this, I highly recommend them:

  24. Well done, except you failed to note how the “elites” are often, actually, rather elite.

    While it is often easy, definitely convenient, and current immensely popular to bash the “elite”, you must acknowledge factors like skill, ability, training, dedication, work, talent, etc. when discussing any of the important social/economic issues America is being forced to address. Out of rational fairness you must acknowledge that a lot of these privileged elites are, in fact, elite.

    They are well “above average”. They work really hard. They often have talent, and proven ability. They develop skills, and engage into their teams those who have talent, skils, abilities, and hard work ethics. They may have cheated on the way up, just as some completely “lucked out” with certain opportunities on the way up.

    As long as we Americans believe everyone deserves a trophy, we will misunderstand what has happened in our own society, and are likely to believe the nonsense that it is some group of “elites” who (as you noted above) may have been born into privilege, or gone to elite schools.

    Somehow, we Americans need to find a way to respect and acknowledge all those factors that can make someone go from average to elite, and reward the ones that require sacrifice (like work, wisdom, dedication, stamina, etc). And then clean that system up… so there is less abuse of it, more opportunity for those who try yet fail, and those who choose not to battle the rat race, yet deserve to live as a human.

    It is not an “American Spring” just because things are changing, driven by popularist activities. It is not real change if it is driven only by a passion to change things away from an undefined status quo. Perhaps it is just making a mess. Popularist movements don’t usually “think things through” or “think ahead” yet, what happens after disruption? That’s right… those prepared to operate in the post-disruption theater will get the changes they desire… the new “elites” will move the system towards their ideal, instead of some undefined utopian fantasy assumed by the gestalt of the popularist crowd.

    Praise for the new boss. Same as the old boss.

    Last I checked, getting into the elite schools is not 100% about who you are and who you know. Sure, there is a lot of that… but they are also VERY COMPETIVE and function as filters for those who work hard, have talent, determination, abilities, etc etc etc. Similarly, the top law firms are “elite” — a super competitive process defines who gets a job there, and almost universally it takes extreme amounts of work, talent, etc. to stay and advance to the top…. where you call them “elites”.

    Perhaps many of them are elite, after all.

    Now how will America deal with that?

  25. Hey Naval,

    This was a really solid read, better than 99% of the things I find online these days. I’m a CEO looking for an angel, but think I’d rather just comment here rather than pitch.

    What I love about this article:
    EVERYONE on the “streets” seems to comment about how “CRAZY” the candidates are in this cycle. What no one (you and few others) cares to admit, is that THIS actually IS the will of the people. For better or worse, Bernie and Trump are the candidates that people actually want. People want CHANGE, and those are the two best places to see it. The last presidency was won on it, and this presidency appears geared to possibly make the same decision. People know what to expect if Hilary is elected. They are interested to see what happens if someone who goes outside the lines gets the office, what they will do. It is a great change for the country, and also one that for many is terrifying. If you ever listen to NOFX (punk band), one of the quotes from their song “Idiots are taking over” is “Majority rules don’t work in mental institutions”. If you find time, check out that song as it was written during the “Rock Against Bush” days, and resonates well with your article, but puts a different spin on what you are proposing and brings up (in its own way), that education is the key to a “direct democracy” and that without an informed and intelligent “voter”, then well we’re all fucked. It was written for a different age and a different time, but I think applies here.

    NOFX link:

    I believe what your article should also bring up is the correlation to the “non-traditional voter” and how 18-21 year olds and the “uneducated” actually showing up is influencing politics more and more. These individuals are being reached by social media and their TVs, and are actually starting to participate in politics more. And the more one participates, the more ones voice is heard. And because every issue is split, one side or the other, then these “new” voters, are actually getting more attention then the “old” ones.

    I’d write more on this, but have to run. Thanks for the solid read!

  26. The trouble with direct democracy is demagoguery. There’s legitimate reason why the founders feared it… “Road to Serfdom” by Hayek and “The True Believer” by Eric Hoffer illustrate the dangers. As Hayek argued half a century ago and as 2016 underscores, it is easier to unite with hate and fear than reason or logic or appeal to ethics… a free and prosperous populace behaves like random gas molecules in a cloud chamber, people go their own way. When they all get together on something big it’s far too often some negative animus ripe for exploitation, especially if education is lacking and logic is scorned. It seems we still haven’t answered the key question, if you get rid of the elites as a governing power structure what do you replace them with. Mob rule has a pretty lousy track record with a tendency to pendulum swing toward fascism.

  27. System-wide ignorance such as the existence of a harmful elite class and similar conspiracy-like ideas are more often the result of a vacuum in intelligence than an initial intelligent force. But once incubated, the intelligence is increased as it fights against its viral brothers for resources. Technology is enabling a greater system-wide intelligence, but the virus/cancer is established. Rep’s and Dem’s have professional spin doctors who issue one-liners every morning for their party to use. By dividing the population, the population is kept weak. To almost every player, there is no conscious attempt to harm the electorate, and yet the optimal division between the parties (presidents elected at near 50-50 splits) keeps the parties strong and the people weak. Hopefully you are correct and the technological progress will enable a better-qualified candidate in a future election to win the support of the people. The biggest problem is that the electorate does not understand Michael Hudson’s economics.

  28. “There is no more establishment. Like all things Internet, social media and crowd financing are unstoppable. Every large future election will have outsiders out-organizing, out-raising, and out-raging the establishment.”

    For your claim, quoted above, to be true it can’t be just a little true. It has to be broadly true. At the moment, it’s only a little true. And the claim that there’s no more establishment is not true at all, not in the least. Overall, your post is mostly wishful. Maybe in comes true in the future.

  29. Excellent post 🙂 Good lessons for Poland that has now a populist government.
    We are looking at what is happening in US and wondering how it will impact the world. I can understand people’s frustrations and their choice of Trump as someone capable to break up Washington’s elite control of power but in the same time we would like a responsible American president that knows history and geography and is not prepared to make a deal with Putin to the detriment of Central and Eastern Europe. American president is de facto world president given American’s presence and influence around the world. Alternative to Trump is probably not the best choice either but it is a better choice from our perspective otherwise we are going to finish like in case of Brexit … British voting for Brexit without real knowledge about consequences and backup plan.

  30. As far as Poland is concerned, unfortunately most Polish news is terribly biased. I am Polish but was born in America where I lived most of my life. Now I’m in Warsaw studying. There’s no evidence Trump would make a deal with Putin to the detriment of Eastern Europe. If anything there is evidence that Hillary Clinton would be much more likely to start a war with Russia. She voted for the Iraq War and is responsible for the chaos in Libya that led to the migrant crisis. Poles would be well-served to understand that the EU is not their friend and that the UK will be much better off in the long term thanks to Brexit. Poland is blinded by the billions of Euros that the EU sends here. The money will end sooner than later. Germany and France aren’t interested in helping Poland but in making her an obedient subject. If only Poland were so lucky to have a figure like Trump who loves his country and will fight to the very end for his fellow citizens.

  31. You can definitely see your expertise in the article you write.
    The world hopes for more passionate writers such as you who are not afraid
    to say how they believe. All the time follow your heart.

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