During Jackson’s Bank War in 1834, John Calhoun rose to the Senate floor to lament the fact Andrew Jackson had printed his own remarks to his Cabinet in Jackson’s newspaper the Washington Globe. Calhoun decried this as an exercise of despotic power, saying it “was clearly and manifestly intended as an appeal to the people of the United States, and opens a new and direct organ of communication between the President and them unknown to the Constitution and the laws…There are but two channels…through which the President can communicate with the people — by messages to the Two Houses of Congress…or by Proclamation.”
Jackson wasn’t the first President to operate a party organ from the White House, but he was the first populist President. He predicated his authority on the will of the people. Jackson successfully appealed directly to the people by both leveraging new technology and breaking conventional norms. Sound familiar?
The late Andrew Breitbart famously said that “politics is downstream of culture”. In today’s political environment, where everything from butter to basketball is politicized, that seems demonstrably true. But there’s a vital step in-between that’s often overlooked — distribution.
Politics — who we elect, the course of their actions, and the events surrounding how we govern ourselves — is downstream from distribution.
American politics has manifested itself in different incarnations fitting both our circumstances and communications technologies. We even teach American history through this lens. We learn about Paul Revere’s midnight ride — alerting citizens by voice at the speed of horseback. We learn about FDR’s fireside chats, and how TV audiences preferred Kennedy but radio listeners thought Nixon won the 1960 debate. It is an intractable reality that the public reaction and decisions made following Kennedy’s assassination would have been starkly different in both the party newspaper era and today’s social media climate.
Would we have invaded the USSR due to unrelenting social media speculation? Would one side string together perfect timelines and facts that the opposing party, not Russia, pulled the trigger? How many Retweets would a tweet get with fake evidence that Khrushchev had ordered the hit?
Popular sentiment is only one side of the coin, the demand side. Distribution also impacts who gets elected, the supply side.
No book has shaped my thinking on modern politics more than Amusing Ourselves to Death. The author Neil Postman posits the first fifteen Presidents could have walked past most Americans and they wouldn’t be recognized. However, through their writing — their positions and arguments, those same oblivious Americans on the street would recognize the President they had just passed.
When the primary mode of communication was writing, passion was subservient to reason. That’s because in contrast to speaking, writing provides a natural buffer between what one is thinking and what one says; that buffer is time.
Writing is not the transmission of linear thought. It can be amended between the ears, changed on paper, or erased all together before being transmitted to an audience. In turn this means the audience is now chewing on ideas in their very best form. There is context and nuance, opposed to a sound bite resulting from in the moment thinking or an out of context clip.
We’ve regressed from this dynamic form of thought transmission into a purely linear one. Even radio offered a larger buffer between thought and speech than does TV. A long pause in radio may have listeners instinctively glancing at their receiver to see if the feed cut out, but that pause costs the speaker almost nothing yet he gains the ability to collect his thoughts. On TV this pause would result in at best a slight cringe from viewers as they may see it as awkward, at worst the speaker is made subject of the next viral clip.
The incentive to think before speaking is removed in lieu of a polished visual delivery. Roger Ailes would turn the volume off when judging the quality of his shows on Fox, knowing the language of TV is that of the body not mind. Which raises the question, isn’t the mark of humanity, the intelligent consciousness that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, the ability to reason?
The founders sure thought so. Federalist Nos: 6, 10, 15, 24, 41, 49, 50, 55, 63, 71, 73 all point to the vice of passion prevailing over the virtue of reason as a threat to the republic. Which they mediated with the structure of the Constitution.
In arguably the most important of the Federalist Papers, No.10, Pubilus warns “As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves”. Meaning opinions are often a product of passion, not reason.
In Federalist 49, Madison rebukes Jefferson’s proposition of frequent constitutional conventions because of “The danger of disturbing the public tranquillity by interesting too strongly the public passions.” He goes on to codify his argument (emphasis his), “The PASSIONS, therefore, not the REASON, of the public would sit in judgment. But it is the reason, alone, of the public, that ought to control and regulate the government. The passions ought to be controlled and regulated by the government.”
In making the case for a smaller number of House members in Federalist 55, Pubilus states “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates; every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”
There is no question of the intent of the Framers, they sought to curb momentary political passions to make way for reason. While they may have structured the Constitution in such a way to do that when slow communications was the norm, they didn’t predict communications could traverse time and space instantaneously.
In Federalist 68, arguing the merits of the electoral college, Hamilton assures us “Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union”. The subtext, when taking into account today’s political landscape, is clear — appeals to cheap passion opposed to sound reasoning may spell success in a single state, but such shallow footing would be washed away once the whole country could play judge.
There is an argument hiding in plain sight about the virtues of democracy and republicanism, but for the purposes of this essay the missing ingredient is clear: the internet.
For the first century of the country’s existence, it would have been impossible to reach the entire nation at the same time. The mechanics of campaigning at a national level still meant stitching together constituencies that lay upstream of communities. Since we began watching our politics, not only did regional appeals all but evaporate, our politicians shaped the contours of their messages to that medium.
It began with TV. What did playing the saxophone or throwing a baseball have to do with parking two aircraft carrier battle groups in the Taiwan Strait or deciding to spend $700 billion on complicated mortgage securities from Wall Street?
Our system began by running through gatekeepers, you had to work rigidly within the system to get elected. This was followed by newspaper politicians, split into 3 distinct eras. The party organ papers, the penny press era, and the objective era. The radio era didn’t last long but coupled with newspapers, America didn’t really start to erase the buffer with which politics was created and consumed until the TV era.
And then came the internet era… in which reason has given way to passion.
The Founders set up our Constitutional Republic not to temper the passions of the people but to create a buffer between those passions and the laws that were made. They knew this was only human nature. To repeat Madison, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates; every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” Think about what you would tell your best friend who is mad at someone and is about to make an impulse decision of retaliation. “Calm down, take a deep breath, give yourself some time to cool off before doing anything you might regret.” Humans in groups are no different, in fact they’re worse — as each person is feeding off the person next to them instead of acting as the voice of reason.
The internet offers no such buffer. Our social distribution pipes are quite literally engineered to embolden the man besieged by passion. See something emotion provoking, take no time to process, eschew the search for context, type out your feelings straight from thinking, and allow yourself to translate the 1s&0s (masquerading as what your brain mistakes as affection) into dopamine. Repeat.
If there is one thing to take away from this essay, it’s that that feedback loop isn’t just driving neighbors apart — it’s setting the framework for our politicians to shape their messaging to. And to go a step further, the incentives within that framework naturally select who will succeed. The most boring yet brilliant medical policy professional won’t have a chance against a young fiery activist who knows nothing about the depths of medicine besides simple platitudes that the internet decodes into dopamine. While the former professional put primary voters to sleep. The consequence of dopamine? Distribution.
The speed of distribution matters. We have all heard of the canonical 24 hour news cycle, what is spoken of less is what used to occur in the 23 hours between the newspapers getting dropped off (or between evening newscasts). Those 23 hours were when people had time to digest what they had read in that morning’s paper. During those hours was when passion was converted to reason.
Concurrently even if the impulses to respond via action were not tempered, there existed an additional gate of reason beyond the thought formulated in one’s head — physical distribution in the real world.
Now, the democratization of media and the fall of gatekeeping is an unquestionable good in the abstract. In practice, there were tremendous benefits to having honest and studied actors filter political opinion. But in principle, the old system to decide whose opinion was heard, was simply who had the capital to finance the existing technologies for communicating.
Now the physical buffer of distribution is entirely removed. The 280 character text box, and those like it, have created the link from mind to output.
Most of the recent primary upsets and subsequent rise of the victors is entirely a result of distribution. Their ability to find product market fit was dependent upon distribution. At first glance readers may nod their heads in agreement, understanding that social media allowed for going around gatekeepers with an unorthodox message. With the ability to reach specific individuals rather than a wide audience. Consequently getting those individuals who are uniquely passionate to share the candidate’s message to like minded voters. But it’s not that simple.
Compared to elections past, it’s remarkably easy to get a campaign off the ground. You can build a website and build name ID with little up front cost and without the trappings of legacy gatekeepers. Conventional wisdom states that because the upfront costs were higher in the old days, campaigns should cost much less now. After all, you had to make physical flyers and purchase general purpose TV or newspaper advertising just to get started. Although, paradoxically, the cost of each campaign has grown dramatically in the internet era.
In large part, this is because it’s so easy to get name ID. One viral tweet and a non-trivial number of primary voters now not only know your name, they’re following your every thought. This has increased demand in terms of new politicians running for office, which has in turn driven up prices.
Of course, with increasing demand and increasing prices, new players have swept onto the scene to build the campaign infrastructure that can scale up to match that demand. Along with the influx of citizens voicing their opinions, so too have they opened their checkbooks. Small dollar contributions have exploded over the past decade as each party has built the capability to convert that dopamine to dollars.
In the 2010 cycle then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi raised a total of $1 million from individuals, and only $67k from small dollar donors (less than $200). In 2020, with two quarters left to report, she has raised over $11 million from individuals, $7.6 million from small dollars.
But the influx of cash is upstream from the real change in our politics, the politicians. 3 of the top 10 House members as of 6/30/20, are freshmen. 6 of the next 10 are freshman, 2 more are sophomores. In a world of analog distribution, fundraising moved at the speed of atoms.
This paradigm is still in its early stages, on the surface aligning voters and funding seems like a good thing. But one can only wonder about a time in the near future when we stop and ask — is it a good thing that normal people are draining their wallets in a never ending game of political musical chairs?
Almost certainly a super majority of these contributions are coming from passion, not reason. If you haven’t seen a campaign fundraising email, I envy you. Broken HTML, red text with yellow highlighting, and all caps slogans blasting the other side in digital shrieks of fatalism. Followed by 5, no 10, buttons to contribute. And now they send text messages! Somehow both Trump and Biden have texted me personally asking for money, at least that’s what it says.
In 1966 California state treasurer Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh said “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” Indeed it is. And the spoils will go to those who can get it, no matter how it’s distributed.
We used to hire legislators, now we hire advocates. In the 18th and 19th centuries, and well into the 20th century, our elected representatives retained hardly any staff — they did the work themselves. They knew how to legislate, they knew how to govern. Now, so long as one can reach an online audience (usually with the help of Fox & MSNBC) and raise money, the real action can be farmed out to the agencies and no one will know the difference. So we’re told.
The problem with that structure is that the advocates so often appeal to the people who have the power to keep them in their advocating position, sidestepping the odd fact that they were elected to achieve whatever they’re advocating for.
This isn’t to say there aren’t tremendous legislators and governors, nor that any elected member that leverages internet distribution isn’t those things. It is to say that this is becoming the rule, so long as our political activities are distributed via the current schema of the internet.
Internet distribution gives us internet politicians and internet policies. The increasing political polarization and primary phenomenon on both left and right is much less a product of ideology as it is distribution.
It’s not just the internet, TV isn’t done leaving its mark. There can be no debate that the seriousness and efficacy of Congressional Committees would be elevated exponentially if cameras were removed and replaced with transcripts.
It’s hard to believe there was once a time in which Presidents secretly operated newspapers from the White House, and that they were chastised for failing to buffer their thoughts through Congress on their way to the American people. Yet they would almost assuredly agree that public discourse through 10 second “stories” on Instagram is harebrained to say the least.
It is no coincidence that our politics takes the shape of distribution. When Americans learned of their candidates through 4 hour long debates as they did with Lincoln & Douglas, we were rewarded with Lincoln and Douglass caliber leaders. When we learn of our candidates through Twitter and Instagram, we get leaders that live up to the epistemological potential of those mediums.
Both sides of the electoral equation, supply and demand — politicians and voters, have started to lose the ability to reason in the internet age. As of 2020, we have made no constitutive choices as to how the internet may act as a distribution channel. We have no fairness doctrine for debate, as hyperbolic reactionaries dominate our digital airwaves. We have no limits on small dollars as elections balloon in cost with no end in sight. We have yet to think through the buffers that long safeguarded the republic. Perhaps we can’t, because there’s no buffer allowing us to do so.
First published on September 20, 2020