Are You a Rare Political Bird?

"The Postmoderns"  (graphic by John C. Osborn, courtesy of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 2011)

I like on-line quizzes, so I liked the brief quiz put together by the Pew Research Center that measures how my political views relate to those of the political parties, their candidates, and the people around me.

The quiz (a simplified version of a more extensive survey) is only 12 questions.  On the results page, you can click on various buttons to see the results broken down according to your views on social v. economic issues, and where you fit in relation to others of your own age, sex, race, and religion.

To take the quiz yourself, click here.

The quiz is a sampling of the Pew’s larger effort to develop a “typology” of Americans’ political views that might describe us more accurately.  It’s a worthy effort, and one that all of us weary of red-blue labeling can applaud.

Image: “The Post-Moderns” by John C. Osborn
(Courtesy of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press), 2011.
The poster is one in a series showing the nation’s different political “types.”
To see the other graphics in this series, click here.

To read more about the results of the Pew Center’s study, click here.

Bringing Political Innovation to Market

Photograph of a Polaroid Land Camera 1000 by Chris Lüders (shared via Wikimedia Commons)

Can corporate models teach us anything about political change?  One of the problems politically active Americans face today is that the Republican and Democratic parties are organized around outmoded ideas (a topic I’ve written a lot about already).  Yet what do we know about how to bring new political ideas to market?  How do we introduce better ways and ideas to a political marketplace that, for over a century, has been dominated by just two parties?

The Instagram/Polaroid analogy

I’ve been thinking about this ever since reading a smart article by Nick Bilton about Instagram, the digital photo-sharing start-up that Facebook paid $1 billion to acquire.  The hallmark of an Instagram is its resemblance to an old-fashioned Polaroid.

What interested Bilton was why a start-up had brought this idea to market, rather than an old-line camera company like Kodak or Polaroid.  These were, after all, the towering pioneers of innovative film processing.  Polaroid, in particular, had made its name developing a camera and film process that allowed people to make and share their photographs instantly.  For decades, Kodak and Polaroid were cash cows, dominating the markets that sprang up around their own innovative technologies.

Yet, amid the onslaught of digital technology, neither proved able to change enough.  Though the market for their products had been dwindling for decades, neither company managed to make the transition to digital.  Today, both companies are teetering on the brink of death, while Instagram has grown rich and famous on the strength of images with a “Polaroid feel.”

“Disruptive technologies”

Bilton concluded that the success breeds constraints that make established companies hesitant to embrace the next new idea.  Companies become wedded to the ideas that brought them to the top.  They develop cultures aimed at perpetuating the gains that have already been made.  Having once brought a new idea to market, the resulting business rightly views the next new idea or technology as disruptive.

A company dependent on profits from an existing technology will have trouble compromising that in order to capitalize on the next new thing.  As one of Bilton’s sources observes, “It’s tough to change the fan belt when the engine is running.”  (And didn’t Bill Gates once admit to being terrified of the next unknown, tinkering with a new idea in his garage?)

The analogy applies to the political scene

This is exactly how I think about the political scene, whose very landscape the Democratic and Republican parties have shaped.  These two parties became dominant because, at crucial points in our history, they supplied ideas and platforms that were right for the time.  The visions and forms of action they proposed were ones around which millions of citizens could organize.

Support for the major parties is dwindling because they rely on outmoded ideas.  They sell products many of us have no interest in buying.  An estimated 30 percent of voters are not aligned with either party, making each “major” party a minority.

Yet, structurally, the parties deter competition.  Though ideologically moribund, the Republican and Democratic parties are vigorous institutions.  They are known entities.  They have millions of adherents, and familiar brand names.  They’re well capitalized.  And they sit atop vast hierarchies of state and local organizations that penetrate into every ward and district of the country.  Every political event in the US is understood and described in terms of these two entities, a sure sign of their authority.

These behemoths are more interested in maintaining market share than in changing their offerings.  Too much newness carries risk, just as it did for Kodak and Polaroid.  There may be a broad constituency out there, clamoring for new political leadership, but the major parties will view as a disruption any force hoping to reinvigorate politics by espousing a new ideology.

The calcified rhetoric of our politicians and their parties is strangely at odds with the political ferment of the time.  All around lies evidence of amazing levels of political activism and concern, whether on the left or the right, whether in populist movements like Occupy or the Tea Party, or in the billions of comments, tweets, and posts that Americans generate in political conversation every day.

Unlike in business, how ideas move from the bottom to the top of the political hierarchy is incredibly murky.  Yet anyone who wants to get this country into better political shape needs to take an interest in the how of political change.

Image: A Polaroid Land Camera 1000,
courtesy of the photographer, Chris Lüders, from this source.

What We Know About American Third Parties

We’ve had many third-party movements over the last century, but none has achieved national dominance; few have proved lasting.  In fact, third-party candidates do not win elections.  As Peter Kiernan observes in his book, Becoming China’s Bitch (poorly written but interesting), whenever third-party candidates or their ideas begin to gain traction, the major parties co-opt them.  Individuals who run as third-party candidates without having a true national party organization behind them are doomed to be remembered as irritating spoilers.  The so-called independent candidate—whether wealthy or quixotic—is wasting our time.

Creating a lasting third party in the US could be accomplished, but it would take at least a decade.  The new party would have to be ideologically distinct from the existing parties—perhaps even inimical to them—, yet moderate enough in its outlook to gain traction in the mainstream.  In addition, the viability of such a party would have to be proved at the state level first.  A new party solidly established in several of the largest, wealthiest, and most diverse states—say Florida, New York, Texas, and California—might have a hope of success nationally.

RELATED:
A President Without a Party? Americans Elect

Is the Republican Party Dying?

The question is in the air, so why not ask it?

I think the answer is no.  But the question is out there because the Republican party is badly divided, in a way that many of us have never seen.  As a historian, I think that maybe this is what a party looks like when it’s beginning to go.  Like long ago when the once all-powerful Federalists petered out and ceased to matter nationally (circa 1820); or when the high-minded Whig Party gave up the ghost, startlingly soon after getting Zachary Taylor into the White House (circa 1850).  Or when the Democratic Party split in two on the eve of the Civil War, its members suddenly riven over slavery.

Parties do die, of course; but no major party has died in a very long time.  Our 20th-century parties are much hardier and more redoubtable institutions than were their counterparts 150 years ago.  That, in itself, is an argument against the Republican Party disappearing.

The GOP has a big problem, though.  Its conservative wing is weakening the party, in the sense of compromising its appeal to moderates.  This is something I’ve written about several times.  Over the past five years, the GOP establishment made a couple of costly mistakes, as when John McCain chose his “game-changing” running-mate, or when the Republican leadership decided to embrace the uncompromising Tea Partiers rather than cut them loose.  Had the Tea Party been treated as a distinct third party, the limits of its appeal would have become evident, and by now it would have been dead.  Instead, in the aftermath of the mid-term elections, congressional Republicans like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner proclaimed that there was no difference between themselves and the Tea Party, with the consequence that the Republicans have become the party of ‘No.’

It’s a problem the party itself could solve, and perhaps it will.  It could enforce some kind of ideological discipline through the instrument of the party platform or disavow some of its members who, in their fervor, have assailed some of the country’s most sacred national principles, such as the separation of church and state or the independence of the judiciary.  These are not creations of a particular party; they are features of our Constitution that the Founding Fathers labored to establish and that we have a duty to take seriously, and even revere.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that spatial and social segregation is a factor perpetuating the moderate-conservative divide.  Remember those maps Richard Florida did a few years ago, showing that people of higher education and means were becoming geographically concentrated in particular areas of the US, along the coasts, and near cities?  This type of migration, along with increased social stratification, has produced a country where people of different types no longer live together or interact as they did formerly.  The social relationships so fostered were politically moderating.  Instead, we see the demographic divide being replicated in the results of recent Republican primaries, resulting in a protracted struggle between Mitt Romney and his conservative-backed rivals.

Going forward, this balkanization will assure the conservatives of continued strength in Congressional races, governorships, and state legislatures.  Whether this mix of conditions will serve the Republican Party as a whole well in the years ahead remains to be seen.

RELATED AND NEWER:
Susan Barsy, The Incredible Shrinking GOP, Our Polity, November 2012.
Ryan Lizza, “Can The GOP Save Itself?“, The New Yorker, March 2012.

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