08 February 2016

Why Americans are Increasingly Frustrated with Democracy

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are doing surprisingly well in this presidential campaign. It would have taken some imagination to predict that the winners of the first primary of 2016 would have been a (Democratic) Socialist and a reality TV star.

There is a bigger story in their rise, though. Our two big parties are fracturing because politics can't keep up with markets. Let me explain.

Taylor Pearson shared a fascinating statistic the other day. Timothy Ferris, asked his audience what other podcasts they listened to: the top ranked podcast is listened to by only 1.44% of his audience. As Taylor points out, this is an incredible change from the old days of 3 main TV stations. In this poll, market share of 2% would make you dominant.

Why is this relevant? When it comes to music, ideas shared in podcasts, type of car you drive (or transportation service you use), clothes you wear or books you read, the market provides an incredible array of choices. Chris Anderson published The Long Tail in 2006, pointing out that a site like Amazon could make as much (maybe more) money selling one copy each of a million book titles as the old brick and mortar stores could make selling a million copies of one book. It used to be exotic if you liked reggae. Now you can find an album of heavy metal reggaeton. One of the reasons that I love twitter is because I can choose an array of folks to follow who keep me amused, informed, and outraged about the issues and topics that most fascinate me. My twitter feed is distinct from that of any other user.  If I visit Drudge or Huffington, I see what everyone else sees. When I visit Twitter or Facebook, I see something no one else does. I am unique and so is my experience of the news.

Markets give us what we want. They encourage you to be unique, to feel special and that's an amazing thing.

Democracies, by contrast, are a place where we have to come together. You have to find common ground with at least 51% of your neighbors and it turns out that those neighbors are becoming more unique and different from you every year. (In no small part because markets are helping to nurture what makes them distinct.) Once upon a time, it was enough to feel "sort of" conservative. Now, you have to define whether you are an evangelical or business conservative. And even if you are an evangelical, you have to distinguish between pragmatic or idealistic. On the left, you have to distinguish between pro-$15 an hour minimum wage or not, anti-Wall Street or not. And the more finely you define yourself and your candidate, the more likely you are to be frustrated by politics because the fewer the number of people who agree with you.

When you tell the market that you really like reggaeton, the market provides more of it. You get more choices, more bands, more albums, more songs and concerts. Of course you and your fellow reggaeton fans might never constitute more than 3% of the music fan market but if that is 3X what it was last decade, you feel like you are part of a happy surge.

But if you and your fellow libertarians grow by 3X to reach 3% of voters, you're  still largely ignored. Given that a democracy is defined by a majority, the small clusters of special fringe groups have power only in special situations, like when they represent the swing vote. People used to the market's rapid and happy response to their desires find this extremely offensive. "Washington doesn't listen to us," is the impression they are left with.

As markets have become more responsive and better able to serve folks in the long tail, they make democracies look bad by contrast.

Why are people increasingly frustrated with politics? Because in a world in which they are continually assured that they are unique and special, politics tells them that they have to focus instead on ways in which they are just like everyone else. Because until you find the common ground you share with at least 51% of your neighbors, you aren't special at all. In fact, you are largely irrelevant to the political process. In the market we can pursue what makes us unique. In politics, we have to pursue what brings us together. And the tension between those two is actually a good thing, as long as you don't carry expectations from the one over to the other.

I'm not sure how people will learn this, though. No politician is likely to face an audience and say, "You're not special."

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