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Because it’s New Hampshire Primary Day and because I haven’t blogged in a while – time to apply a facile analogy to party politics! For a limited time only, clickbait post title included, no additional charge.
If there is a thing that distinguishes the amorphous categories of “tech” companies from other companies, it’s that the structure of expected returns relative to time is different from non-“tech” companies. Unlike more conventional, competitive companies with consistent margins reliant on either extensive or intensive growth to grow in value, tech companies leverage scale to hopefully strike at a focal position in an existing or emerging network with a combination of quality and timing that allows them to seize that position, a position from which monumental rents can be generated.
This creates a disjuncture between a tech company’s present and future. By many conventional metrics, most tech company’s presents look a lot like a conventional company’s death throes. Tech companies generally spend most of their early life bleeding fantastic sums of money, in the hope that if their gamble pays off, they will reap future sums orders of magnitude larger. In that sense, the better analogy for the tech company is a political one than an economic one; tech companies are like Roman generals who ventured all-or-nothing gambles on seizing the capital, with death or imperial power as binary outcomes.
The Democratic Party, today, is in something analogous to that position. There seems to be a consensus that, should demographic voting patterns not substantially shift, the Democratic Party will have a hammerlock on governing the United States within the next decade or two, as its core coalition quickly approaching majority status in the electorate.
At the same time, the Democratic Party of the present looks for all the world like a failing political party. They face structural obstacles to achieving majority status in either house of Congress; they have a minority position on the Supreme Court, though this is a more complex and mixed situation; and hold unified control of only seven states to Republicans’ 25. Given the power this gives to Republicans to gerrymander, it is entirely possible for many facets of this dismal state to persist even if demographic harvests prove as bountiful as predicted for the Democrats.
Indeed, the only plus side is that, on the most federalized level, those demographic tailwinds have already lead to a deceptively definitive structural advantage in presidential elections; barring the discombobulation a credible third-party or independent candidate would wreak, Republicans would need to win either an unprecedented share of the nonwhite vote or an unprecedented share of the white vote in order to crack 2016, neither of which seems terribly likely at present.
Therefore, the Democratic Party stands in an odd situation; presently, its goal is to cling to the Presidency and a few key states for dear life, whereas in the future it hopes to assert a position of unprecedented dominance that could only be toppled by some combination of vast leftward movement on the part of the Republican Party (an equal ideological, if not political, windfall for ideologically-motivated activists) and an unforeseeable reshaping of the political landscape.
This disjuncture has both manifestation and exacerbation in the present Clinton/Sanders divide. It is clear that the frankly stunning demographic divides within the Democratic Party signal that a politics and platform substantially to the left of the status quo is the future of the Democratic Party; just as the Democrats expect to reap the windfall of future demographics, the left expects to reap the windfall of seizing the Democratic Party as it comes into its dominance.
But that future is not yet here, and the high odds that a Democrat will sit in the Oval Office next year are the inverse of the odds of Democratic control of either house of Congress. Therefore, no matter who the nominee is, the actual job of the next Democratic POTUS will be twofold – on the one hand, succeed in getting four budgets and as many appointees and judges through a hostile Congress as possible; and on the other hand, give back as little of the legislative and regulatory gains of the Obama administration as possible. That many within the Democratic Party itself are coming to see those gains as inadequate only exacerbates the tensions that come from high expectations of near-future political transformations clashing with a present politics largely predicated on holding patterns and defense.
This is an inadequate guide to who the Democrats should nominate; while Sanders’ politics are the future of the Democratic Party, it’s clear that 74-year-old Sanders himself, and old white men in general, are certainly not; Democrats looking solely at filling the job of President for the next four years have to balance ideology, willingness-to-compromise, and, yes, electability in making what is frankly a non-obvious decision. But of course politics is rarely about careful consideration of filling a job, and Democratic voters are casting ballots, today and for months to come, for reasons well beyond a calculating and decidedly uninspirational assessment of loss minimization. In the past, revolutions were followed by bitter infighting about its meaning, implications, and future; the oddity of the Democratic Party today is that the order has been inverted. The 2016 primary, more than anything, is a fight over not just who controls the future, but when the future will happen.
Xavier Marquez – and if you’re not reading his blog, why the heck are you reading mine? – wrote an amazing and deeply insightful post about Francisco Franco earlier this month. Analogizing to Padgett and Ansell’s theory of Cosimo Medici, Marquez posits that Franco was so successful at retaining power in Spain for so long, not through bold, decisive, clearly-directed leadership, but instead by being the indecipherable cipher at the center of a diverse and incoherent coalition, a coalition whose individual components were dependent on Franco, and all of whom Franco indulged and foiled in equal measure, never committing.
This focus on “robust action,” action that more about an inability to be countered than expeditiously or effectively accomplishing a single goal, is rooted in the “multi-vocality” of one’s coalition. Essentially, Franco had the Church, the fascists, the monarchists, and the military all in his camp, and basically the only thing they had in common was anti-socialism; otherwise, their projects were contradictory. Yet by being the ambiguous lynchpin, Franco ensured that none of these sub-networks could break off and succeed in achieving more power without him, thus binding them all to him without committing to any of them, ensuring his longevity. His words and actions, when they came, could be interpreted by many different factions in different ways; his inaction and silence – he was “‘the man who keeps quiet best in all Spain” – allowed him to defer potentially fractious commitment, retain strategic flexibility, and maintain centralized control. (He also cannily use non-ideological means to enforce loyalty and control while also ensuring the incoherence of his own coalition). Talking about Medici now, Padgett and Ansell and then Marquez say:
…“[t]he result was an awesomely centralized patrimonial machine, capable of great discipline and “top down” control because the Medici themselves were the only bridge holding this contradictory agglomeration together” (p. 1307). By contrast, the coalition of Medici opponents was both far more “coherent” and narrow in terms of the interests it represented (and hence more predictable in its actions) and less susceptible to centralized control (and hence less effective and disciplined).
Perhaps the most interesting finding is that users who have a large number of Facebook friends are less likely to talk about politics and gay rights issues on Facebook despite having access to increasing human and information resources.
Cowen calls this finding “depressing,” and speculates:
…one possibility is that popular people do not want to endanger their popularity with controversial discussions. Another is that non-controversial people are simply more popular to begin with.
I’d posit a different hypothesis – sufficiently large and diverse networks and/or coalitions require hubs. A popular person might have liberal and conservative friends, religious and secular friends; were they to strongly express political views, some of those friends might be alienated. Some people do in fact express their opinions strongly, and have a louder voice within a smaller, more coherent subnetwork/subcoalition. But all these smaller, narrower groups are linked/bound at the hub points of people who can maintain pleasing ambiguity to a wide diversity of people, and this increases the maximum size, reach, and potential of networks. These people can be friends with everybody by being firm allies of nobody; what they can offer is non-ideological but nonetheless vital.
Josh Inglett is a college student in Wisconsin. He is a smart, amiable, pleasant-looking achiever. He is a Republican. And he was publicly appointed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, also a Republican, to sit on the state Board of Regents, the public university oversight committee – until it was revealed that he signed the recall petition to support a vote to remove Walker from office. Inglett’s nomination was spiked, and indeed, across Wisconsin intra-Republican purges are taking place based solely on whether someone signed the petition. A quarter of Wisconsin’s registered voters signed it.
Galaxy Trucker is a deliriously fun board game. In it, you have to build a spaceship very quickly, then send it off to face absurd obstacles and hope it doesn’t explode. A key challenge to Galaxy Trucker is connecting your ship – often times, a single central “hub” piece will be holding the whole ship together, and if that hub is destroyed, the ship will fly apart into multiple segments.
Mistermix, riffing off House of Cards, wrote the following a few days ago – I think it accurately captures both the facts and the spirit of the state of the Republican caucus:
Without giving away spoilers, perhaps the most unreal aspect of this piece of fiction, other than Frank’s electoral status, is the notion that the House Whip has power over his caucus. The centerpiece of Frank’s office is a whip count board that has color-coded magnetic pieces representing each member of his caucus. If Kevin McCarthy’s version of this board isn’t already in storage, can you imagine the layer of dust that has collected on each of his member’s names?
In a world where a functioning party has factions amenable to compromises that are brokered by party leadership, being the Majority Whip can be a seat of power and an interesting job. But what’s the point of being the Republican whip in the current Congress? I imagine it has all the job satisfaction of being the manager of the worst chain restaurant in the country, except that even a Red Lobster manager can comp a dessert. The Republican Whip is just a impotent spectator to Boehner’s excuse making, Cantor’s comically transparent scheming, and Ted Cruz’ Bieber-like hold over a bunch of white middle-aged dimwits.
If it’s not yet obvious, the dynamics identified above seem to capture quite aptly the differing natures of America’s two political parties today. The Democrats are a diverse and perhaps incoherent coalition – public sector employees, labor unions, blacks, Hispanics, Jews, (recently) Asian-Americans, gays, women, urban-dwellers, youth, and other creative sector and socially liberal types – all of whom have different and perhaps contradictory interests or beliefs in many fields but none of whom can act except through the Democratic party. Conversely, the Republican party is ideologically, demographically, and spiritually unified – while there are some differences, especially between the small elite of the party and the vast grassroots base, the party is much more unified than it was even a decade or so ago, with opposition to the President catalyzing the wholesale adoption of social conservatism by economic conservatives and vice-versa.
And thus, you’ve seen a Republican party that is constantly auto-purging, purifying its ranks but unable to be led or act coherently; conversely, the Democratic party has become very able to act centrally, but succeeds politically best when it can defer action. On immigration reform, where Republican obstruction is arguably superior politically to passage; on Keystone XL, where the decision to approve or reject the pipeline has been endlessly deferred; on gay marriage, where the President was “evolving” for years until his cover was blown by Biden – in many cases, at least, it seems as though the Democratic party binds its coalition via inaction as often as action, and no faction can act except through the party’s center, in this case Obama, Reid, and Pelosi.
What this means for America’s future, I will leave to you, with this message: