The Republican Party as we have known it is disintegrating, and that means that the Two Party System that we have long relied upon to shape our politics is being re-formed. From a momentary, partisan perspective, depending upon whether we are Republicans or Democrats, this is either terrific news or a national tragedy. In either case, we are witnessing profound changes to the framework of American politics and government. The revolution has begun – and it’s about time. Political realignment is democratically healthful, and long overdue.
Politicians tune their messages to obtain votes. This election season, it is clear that a substantial number of middle Americans no longer fit inside their political parties. The good news is that we are witnessing democracy in action, a shuddering of political foundations. The bad news is that we don’t know how it will all turn out, and some people are starting to panic.
Understandably, until the November election, our interest is on the daily coverage of the Presidential campaign. Trump is a real and present danger and good Americans must stand up and oppose him. I am cautiously optimistic that they will successfully do so. But regardless of how the present campaign turns out, it is likely that Trump-style politics are here to stay. He represents the political consequences of an unregulated communications industry.
Trump as President would be absolutely, unequivocally bad . But I am equally alarmed by the way that poll tallies and audience share now have at least as much influence as elections. I hold to a core belief that a ritualized voting day is the best way for the citizens of a democratic society to influence government. I am alarmed that prediction polls and audience share are collected and used by commercial entities to form the basis of sponsored political programming. This programming does more than shape attention, it establishes commercial viability as equivalent to an election outcome. Donald Trump is a result.
Let us peer through the retro-spectroscope. In 1934, New Dealers became alarmed over the National Broadcasting Company’s appetite for local radio outlets. They established the Federal Communications Commission to impose regulations on mergers and acquisitions in the communications industry, recognizing that public attention ought not be controlled by a commercial monopoly. The flip side of prohibiting monopoly is that it stimulates competition.
In 1996, Congress responded to complaints about the absence of cable television in unprofitable communities. They re-chartered the FCC to approve mergers and acquisitions between telephone and cable companies, because access to information is a democratic right, and because a sensible method of providing that access is to allow the companies that own the transmission networks to be blended with the companies that produce the content. Seemed like a good idea, as is the way of unintended consequences. The landscape in the communications industry is now dominated by overgrown companies competing for our attention, communications behemoths conceived by that legislation.
It is possible that the political communications industry had to evolve this way, that free and open competition for ratings is necessarily the way for the candidates to qualify for office. In the political media ecology, the most popular is the best. It is an environment that solicits pseudo-votes continually: tweets, mouse clicks, ratings, predictive polls, popularity polls, and so on become the news. Each broadcast is then calibrated to attract a targeted share of the audience. And so we get the emergence of a man whose only qualification is that he gets good ratings. What’s wrong with this picture?
It is also possible that the 1996 regulations could have prohibited merger by sponsorship between political parties and communications companies. Had those rules been part of the 1996 Act, our politics two decades later would be vastly different.
This is treacherous territory for those of us who love democracy. Freedom of expression is the bedrock of our creed. Any regulations infringing on those rights would be wrong, likely to be rejected if presented to the Supreme Court. So, mindful of these risks, let’s wonder whether there might be democratic ways to de-commercialize politics.
What do we value? Ought politics conform to a business model, in fact be a business? The business that Donald Trump is good at is getting high ratings. He has true genius for manipulating the levers of media, as if that qualifies him to be the President. His candidacy is important, not only because he’d be a disastrous President, but because he exemplifies the immorality that will structure our politics for generations.
These are early, early days in the current media revolution. For convenience, I look at the sponsorship of the 1948 political conventions by LIFE magazine as a milestone, the beginning of a symbiotic partnership we assume to be natural and unavoidable. In 1948 both American political parties gladly accepted the sponsorship of a media company. An executive of LIFE acted as the executive producer at the DNC event – lining up the talking heads, announcing the results, deciding who should be televised. The institutions of politics, the news business, and industrial communications have been symbiotically connected ever since. Our politics are produced by the descendants of that early convergence.
The communications industry’s marketplace and our politics are inseparable. Must that be so? I pose this question, would you support FCC regulations intended to de-commercialize politics? Can it be done? Communications revolutions occur over centuries, and this one is just getting started. Can we tweak the environment like good stewards of democracy? Or are we doomed to a future of Trumps?
I love the news. I have to fight my addiction. I find it hard to imagine politics that’s not offered on TV as shows, always dramatized, continually being churned by ever newer news. I don’t have any clear sense of what de-commercialized politics would be like. Maybe it’s not absolute; perhaps there is a continuum of regulation, a sweet spot that would still give us a reliable source of political information that diminishes the power of money. Trump is a symptom to be treated by voting against him. The underlying disease is the commercialization of politics.