The false dichotomy of U.S. politics

The Trumpists are our equivalent of Britain’s U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) and France’s National Front, both anti-immigrant, nationalist parties. For the past five years, Trumpists have clocked in at about 20 percent of the electorate, if one tracks numbers of committed “Obama is a Muslim-ists.” This makes them even more powerful than Britain’s UKIP, which won 12.6 percent of the vote in May’s parliamentary election. These numbers put the Trumpists on par with the National Front in France, which in March elections took 25 percent of the vote to the 32 percent that went to the center-right party of Nicholas Sarkozy.

The critical difference between our nationalist faction and the European ones is that their parliamentary systems register them as “parties,” whereas our two-party model makes it harder to see that what we’re confronting truly is the rise of a new party. Provided, that is, the Republicans don’t sell their souls.

If the Republicans can hang on to the convictions that make them the party of Lincoln, we ought to see the party split. For the good of the country, we should hope for it.

Good piece on how the U.S. two-party political system masks the underlying fragmentation of our nation's political beliefs. The incumbent two-party system has been around so long that it has a massive fund-raising advantage over any third party, and that's just one element of inertia working in its favor.

From a voter perspective, a two-party system vastly restricts the granularity of your vote and what it communicates to politicians. It's as if you and a dozen of your work colleagues had to decide where to eat for lunch each day, but despite having dozens of restaurants in the area, could only go to one of two restaurants because there were only two cars available to drive.

The true preference of the group might be split among many more restaurants. It's even possible every person might want to go to a different restaurant that day. But instead you end up with one group at Chipotle, and the other at some salad bar, and tough luck if you're in the mood for Chinese or sushi or something else.

For a variety of historical reasons, and it's a fascinating tale, we've evolved to be a two party nation. And at this point, the structural inertia is significant and not likely to be easily overturned.

But the ability to map preferences at a more granular level is something technology can enable at a scale not possible in days past, and I suspect it will be technology that changes American politics in a deep way over the next two to three elections.

First we'll see an election where technology swings a few key races in a very public way. My guess is that the same social networks that enable many more people to become internet famous will allow those same people to sway a lot more voters by allowing them to endorse at scale. Second, some simple mobile app will solve the voter laziness and voter information asymmetry problems and allow them to more efficiently discover which candidates most closely represent their views.

It's amazing how hard it remains to research how to vote optimally based on your personal preferences. It's easier to find a hotel to stay at when visiting a new city, or the best Mexican restaurant in your neighborhood. Google is of surprisingly little help when it comes to researching your ballot, and so many of us end up in a dark voter stall, staring at a long list of names we've never heard of, trying to choose some local area judge or reading some long pro or con position on a local proposition. Frankly, the heuristics I've turned to when faced with choices like that are embarrassing.

Organizing large sets of information, offering customized searching and browsing of that information using algorithms, user preferences, and social network context, and bundling all of that in good user experience on a smartphone has been the technology industry's hammer of Thor in industry after industry for the past decade. Restaurants, retail, news, music, and travel are just a few examples to have felt the blow.

For a variety of reasons, industries like finance, health care, automobiles, and government have remained somewhat immune. But that's about to change, and I believe politics is going to be one of the most visible to succumb. The killer election mobile app is coming, and the only question is who will build it and whether it will come in time for the 2016 U.S. elections.

Fundamental to that shift is making public what has long been private. I'm referring to not just party preferences but people's thoughts on individual issues and races. What do people you admire think about the issues on the ballot in front of you, and why? If much of this is made public ahead of election day, then suddenly we have a new, more efficient way to debate the issues and understand how and why different voters are going with particular candidates. Making messaging public was the greatest innovation of Twitter, turning the conversations and soliloquies of people into public theater. Making voting intentions public would have as great a social impact.

We already live in a generation where people feel comfortable making their views on everything under the sun public online, so I can't imagine it's a stretch to do so on political issues. The only thing stopping us from aggregating and organizing this information efficiently has been a focused, directed service.

Money has long been a proxy for political influence, but let's say someone Internet famous carries their millions of followers from social media over into the political arena. For example, let's say Marc Andreessen makes his ballot for the upcoming election public, along with a list of his views on all the issues and where he agrees and disagrees with each candidate. Or imagine popular economist Tyler Cowen gives his views on all the random propositions on a ballot, explaining why he thinks they make sense or not. And so on down the line.

On some mobile app, you import all these people you follow on other social networks and have a ready-made ballot based on the collective views of all the people you trust. As the typical lazy American voter, you already feel more informed. If you want, you can tune your ballot by hand or take some simple survey on a variety of hot button issues to tweak your ballot. Now, ahead of the election, you publish that ballot to the app for anyone else, and more importantly the network itself, to see. People who follow you on other networks automatically follow you here, so now you can see whose votes you're influencing. You are, as on other social networks, both consumer and publisher.

Remember, this information is all made public ahead of the election, so the ripples actually begin long before election day. You're a candidate running for office, and you can go look at a list of the people with the most followers in your district. Suddenly, you realize that someone influencing a sizable bloc of voters in your district is choosing against you because of your view on some issue or proposition. The app offers a quick calculation of how many voters you might gain by changing your view to the other side. It could sway the election. You publicly change your view, and the app sends a notification to all the people who were going to vote against you, informing them of your policy shift.

That may sound a bit too precise, and perhaps that level of granularity isn't possible the first go round because the math isn't so clean. At the very least, though, you can imagine looking through the app to see the top influencers in your district and inviting them to a meeting or one of those fundraising dinners. Usually, a ticket to such an event comes at the cost of a sizable donation, but remember, fundraising and money have long been an indirect way of transacting in votes, but an app like this allows you to do so more directly.

Someone smarter than me can compute how dense a network like this needs to be in a region to be predictive, but if political polls based on random samples can be reasonably predictive, we may already be over the tipping point in many parts of the U.S.

Let's come full circle. This began as a discussion of the restrictive nature of a two-party system. A network like this could unlock the potential for a more granular set of options. A service like this might indicate that a candidate coming in with some mix of views from the left and right could capture a sizable voting bloc. That fabled third party could find a more efficient path to reaching that bloc through a set of influencers on the network who share a certain set of common views. But perhaps it's not just one additional party but multiple ones that find a path to relevance.

This is all jumping far ahead down the road, but it's not unreasonable to imagine how quickly change like this can come to a particular space in public life when you compare how we used to shop, search and browse information, find people to date, or navigate from one place to another just a decade or two ago.

We already probably have many more than two political parties in the U.S. Circling back to the piece I quoted at the beginning of this post, the author believes the Republican Party should split because it really consists of two distinct parties.

If we look to Europe, again, we can see the effects of these tools, not only on the right but also on the left. Progressive Internet activists in Germany, for instance, coalesced into the Pirate Party, which has been able to win seats in four state parliaments as well as the European parliament.

In other words, in this country, too, we would by now have Trumpists, libertarians and netizens in government, if we had a parliamentary system. But because we don’t, we have a very weird, historically important presidential campaign. The weirdness comes from the fact that it is unfolding inside the structure of our creaky, 19th-century two-party framework.

The real story, then, is not about this or that candidate but about precisely how the realignment of U.S. public opinion away from the two major political parties will shake out and about who or what the major parties will sell down the river while trying to save themselves as the “big tents” they need to be to win elections. And the burning question inside this story is whether our two-party system can survive the digital era. Or, perhaps better, how to ensure that it doesn’t so that we can save our center-right party, the Republicans, for the center.