Jonathan Rauch has an essay called “How American Politics Went Insane“in The Atlantic this month that I would recommend reading.
Party-dominated nominating processes, soft money, congressional seniority, closed-door negotiations, pork-barrel spending—put each practice under a microscope in isolation, and it seems an unsavory way of doing political business. But sweep them all away, and one finds that business is not getting done at all. The political reforms of the past 40 or so years have pushed toward disintermediation—by favoring amateurs and outsiders over professionals and insiders; by privileging populism and self-expression over mediation and mutual restraint; by stripping middlemen of tools they need to organize the political system. All of the reforms promote an individualistic, atomized model of politics in which there are candidates and there are voters, but there is nothing in between. Other, larger trends, to be sure, have also contributed to political disorganization, but the war on middlemen has amplified and accelerated them.
There is a populist snowball effect at play. Distrust of politics and politicians leads to a demand for processes that are more direct and less shady, which leads to the dismantling of systems of brokerage and compromise, which leads to next to nothing getting done, which leads to more distrust of politics and politicians, which leads to “screw ’em all” amateur candidates, which leads to nothing at all getting done, which leads to distrust of politics and politicians…
Simon Radford recently wrote about a lack of civility in public life, and Rauch’s essay I think gets at some of the structural explanations for that, among other things. Coarseness and populism may hardly be new phenomena, but it’s interesting to think through what makes their contemporary manifestations tick.
The “war on middlemen” is a useful model to think about trends in other industries, too. Academia continues to experience a hollowing out, where faculty and academic support staff are adjunctified, disenfranchised and destabilized in favor of a transactional and financial embrace between a growing administrative and executive body and individualistic student-customers.
The media has been atomized by the internet. A new, direct relationship between audience and content has removed any distance between audience and creator. Aggregators displace editors and the noise has fewer filters.
What unites politics, academia, and the media? They are the three most common magnets for “anti-elite” sentiment: who do they think they are, telling me they know better? No professionals, specialists, intellectuals, strategists allowed. Acknowledge No Expertise.
I wonder. If the middlemen go, does power disperse or consolidate? Maybe the downstream voices are empowered and liberated in institutional revolution. Or maybe the power flows upstream, winners winning bigger than ever, the most popular politicians and artists finding no cap on their influence, their growth now unimpeded.
What implicit bargain will be struck between the voter-customer-viewer and the candidate-executive-producer? What will be the currency and the transaction of these new relationships?
Can both sides get what they want when the middlemen are defeated?