Friday, April 1, 2016

The Disintermediation of American Politics

I write a lot on Seeking Alpha, so I sometimes lapse into finspeak.  Disintermediation means removing the middleman, in this case, party apparatchiks who keep our democracy from becoming an ochlocracy.   Wordplay fans can often be heard to wonder aloud why we drive on the parkway and park on the driveway.  But that's small potatoes.  The question of the day is why the Republican party has become so democratic and the Democrat party has become so republican.

The US is a constitutional representative democracy.  The Founding Fathers understood the tyranny of the majority full well.  John Adams coined the phrase, De Tocqueville picked it up, and it has served us in good stead.  The main bulwark against the tyranny of the majority is the express limitation of government powers, but another important tool is representative government itself, a system whereby cooler, more expert heads are given the job of pressing the majority's interests rather than its druthers.

Polls show that, of the current three candidates for President, John Kasich is most likely to beat Hillary Clinton in the general election.  Yet, Gov. Kasich is trailing his Republican rivals in those same polls.  The governor's negatives are low; Republicans seem not to doubt his suitability for the job, although there is some question among the more rabid members of the party as to whether he is conservative enough.  Still, one would expect the party elders, surveying the field and the general election possibilities, to exert some effort to make the governor the party's nominee, for the good of the party and, because they believe that what's good for the party is good for the country, for the nation as a whole.  Trouble is, the party elders have no power to undo what voters, including voters in open primaries(!), do at the polls.  The party is not a representative democracy; it is an ochlocracy, in which what the mob says, goes.

Meanwhile, the Democrats saw this movie in 1972, when their idiots nominated George McGovern, who promptly lost a jillion states in the fall.  To restore order, the party elders came up with the idea of "super-delegates," party officials who vote their choice at the nominating convention.  As Sen. Franken put it on TV yesterday when asked how he would vote if Bernie Sanders received the majority of non-super delegates (I am paraphrasing), "The Democrats of Minnesota elected me to exercise my best judgment as to who would make the best President, and that person is Hillary Clinton."  He is, of course, exactly right about his role: he is the designated driver for the Bernie-drunk fantasists who think we actually could have a prosperous society without strong private banks and the opportunity to get very rich.  Like Trump, Sanders is a scapegoater, but one who has the gall to accuse Trump of scapegoating.  They are appealing to the same disaffection, but to different subsets of the disaffected, sorted by whom they resent.  And, in the great irony of the season, Trump's success at the polls and Sanders's success at fundraising together show that money doesn't buy votes, and, to the extent that it does, it can be had without giving even one billionaire a phone call.

Thus has the facebook disintermediated American politics.  A campaign conducted on social media by-passes the punditry of the mainstream media.  Like the HIV virus going after the immune system, Trump attacks the watchdogs of the press so that their alarums will not be heeded.  At the same time, Sanders by-passes the donor class, simultaneously raising enough money to make himself viable and to demonstrate that his signature claim about money in politics is false.

This loss of middlemen is a big deal.  It is easier to see as a big deal in Trump's case, because here is a stunningly unqualified, not to say dangerous political force slouching toward Cleveland to be born.  Someone has to step up and derail the train, but it's not clear that the party's machinery is up to the task.  The money thing, though, is also important.  If a candidate cannot get a large number of powerful interests to put their money behind him or her, then there is a risk that the person is either unqualified (Trump) or so hostile to virtually all powerful interests (Sanders) as to pose a danger to the stability of the country if elected.

Like it or not, interest groups able to raise large amounts of funding have a larger stake in who runs this country than does the average Joe.  That's not to say that none of these groups have too much power or that none are evil incarnate.  But there are many powerful interest groups, and they can't all be corrupt or obsolete or otherwise unworthy of political solicitude.  So any decent candidate should be able to garner the support of some billionaires or trade or labor association, and we can know the candidate by who those supporters are, including by the fact that those supporters believe that they need to remain anonymous.

These donors, like party elders and the mainstream media, warts and all, are also political middlemen, a gauntlet that a candidate must run in building the elusive "mandate" that every candidate wants to claim on election night.  But when a candidate "self-funds" or "crowd-funds," the imprimatur of interest groups becomes unnecessary, and the information that we can glean from their support of the candidate is lost.  How can a President represent a consensus of Americans if he cannot get the people with the largest stakes to stand and deliver?

We don't like how it's done, but the fact is that a certain amount of bossism is crucial to making our democracy "representative" in a philosophically serious way.  Politicians who do as you say are not your representatives in a republican form of government.  Rather, your representatives are politicians who do today what you will wish tomorrow had been done today.  They are there to be the cooler heads.  They exist so that you can throw a temper tantrum without burning the house down.  Social media have made those middlemen obsolete, and we have seen the results, most notably in the bozos that the Tea Party has sent to Congress - people who go to D.C. not to represent their constituents' interests, but to indulge their prejudices.  These morons do not even know what their job is; no wonder they can't do it.

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