There can be little doubt that 2016 will go down as a year of historic significance. It gave us Brexit, Donald Trump as the US president-elect, a botched coup in Turkey, and the impeachment of the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff. Each of those events, in their own way, spoke of a global order in collapse; the old certainties – of political ‘moderacy’ being the only game in town, and the world harbouring ever more liberal democracies – have been torn asunder.
To make sense of 2016 we must understand it as a response to a crisis which began in 2007. In August of that year, BNP Paribas – which remains one of Europe’s largest banks – stated it would cease activity in three hedge funds specialising in US mortgage debt. That announcement vindicated the fears of those who foresaw a looming financial crisis, confirming that trillions of dollars of derivatives – premised on the value of US mortgages – were worth much less than previously estimated. So began a financial crisis which quickly morphed into an economic one. If the major issue in 2008 was the solvency of banks, by 2010 it had become the solvency of states. The solution to that shift pursued by the advanced economies thereafter was simple: austerity and cuts to public services, monetary policy which favoured asset-owners, and allowing real-terms pay to stagnate or fall.
So if 2007 marked the beginning of the end for globalisation, 2016 marked the end of the beginning. The transition from free markets and freedom of movement to protectionism and border walls is no longer the idle chat of the Davos set, but the political platform of the next US president (not to mention post-Brexit Britain). What’s more, the energies Trump’s victory will unleash echo far beyond the States, and the likes of Marine Le Pen and Germany’s AfD will look to step up in 2017, if not actually win power. While it might not be immediately discernible, all of these actors – Trump, Le Pen and Nigel Farage – have a shared political vision: a new (mainstream) conservatism that rejects globalisation, immigration and multiculturalism. Their hope? To remake the world order in a meaningful sense for the first time since 1946.
While the political overhead of the 2007 crisis bubbled away, we experienced a quiet revolution in both technology and society, with the iPhone first going on on sale in the summer of that year. Since then – alongside the rise and fall of the ‘Arab spring’ and a little-known Illinois senator winning two terms as US president – Apple has sold over 1 billion units of its now-iconic handset.
So if the political tumult of 2016 has been responsive to events which began almost a decade ago, how it’s happened has been massively shaped by technology. While history never repeats itself, it does often rhyme – and the contingency of technological change is a major reason why.
What follows are six new rules in politics after 2016. They are driven by history – that is to say the convergence of ideas, action and technology. They are a reaction to a world where the political status quo is rapidly hollowing out and where, by chance, the falling cost of information is simultaneously remaking societies. This new world offers opportunities as well as problems.
1. Political parties can now act as hosts for historically ‘third party’ candidates.
The crisis of 2007 signified a crossroads for parties of the centre-left which had previously accepted the central premises of free market fundamentalism. Bereft of a social base, these actors remained surprisingly committed to a politics which could no longer offer material increases in living standards nor intellectually defend public service provision.
In countries with electoral systems based on proportional representation (PR), such dynamics led to widespread pasokification. Here, the old parties of the centre-left were either rendered obsolete or replaced by new ones which, if only rhetorically, championed a more radical position regarding neoliberalism and globalisation. The explanation as to why this only happens in countries with proportional representation is simple: PR-based systems offer lower costs of entry to insurgent political parties, of both the left and the right. This is intentional.
In countries with ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) systems however, we are yet to really see this. There are exceptions, of course, like the Scottish National party in Scotland, but the SNP’s success in a system designed to inhibit political newcomers was based on a geographical density of voters – something which similarly favoured the Home Rule League and later Sinn Féin in Ireland at the turn of the 20th century. Elsewhere, however, the system has successfully kept a lid on the likes of Ukip and the Greens, two parties which between them mustered 5m votes in the last UK general election but won just two parliamentary seats. Again this is intentional.
As we know, this hasn’t stopped British politics becoming increasingly volatile. Instead, organisations like Ukip have taken full advantage of national elections where there is PR, such as EU elections. More interestingly – and this is something impossible not to have noticed during the US party primaries earlier this year – is how, in countries with FPTP and a democratic means of choosing party leaders (or presidential candidates), the major parties can essentially be parasitised by what look like third party candidates. This was not intentional.
That applies most glaringly to Donald Trump, whose strain of protectionism and xenophobia went against the Republican establishment’s commitment to free markets and cultivating the Hispanic vote. But it’s also true of Bernie Sanders, who wasn’t even a registered Democrat until as late as last November. While Trump defied the odds to win the Republican nomination before winning the White House, Sanders came pretty close to repeating the trick, winning 13m votes in a performance which would have made him the Democratic party’s presumptive nominee in any year before 2008. While it might be controversial, I’d extend that same analysis to Jeremy Corbyn when he won the Labour party leadership in September 2015. In the case of all three, the underlying dynamics are new – and powerful.
While there is a significant record of third party candidates in recent US history – John B. Anderson in 1980, Ross Perot in 1992/96 and Ralph Nader in 2000 – not to mention Sanders’ own career in Congress, such individuals viewed their political independence as a source of leverage and power. That has now changed, with leverage coming inside party systems not beyond them. With falling costs of information, and concurrent with that falling costs for a national political operation, a system built for pluralism – party primaries – will now inevitably become a platform for anti-establishment candidates. In the case of Labour after the Collins Review, there was meant to be a failsafe precisely to stop these dynamics playing out: candidates required nominations from the parliamentary Labour party. Except some MPs didn’t get the memo, and Corbyn won after making the ballot with a minute to spare. If this barrier is overcome, and a future Labour executive committee decides to reduce nominations to something like 5% of Labour MPs, candidacies like Corbyn’s will become the norm. What is more, they’ll usually win.
So how does this happen? Well, I think this set of tweets by the media theorist Clay Shirky is a good place to start. Shirky outlines how two-party systems – which are inherently volatile by design, being large coalitions – are becoming increasingly difficult to manage, and that the ‘Overton window’, previously maintained by party elites in partnership with the media to ensure the dominance of political centrism, can now be moved dramatically and in record time (witness the unlikely rise of Trump, Sanders and Corbyn). The ideological cracks within ‘broad tent’ parties under this system will become increasingly obvious. As Shirky states: “[the US has] two rump establishment parties, Trump representing ‘racist welfare state’ voters, and Sanders representing people who want a Nordic system…Trump is RINO, Sanders not even a Dem. That either one could become their party’s nominee is amazing. Both would mark the end of an era.”
For Shirky, the collapse of centrist hegemony within such parties is a result of technological change since the early 1990s: “Perot adopted non-centrist media, [Howard] Dean distributed fundraising, [Barack] Obama non-party voter mobilization.” Taken together this means far lower costs of entry for insurgent politics previously considered beyond the pale. Furthermore, Facebook offers massive opportunities to such candidates historically locked out of winning their party’s nomination: “The new scale Facebook introduces into politics is this: all registered American voters, ~150m people, are now a medium-sized group… ‘All voters’ used to be a big number. Now it’s <10% of Facebook’s audience… A million users isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion users… Reaching and persuading even a fraction of the electorate used to be so daunting that only two national organizations could do it. Now dozens can.”
In systems where costs of entry to getting elected are relatively low – as is the case in countries with PR – a host of new parties can now become nationally competitive in record time (Podemos, the Icelandic Pirate party, the Italian Five Star Movement). In countries without PR, it means surprising adaptations – with ostensibly third party, outsider candidates much more likely to lead mainstream actors.
Such dynamics interact massively with social media. In the 2015 Labour leadership race, 57% of Corbyn supporters said social media was their major source of news. You can be absolutely certain that if the Conservatives had a more democratic means of choosing their party leader – perhaps like Labour, or how the major US parties select their presumptive candidates – they wouldn’t have Theresa May. Going into a very modern general election, that could turn out to be a major weakness.
2. Facebook can now win national elections…
Around 130m Americans voted in the 2016 US elections. That’s 20m fewer than those who logged on Facebook the same day (there are 150m daily users of the social media platform in the USA) with the average user spending 50 minutes on the site. It’s no surprise then that 44% of Americans say they use the site as a source of news (only 9% said the same for Twitter). This is a reach and intensity of use that no other media company can dream of, let alone achieve, and it is now exercising massively disruptive consequences on politics. Tim Ross has written astutely on how the Tories used Facebook as part of a broader strategy to win a surprise majority in the 2015 UK general election, but Trump’s victory is a scale bigger both in shock value and how it interacted with new media.
With no competitive ‘ground campaign’ – something that can be attributed as much as a 6% share in a presidential race – and little real support from the mainstream media, it seems indisputable that new media played a major role for Trump. Speaking to 60 Minutes last weekend, the president-elect spoke of how social media gave him an unlikely advantage: “The fact that I have such power in terms of numbers with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram… helped me win all of these races where they’re spending much more money than I spent.”
3. …but it’s also an absolute cesspit.
Analysis by BuzzFeed found that 38% of posts shared from three large right-wing politics pages on Facebook included “false or misleading information” while three large left-wing pages did the same 19% of the time.
The difference between Trump and Clinton, of course, is the extent to which the former needed social media and actively enabled such stories, often referring to them in speeches. The stories themselves are as bizarre as one might expect: the most widely shared one in the days leading up to the election was an ‘endorsement’ of Trump by Pope Francis. Despite having no basis in fact this was shared over a million times. Similar stories included the Clintons buying a ‘$200m mansion’ in the Maldives and the Democratic candidate buying ‘$137m of illegal weapons’. Each of these was shared hundreds of thousands of times.
Just as Trump has remarked on how Facebook proved a major factor in his surprise win, so too have Democratic strategists and commentators. Teddy Goff, the Clinton campaign’s chief digital strategist, has claimed in recent days that fake news shared on Facebook pushed Trump over the line and that changes are needed: “Everyone has the right to say what they want, have access to sites that they want, share what they want… but a publisher with a record of making stuff up is not likely to rank that highly on Google… the equivalent ought to be the case on Facebook.” In a similar vein John Oliver slammed Facebook as a “cesspool of nonsense” saying: “Fake facts circulate on social media to a frightening extent… there is now a whole cottage industry specialising in hyper-partisan, sometimes wildly distorted clickbait.”
While the most widely shared, inaccurate stories are often discredited, there is a lag of around 13 hours between the publication of a false report and the subsequent debunking – enough time for a story to be read by hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of readers. It turns out that Facebook’s information architecture – which allows stories to find scale through the personal, intersecting networks of its users – allows misinformation to diffuse like never before. It does so through one of the most powerful cognitive biases humans exhibit: confirmation bias.
4. Politics and celebrity are increasingly fused.
Celebrity and politics have always exercised an interesting relationship to one another. It was the political advisor Paul Begala who coined the memorable phrase that ‘politics is showbusiness for ugly people’, and while not particularly congenial, that phrase captured something about the zeitgeist of mainstream politics after ‘the end of history’.
With the increased mediatisation of politics in the digital environment I think it’s highly likely that celebrities will feature ever more prominently, not only as advocates and ‘influencers’ – leveraging their massive networks of followers on social media – but also as participants. While celebrities getting involved in politics isn’t new – after all Ronald Reagan became president having been a Hollywood leading man, while the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura were state governors after being on the big screen – what Trump betokens is a shift from celebrities dabbling in politics to being at the very heart of public life.
In part that is a result of the distinction between celebrity culture and politics becoming increasingly permeable (just look at recent headline stories surrounding Gary Lineker and Lily Allen) but it is also a result of immediate name recognition colliding with the end of the mainstream media as we know it. Without social media these individuals, despite always being widely known, had no means of conveying their political views to a wide audience. That has now changed, with their accumulated social capital easily transferable to communicative power and political capital. As Paul Mason has noted, ‘networked individualism’ is what powered many of the movements of 2011, so it should come as no surprise that the networked individuals par excellence aren’t activists or citizen-journalists, but people with large amounts of social and media capital: celebrities.
In this regard Trump is not an outlier but a harbinger of the future. In regard to rule one, this will particularly matter in electoral systems where centralised parties are comparatively weak and where third party candidates are now presented with major opportunities. So expect to see a lot more of it in the United States. Already people are asking who will win the Democrat ticket in 2020 – Tim Kaine, Liz Warren, Bernie Sanders? Michael Moore has asked why it shouldn’t be Oprah Winfrey or Tom Hanks instead, and for my money there is good chance that at least one major celebrity will participate in the 2020 Democratic primaries, and possibly more. To all intents and purposes, the US system is made for this. Plummeting costs of information not only mean third party candidates will be more frequent for both sides, but famous outsiders too. This is less of an issue in the UK because of its powerfully centralised parties. That could change, however, were rules for electing party leaders altered (what matters most for Labour is bringing the number of nominations down). Elsewhere don’t be surprised if we see more celebrity mayors. Again, how this dynamic plays out is dependent on the opportunity structure and how institutions work.
5. The mainstream media still matters, but you have to make the news – not be it.
Despite enjoying underdog status, neither the Brexit campaign nor Trump tried to circumvent established media channels, especially broadcast. What both did however, was adopt a guerilla strategy which fused offline events and social media with a strategy to generate news rather than be it. That was personified by the bizarre spectacle of this summer’s ‘Brexit flotilla’ – when Nigel Farage led a fleet of dozens of fishing ships from Southend to Westminster. It was a similar story when Farage unveiled a Leave campaign poster which looked remarkably like Nazi propaganda. Looking back, Farage knew exactly what he was doing: generating free advertising through massive broadcast coverage – another new feature of constant news and the ever greater mediatisation of politics.
Trump did something similar – the late intervention by FBI director James Comey to re-open the investigation into Clinton has been compared to millions of dollars of free negative advertising, and fortunately for Trump that event synced with his strategy of generating news by any means necessary. This meant calling people names, intimidation, baiting crowds and being generally as outrageous as he could. At times it was a delicate balancing act, and many – including myself – thought he had fatefully overstepped the mark at least several times. It turns out that for the bulk of those who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, he didn’t. Or at least not enough.
In a strange way something similar happened to Jeremy Corbyn both this summer and in 2015. As with Trump the basis of his campaign – which conventionally speaking wouldn’t have stood a chance against Owen Smith’s ‘Rolls Royce’ effort – was offline events, new media (in the three major ways Shirky outlines) and constant media scrutiny. While that damaged Corbyn massively with the public – you only need to look at his approval ratings to know as much – I think it was a net positive with the Labour selectorate. They simply weren’t going to be told who to vote for. The more crap they heard, the angrier they got.
The question for Corbyn’s team, and Labour HQ, is how best to adapt to such dynamics. How, in the face of a media that wants to undermine him at every turn, can they do their own guerilla strategy without the belligerence and in the name of a progressive agenda? I’ll save that for another article but in brief it will need lots of broadcast, a semi-permanent events approach around the country and an ability to think outside the box. While David Cameron’s strategy of hugging a husky/hoody was widely derided, it did win media attention, creating new associations for some of the electorate around the nasty party.
6. ‘Stans’ win elections.
One of the lessons from Corbyn’s rise, Trump’s win and Brexit is that ‘Stans’ – not more passive supporters – are a major variable in who wins. What’s a ‘Stan’? It’s a ‘super fan’ (the term is a portmanteau of stalker and fan). It also summons images of the music video ‘Stan’ by Eminem. Enough said.
But while the term is used tongue-in-cheek here, it also conveys the fact that super-advocates of politicians – with new media now at their disposal – are more powerful than ever before. In a new media environment where ‘crowd-enabled connective action’ is both massively powerful and can lead to the most unexpected of results, it is ‘Stans’ who do the heavy-lifting: organising events; creating content; raising funds; running phonebanks; providing rapid, ad-hoc infrastructure; selling the candidate and their politics in offline as well as online networks.
Such dynamics seemingly served Trump very well over the course of the last several months and won Jeremy Corbyn the Labour leadership not once, but twice. While the Labour selectorate is not the same as the electorate it’s clear that a large number of ‘Stans’ within a membership that could reach 1m before the next general election could be an unprecedented resource for the party. There are parts of the country where one in ten households contain a Labour party member – if that membership grows further still, and members are actively mobilised to become personalised channels for party communication and politics, that could be enough to decide the fate of who forms a UK government after the next general election. ‘Stans’ matter, and to win you need a plan to maximise their efforts.
So those are six new rules for politics after 2016. It’s likely that next year will throw up even more. We’ve been talking for years about how new media would impact politics, but for much of that time attention was overwhelmingly paid to protest environments. With the rise of Corbyn, Sanders, Trump and Brexit, observed changes have now bled into institutional contexts. We are now confronted with an historic moment: the recomposition of political elites, orders and public attitudes as they come up against not only a permanently altered economic environment, but a hybrid culture increasingly shaped by digital media.
They say you can only judge the footprint of a new technology when it becomes ubiquitous. Well, given millions more Americans used Facebook last Wednesday than voted, that moment has probably arrived. A lot more is up for grabs than we probably think, even after the events of this year.