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Could 2012 Be The Least Important Presidential Election In Recent US History?

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Early Wednesday morning, Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns wrote a very thoughtful and penetrating piece at Politico essentially to ask, as one blogger bluntly put it, “why this presidential campaign seems so lame.”

The Politico writers were hardly coy about it either. They led with:

“For years, operatives, reporters and potential nominees envisioned the 2012 presidential campaign as a titanic clash of media-swarmed combatants with big ideas about the future. In the Republican primaries, this was almost a mantra: this is the most important campaign in a generation.

So why does it feel so small?”

So why does it? Haberman and Burns seem to think it’s Twitter’s fault. The real ideas, they contend, are getting lost in a banal static of infinite minutiae in a joyless grind of hour-by-hour social media battles over the latest flavor-of-the-week triviality. Their description of what’s happening is perfectly accurate, and includes enough examples and anecdotes to fill four pages, so it’s quite detailed; but in the end Haberman and Burns didn’t dig deep enough.

In trying to answer their question, “Why does it feel so small?” they simply elaborate on what they mean by “feel so small,” give examples of it, and describe it in more detail. They do a fantastic job of dramatically illustrating just how small it is. Their piece is mostly descriptive, but hardly explanatory. If it is intended to be explanatory, then Haberman and Burns are saying that the uninspiring, small-minded presidential campaign we’ve seen so far is an inevitable result of the inherent nature of the dominant and growing mediums for disseminating information and shaping public opinion, particularly social media.

In this view, the cause of our present electoral malaise is purely or mostly mechanistic, logistical, a function of changing technology. But there’s a deeper cause than that. All these new channels of dissemination aren’t filled with static and minutiae because there are too many of them, they are too unwieldy, and their formats are naturally ill-suited to anything else. Social media channels are filled with static and minutiae because the two parties aren’t giving them anything of substance to disseminate.

Social media doesn’t inherently gravitate to the uninspiring, trivial, or banal. The two major parties in this country, their entrenched leadership, their incoherent messages, their inconsistent actions, their broken promises, their sophomoric rivalries, their incompetence, their recklessness, their arrogance, their mutually and perennially bad and worsening public policy outcomes, and yes, certainly both their presidential candidates this cycle are what’s uninspiring, trivial, and banal. That’s not social media’s fault. Social media is just telling it like it is.

In fact, if the effect of social media is to constantly remind the public by way of never-ending trivialities just how little of importance there is to say about either of the two main parties, their trivial skirmishes, and even their presidential candidates, then social media has been an especially lucky development in American electoral politics by subtly and inadvertently, but relentlessly emphasizing a truth and narrative that the mainstream, corporate media before it effectively worked to conceal: that the ideas and actions of the two parties are small and uninspiring, that they have nothing to say. Social media is just a microphone “that split the night and touched the sound of silence.”

Frankly, what on earth would Mitt Romney or Barack Obama have to say to each other? On nearly every matter of public policy, their respective records of word and deed bear few substantive differences. Both their signature legislative accomplishments are essentially the same entitlement reform, one on the state level and the other on a national level (in fact Obama’s reform was based on Romney’s); Romney will be just as cozy with Wall Street going into his first term as Obama was going into his; and their rhetoric and circle of foreign policy advisers forebode no substantive difference on foreign policy.

Their partisan rank-and-file supporters are arguing over trivialities in social media channels because they don’t have anything of substance to debate. The stewardship of the two respective parties has and will continue to lead the country in roughly the same direction, a direction most Americans are not happy with, especially independent voters.

Despite always accusing each other of being too extreme and polarizing, the two main parties in America are essentially no different. They operate like and respond to the same incentives as corporations. As legal entities they have some trivial differences, mostly related to taxes, but they pursue similar goals. Donors and political allies are their equivalent of shareholders, and like corporations, so long as they deliver profits, their donors will continue investing with them. That’s why following the money is so important. That’s also why no one in the two party system has “dared disturb the sound of silence.”

Like corporations, the two main political parties are risk averse and conservative. Corporations don’t like to lose their shareholders’ money, so they play it safe, rehash the same old products and marketing that have always drawn consumers, and pander to the masses. The two parties also don’t like to waste their donors’ money, so instead of being inclined to reform and progress, which are risky, they rehash the same old rhetoric, marketing, and tactics that have always drawn voters. That’s why for all the fighting the parties do, the public policy course we’re on never seems to change.

In contrast to publicly-traded corporations, small businesses and independent artists take more than their proportionate share of big risks, and as a result make more than their proportionate share of progress and innovation. Like independent artists and small businesses, independent candidates are actually inspired by a vision. They have something substantive to say. They may not all agree with each other, but their principled earnestness and focus on policy solutions sets them instantly apart from the candidates of a corporate entity that panders to the masses with a carefully-calculated, uninspired, market research-driven message.

Most interesting, however, is that also like independent artists and small businesses, independent candidates have struggled against major party candidates because they have always lacked the massive capitalization and institutional entrenchment of the parties. But again, like independent artists and small businesses, the Internet has radically eliminated institutional barriers and leveled the playing field so it’s never been easier for independent candidates to raise more funds and leverage them to greater effect. It’s a phenomenon that we are just barely glimpsing for the first time and it has been heavily driven by social media and the topography of our rapidly evolving Internet.

This alone demonstrates the power of social media to cut through the sound of partisan static with meaningful and innovative ideas. Further evidence, as most visibly exemplified by the Ron Paul phenomenon, is the fact that the Internet and social media are such sympathetic harbors for unconventional ideas and candidates that bear a heavy focus on the substantive issues that the two parties are usually too afraid to touch. A quick look at the Arab Spring overseas is even more final confirmation that social media is not only not inclined to the trivial or banal, but that it can be a vital tool in the hands of inspired reformers with a robust vision for change and progress.

So will 2012 be the least important presidential election in recent US history? As long as it’s falsely construed as a contest between Mitt Romney (R) and Barack Obama (D), then it might be. However, if in this election cycle Americans have finally had enough of the two parties; if their vote of no confidence in the two party system resounds when overall voter turnout drops to record lows; if third party and independent candidates like Jill Stein and Gary Johnson win a record high number of votes; if new ideas and new ways of thinking about old problems emerge from the national conversation; if the discussion turns to policy instead of party; if voters start to care more about principles than personality –then 2012 could be the most important presidential election in recent US history.

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
-Paul Simon

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