Why Is Obama Talking about Net Neutrality?

“As a Republican who works in the tech industry I can say that this statement shows you either have no idea what you are talking about or you are bought and paid for by the American Cable monopoly. This is an amazingly stupid statement and is disheartening.”       

—One of thousands of comments on a Ted Cruz Facebook page by conservatives attacking his position on Net Neutrality

 

Funny things are happening in Ted Cruz World. The hero of contemporary conservatives is being viciously attacked by fellow conservatives for his recent Twitter statement that “Net neutrality is Obamacare for the Internet.” To be sure, he is being defended by conservatives too. It turns out that there is no standard “conservative” position on net neutrality.

Well, that’s not quite true. Actually, there are two standard conservative positions on net neutrality. Business conservatives—those who believe that what is good for GM (or Walmart, or Comcast, or Netflix) is good for America—are against it. Forbidding preferential treatment of data packets prevents businesses from making lucrative deals with each other. A standard way to say this in business conservativese is “stifling innovation.”

Libertarian conservatives, on the other hand, are enthusiastically for net neutrality. It represents the essence of what such conservatives think that the government ought to do: create a level playing field and get out of the way. To those who hold such views, net neutrality is something like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: a natural right that the government cannot take away without becoming tyrannical.

Net neutrality is a coalition breaker, or an issue that drives a wedge between different factions of a political party.
Michael Austin
Another way to say this is that net neutrality is a “coalition breaker,” or an issue that drives a wedge between different factions of a political party. I strongly suspect that this is why President Obama chose to make this his signature issue ten minutes after the midterm elections were over. One of the most pernicious fictions perpetuated by our two-party system is that there are two, and only two, sets of opinions about all things and that these two ways of seeing things are each internally consistent and logical. This is just silly.

Modern political parties are coalitions built to win elections. Often, the different parts of the coalition can barely stand each other, but they manage to find enough things in common to check the same boxes in November. And political coalitions in America are constantly shifting while keeping the same two brand names. “Republicans” and “Democrats” today are very different things than they were in 1860, or even 1960. Only the names remain the same.

One of the reasons that Republicans did so well in the midterms is that most of the races came down to things that united the different elements of the coalition. Opposition to Obamacare is constant among all Republican factions. So are low taxes, military spending, and the desire to restrict the influence of labor unions.

But there are plenty of wedge issues too. Same-sex marriage, for example, pits right-libertarians, who want a high degree of individual freedom, against religious conservatives, who want a high degree of no same sex marriage. Immigration is another such issue. For business conservatives, immigration is a way to secure cheap labor, low prices, and high profit margins. For Tea Party conservatives, it is a threat to everything that America stands for.

And net neutrality might be the biggest wedge issue of them all. It pits the libertarians who provide most of the votes for the Republican Party against the businesses who provide most of the money. And as an undeclared-but-almost-certain candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Ted Cruz knows that, at this point at least, he needs money more than he needs votes.

But, like any politician, Cruz doesn’t want to make choices like this unless he has to. Obama’s recent actions are all about making sure that he has to. By using what remains of his bully pulpit to press issues like net neutrality, immigration, and marriage equality, Obama is doing everything he can to force potential GOP presidential candidates to make coalition-breaking choices. It is a strategy that stands a very good chance of working in 2016.