Tag Archives: elections

The Decline of Campaign Predictability


   “Internet Research Agency,” St. Petersburg Russia        

The current unease in the politics of Western nations owes a lot to the disruptive effects of social media contagion, seen in the rise of the yellow jackets of France, avid Brexiters in the United Kingdom, and America’s MAGA enthusiasts, who accept the trashing of American political traditions as payback for being left on the political margins.

We are on the edge of another extended presidential contest, reflected in the growing preoccupation of  the national news media on possible challengers in both parties.  While its natural to speculate on those who might rise to become a party’s nominee, forces in play now make this handicapping process far less predictive.

The parties once had a tighter grip on its members and it’s brighter lights who were ready to vie for the nomination.  But they are now weaker and less cohesive.  Leaders and rising stars within them still claim attention, but steering the nomination is more difficult. The difference is the growth of social media.  Think of a poker game with two wildcards.  That can make for some surprises. Now imagine another game with eight wildcards, which would make any bet far less certain. That’s roughly the effect that media contagion can have on those who want to end up at the top of the heap.  Twitter and other social media are always potential disruptors in ways that the once dominant broadcast networks were not.

To be sure, those of us who have studied presidential politics used to be cheered by the decline of the “smoke filled room” of ‘pols’ who could make private deals well out of sight of the the public side of a campaign.  For example, John F. Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, famously helped pave the way for the nomination of his son. The elder Kennedy and his friends had the power to make it happen. Now, not only are there no back rooms with true power-brokers, there is no process-centered roadmap that will help predict how the finalists in this long struggle for party dominance will fare.  Once they ‘surface’ as candidates they will hit a maw of social media forces not easily controlled by anyone. The serendipitous nature  of peer to peer connection is now a driverless car, leaving a lot up in the air in terms of where a candidate will end up. Add in the seemingly endless desire of Russian state actors who can sabotage campaigns with misinformation or inflammatory rhetoric.  The point is that the effects of these forces cannot be predicted in advance.  It is in the nature of internet contagion that private citizens and others blending with them will create campaign roadblocks no more predictable than a California mudslide. The best we can do is know that some of these narratives will weaken strong contenders, while leaving others mostly untouched.

This was partly the fate of the Clinton campaign in 2016.  A range of factors contributed to her defeat: Wikileaks “dumps” of private emails, Trump  campaign contacts with Russians eager to see her lose, and a hefty dose of nativist appeals. Trump himself has tried to quell astounding but credible speculation that he is a willing or unwilling “Russian asset.”  Yet in other ways the fate of his administration is also to be determined by the social media cards that remain to be dealt.


We cannot predict whose identities and fantasies might be triggered by factual or fabricated narratives.


This defeat of even minimal predictability owes much to the gap between what might be called a “strategic/rhetorical” model of politics and a new and more fluid model of how information now enters the public sphere.  The first assumes an understanding of the rules and key audiences that must be satisfied.  The second blurs the idea of “audiences” altogether.  At this stage and for the immediate future, we cannot know whose identities and fantasies might be triggered by factual or fabricated narratives from unvetted sources.  The best we can know is that when they arise, the “viable candidate” of today may suddenly look unelectable.

In short, the politics of Western nations is now shaped by the disruptive power of social media contagion, seen in the yellow jackets of France, avid Brexiters in the United Kingdom, and America’s MAGA enthusiasts.

Echoes From Forty Eight Years Ago

                        Photo Montage: Salon.com

If older Americans are uneasy about the man who will occupy of the White House, it may be because the recent election has parallels to the dark aftermath of The Battle of Chicago.

Just a few days ago President Obama closed out his eight years with a heartfelt appeal to preserve our freedoms.  It was delivered to Chicagoans just a few blocks south of Grant Park, marking yet another quadrennial transfer of power.  As it was in 1960s, so it is now: the transition has left millions of Americans with a sense of unease about what comes next.

Though it can be risky to look for historical parallels, the coming transition offers the same stark questions of character that surfaced after The Battle of Chicago in Grant Park: a national trauma that contributed to the election of Richard Nixon.

That nadir was the summer in the election year of 1968. Americans were shaken by the impression that the superstructure of our nation-state was beginning to fall away. The stains of the assassination of President Kennedy five years earlier were still sealed into the fabric of the culture and only a preamble for what followed.  Martin Luther King was gunned down in April while organizing a poor people’s campaign in Memphis. Two months later Robert Kennedy was fatally wounded while campaigning in Los Angeles. By August, and against an enveloping sense of doom, there was at least the modest hope of some sort of political redemption as Democrats gathered in the Windy City to stage-manage a presidential nomination. It was supposed to be a celebration of the orderly transfer of national leadership that would finally acknowledge increasing public opposition against the Vietnam War. The conflict had already taken almost 17,000 lives. The nation was not only at war with the North Vietnamese, it was increasingly apparent that it was at war with itself, especially younger Americans who could be conscripted into what many saw as a meaningless conflict. Inside the International Amphitheater near the stockyards the party trudged toward the nomination of Hubert Humphrey. He was to replace a mortally wounded Lyndon Johnson who had dithered his administration into a freefall trying to find an exit from its war policy. Johnson’s attempts at leadership had divided the Democratic Party so badly that it was in the process of incinerating itself.

That would become all too clear on the night of August 28, when hundreds of anti-war activists and many young Democrats were on hand to inadvertently seal the fate of the party. Their goal was to march in front of the Hilton and Blackstone hotels across the street from Grant Park and within earshot of the convention delegates. But they would witness the fury of what an official commission later described as a “police riot.” Some of the activists were troublemakers. Most simply wanted to register their frustration with the inertia that had overtaken the nation.

The city and the nation had seen police violence many times before. But this bloody battle in the park and surrounding streets settled into the national consciousness as a symptom of a deep and unbridgeable political rupture. It virtually guaranteed that the government would be handed over to the G.O.P. candidate, the  secretive and suspicious Richard Nixon. Nixon was a living paradox who could barely conceal his instincts to vilify his supposed opponents–Jews and the press in particular–and ignore the formal limits of presidential power.

Both Nixon and Trump struggled to overcome the common impression that they were not only tortured personalities, but placeholders for someone better.

Fast forward to today and the epilogue for another chaotic election. President Obama’s farewell address in the same city brings us full circle. As steady and centered leader prepared to depart, an untested victor with another long enemies list and a Nixonian yearning for legitimacy prepared to take over.

Even in 1968 we knew that Nixon’s demons included an ongoing resentment toward the Kennedys, first because of his loss to JFK in 1960, and more generally because the Bostonians were effortlessly likeable. Trump labors under a  more complex but similar burden of insecurity, on display in his nonstop insistence on his greatness, but also heightened by our awareness of the natural grace of his predecessor.

And so the victor feeds our collective discomfort. Even with the formal powers granted by the office, both Nixon and Trump struggled to overcome the common impression that they were not only tortured personalities, but placeholders for someone better.