It's no coincidence that the person who leads the Republican presidential field (and has led the Republican field essentially without pause since July) is also a person who is, in his own right, a celebrity. First-time candidate Donald Trump didn't face the name-recognition hurdle that most first-time candidates must tackle. People knew Trump long before that: Knew his television shows. Knew his books. People who were 10 when "The Art of the Deal" was released have been voting for 21 years.
Or maybe those people followed him on Twitter. At the time of his announcement, Trump already had millions of followers on Twitter; millions of people who were subscribed to the weirdest newswire in American history. Any thought Trump had — and has —- he shares. It's integral to his not-beholden-to-anyone campaign strategy. Every time he tweets, hundreds reply in the hopes that he'll retweet them — which he occasionally does. It's Team Trump, a little Twitter club that reinforces his independence and his fans' affection.
The extent to which the Internet is powering this year's outsider candidacies (the other prominent one being Bernie Sanders's) is the subject of two thoughtful explorations this week, one at the New Yorker and one on Twitter.
The Twitter one was offered by Clay Shirky, a writer who looks at how the Internet is affecting society.
It's long, but the gist is this. The two-party system necessarily can't encompass every viewpoint. So, to hold parties together, some things became unmentionable. As media options broadened and the press wasn't acting as gatekeeper, candidates could talk to voters more directly. But they still largely needed the resources of the party in order to get elected, so they still hewed to the rules about what couldn't be mentioned.
Until 2008, when Barack Obama mastered talking to, fundraising from and turning out a large population.
"Reaching & persuading even a fraction of the electorate used to be so daunting that only two national orgs could do it," Shirky wrote. "Now dozens can. This set up the current catastrophe for the parties. They no longer control any essential resource, and can no longer censor wedge issues." The result, he says, is the "quasi-parlimentarianism" of the moment: The Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the Trump Party and the Sanders Party, all vying for power and the presidency.
That's probably a little neat and, in championing how candidates like Ross Perot and Howard Dean shifted the political calculus by leveraging new technologies, it overlooks some of those candidates' flaws. But the idea that the Internet has democratized democracy seems unavoidably correct. We've noted before that Trump and Sanders can ignore the established parties by talking directly to the voters (in ways that reflect their core politics). Shirky puts it into historical context.
As does Jill Lepore at the New Yorker. Lepore, a historian, notes the inescapability of the Internet on the campaign trail. She describes an event for Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire:
The instant Clinton began speaking, dozens of arms reached high into the air, all across the room, wielding smartphones. It was like watching a flock of ostriches awaken, the arms their necks, the phones their heads, the red recording buttons their wide, blinking eyes.
That ceaseless documentation of the moment made individuals in the crowd often indistinguishable from reporters. "With every third person in the crowd tapping at a phone," she writes, "sending words and pictures out to the world, it was hard to tell the civilians from the military. Who are the people, and who are the press?"
Lepore argues that the two-party system itself was a creation of the press, American newspapers having black-or-white political arguments embedded in their DNA from birth. Each time a new way of reaching out to voters emerged, the political system reoriented itself. "When the press is in the throes of change," she writes, "so is the party system." We are now in the sixth iteration of the American political party system, and as Shirky makes obvious, it's not clear how it will evolve.
The media has a role, as do the political parties. The role of each was once to serve as gatekeeper. Now, the role is often to serve as bullhorn, if allowed to do so. The Democrats have slightly more control over their primary than do the Republicans, and so the Democratic Party is slightly more hostile to the outsider than the GOP. The party tried to fundraise off of Trump last week; Trump demanded it stop.
Trump is the obvious demonstration of the new political power structure, but Sanders may end being the more illustrative one. Sanders didn't have the benefit of Trump's fame or Twitter audience. (Last May, Sanders had only 25,000 followers on his presidential account.) But he was still able to be successful despite getting less media attention and having less support from the establishment. He built his base on the fly, and successfully.
That, more than anything else, is the new power of the Internet in politics.