TCS Daily

Incumbent Politicians vs. the Long Tail

By Arnold Kling - August 23, 2005 12:00 AM

Which of the following describes your party affiliation?

(a) I identify with the platform and leading spokesmen of the Democratic Party


(b) I identify with the platform and leading spokesmen of the Republican Party


(c) None of the above


If you choose (c), then you are a member of what I call the political Long Tail. Like Chris Anderson's Long Tail of the distribution of books or music, the Long Tail in politics is larger than the "head," which in this case consists of the two major parties.


The Long Tail is not the political center. It is not a third party waiting to form. It is not a coalition. It is not a "silent majority" of either the right or left. It is simply every variety of political belief that does not fit within the two major parties.


If we had a parliamentary system with proportional representation, the Long Tail would consist of many splinter parties, including some parties that are ethnocentric, a variety of Greens, a variety of libertarians, single-issue activists, and parties which are outside of today's classifications. The Long Tail is a motley assortment of political misfits, wing nuts, and sober independents.


The key point is that the size of the Long Tail, and its rapid growth, represents the most significant political phenomenon of our time. What you will start to notice is the tendency for politics to reflect tension between the Long Tail and the major political parties.


Ultimately, in order to accommodate the Long Tail, the United States might have to adopt a form of "virtual Federalism" that allows people to self-select among government entities. Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans will make increasingly desperate attempts to resist the Long Tail, much as the legacy news media and legacy entertainment industry are desperately trying to resist the Long Tail in their fields.


Theatrical Politics


How are the two major political parties responding to the decline in their level of true support? Let me note a number of phenomena.


First, the increase in pork-barrel politics. One irony of the "campaign finance reform" movement is that our elections are already funded by taxpayer dollars, at least as far as incumbents are concerned. Unable to motivate voters ideologically, incumbents of both parties appropriate tax money in order to buy votes.


A second trend is an increase in the theatrical component of politics, without substantive import. Politicians stage elaborate productions, over Elian Gonzales or Terry Schiavo or Cindy Sheehan. These melodramas are a desperate attempt to try to keep the Long Tail interested in the left-right conflict and to make us forget the reality that we have little or no stake in either side.


A third trend is the increased insulation of office-holders from voters. As I pointed out in the essay We Need 250 States, this reflects the large population of constituents relative to elected officials. As elections become less competitive and legislators become less accountable, incumbents remain entrenched in spite of a lack of real support among the electorate.


Occasionally, in spite of all their advantages in the American political system, incumbents are overcome by the Long Tail. The defeat of Gray Davis in California may offer a glimpse of the true weakness of the two major parties.


Virtual Federalism


How can people with diverse interests and ideologies live together? The traditional two-party solution consists of coalition and compromise. As an individual, you attach yourself to either the Democratic or Republican coalition, and you accept whatever compromises are worked out within and between these major coalitions.


My sense is that the Long Tail is losing its patience with coalition and compromise. We are tired of fiscal irresponsibility. We are tired of religious issues being debated in the political arena. We are tired of trying to reconcile socialism and paternalism with libertarianism. We are tired of being stuck with the same set of entrenched political oligarchs election after election.


Instead of coalition and compromise, the solution may be to splinter and separate. Allow people to live in any political jurisdiction they choose. Let socialists self-select to live with other socialists. Let libertarians self-select to live with other libertarians. Accommodate the Long Tail by allowing people to choose their political jurisdiction, rather than have it dictated by geography. That is what I mean by "virtual Federalism."


The key to virtual Federalism is to break the link between physical location and political jurisdiction. A Ralph Nader supporter who happens to live in Texas could form a virtual state with like-minded individuals in Massachusetts and Oregon. A libertarian in San Francisco could join a state with ideological allies in Orange County and New Hampshire.


Issues of land use could not be addressed with virtual Federalism. The question of whether to allow a Wal-Mart to be built in a town is still a local issue. However, the significance of land-use issues probably will tend to decline as technology increasingly facilitates the independence of activities from location. When shopping online is an option, physical store location is less critical.


Technological change is eroding many traditional monopoly services, including telephony and electricity. These same trends are reducing the imperative to rely on local government services. A columnist in India, Subir Gokarn, has observations that might apply equally well to the United States.


"I've often been asked for my opinion on what the country's sunrise sectors are. My response, at first tongue-in-cheek, but becoming more and more serious over the years, is that anybody who decides to compete against the government has a great chance of succeeding. Four activities come easily to mind.


Equipment for private supply of electricity--generators, inverters, and so on--are needed to compensate for the inadequacies of the larger system. Private security makes up for the perceived failure of the state security apparatus.


Private education at every level continues to surge, while public institutions sink. And, while access to publicly-provided drinking water eludes an increasingly large proportion of the population, the number of brands and the sales volumes of bottled water continue to climb."


Perhaps with virtual Federalism, jurisdictions could compete with one another and with private alternatives. If distance learning takes off, people may choose to pay taxes to and enroll their children in remote school districts.


Unbundling of location and political jurisdiction could go even farther, crossing national boundaries. Perhaps Americans who envy the Canadian health care system will some day be able to join it, and vice-versa.


Virtual Federalism faces a number of political and technological obstacles. I am not suggesting that it is a panacea. But my prediction is that, compared with the two-party system, virtual Federalism is going to look more attractive to more people over time.



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