The Internet and the Long Tails of Political Discourse
Nearby is a graph of a standard normal frequency distribution. It was created with a random number generator but these types of distributions are also very common in nature. For example, if you count the kernels on the cobs from the 30,000 corn plants in an acre, that data will track a normal distribution.
The sections in the graph are marked off by standard deviations (sigma) and we note that plus or minus two standard deviations from the average (mean) will capture 95 percent of the data. The long tails mentioned in the title of this piece are the data points beyond two or even three standard deviations from the center. Those outcomes are very uncommon.
I think that political opinions follow this same type of distribution complete with the long tails.
What is an example? Immigration. Somebody thinks that we should round up the 13 million illegal immigrants and send them back to their home countries. Crazy, right? On the other end of that distribution are people that think we don’t need any borders and everyone should come and go as they please. Certainly, these are three-sigma points of view.
Here is another one. Donald Trump is a Russian spy or Donald Trump is our best President ever.
So what does the Internet have to do with any of this? Consider the following story:
I have this old floor lamp from the 1930s and the milk glass globe was broken. For years, whenever I walked by a lighting store I would step in quickly and ask about it. No luck. Then one day I was on-line (the World Wide Web as it was known) using a new piece of software called Mosaic. I put in a search and I found a woman in Iowa that had 3 milk glass globes for sale. They were a perfect match so I bought one. It was a classic long-tail transaction that would have been impossible pre-web.
Similarly, before the Internet the political opinions that we read about in the press or that were debated by politicians fell mainly within two standard deviations of the average opinion. Nixon and Kennedy agreed on so many issues they ended up having an intense discussion about Quemoy and Matsu, two obscure islands off the coast of China.
Today every three-sigma perspective can be published to the world. The media are more than happy to amplify them to their main stream viewers, at once shrinking their own credibility and making the world seem more crazy and divided than it actually is.
Politicians strive to convince their supporters that all of the opposition adheres to these extreme three-sigma views. Hence, Clinton’s profiling conservatives as “deplorable” and Trump’s constant refrain, “they just want open borders”. As any good political strategist knows, fear drives turnout.
There is a simple reason why they do this as I learned recently in a lecture by the famed economist, Michael Porter and Katherine Gehl, an entrepreneur, CEO and political reformer. In a paper titled, “Why Competition in the Politics Industry Is Failing America”*, they analyze politics as if it were any other business sector. Given the millions of customers and trillions in spending that made some sense to me.
What they found was an entrenched duopoly like Coke and Pepsi, whose major focus was erecting barriers to new entrants. They pointed to the “sore loser rule.” That rule prohibits a candidate that lost their party’s primary election from running in the general election as an independent. It is reminiscent of some banana republic where the ruling party remains in power because all the opposition candidates were disqualified. Remarkably, this is the law in 44 states, apparently achieving strong bi-partisan support from politicians almost everywhere. (You may recall the Connecticut – Lieberman exception).
This is why, in the vast majority of congressional districts, winning the primary is all that matters.
Here is a more current example of those barriers to competition. Newly minted congresswoman, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, is threatening to “primary” democratic congressmen who vote with the Republicans on any issue. To protect their incumbents, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) says they will blacklist and boycott any firm that does work for any primary challenger. Imagine if Amazon told suppliers that they would not sell any product that was also available at Walmart.com.
There should be a law!
Well, actually there are laws, just not for the Political Industry.
Unlike the private sector, there is no prohibition against restraint of trade in politics. The Federal Election Commission is controlled by the duopoly with 3 commissioners from each party. Generally, they enact rules about campaign financing that mostly restrict independents. For example, I can contribute $101,700 to the national Democratic Party campaign committees but only $2,700 to an independent campaign committee.
Clearly, the duopoly does not need to consider the vast majority of customers (voters). They only need to cater to the voters that will decide the primary election. Ocasio-Cortez is a perfect example of this phenomenon. In a district with 235,745 registered democrats, she won the primary and hence the general election with only 15,897, votes or 6.7% of the total. That is pretty close to a three-sigma win.
Politicians do not focus on solutions to our key issues because they need those issues to “energize the base” for their next primary campaign. (See “fear” above) Immigration is a classic example where both parties see it as a winning issue for their base. Meanwhile, if you randomly selected 20 Americans from across the country they would likely come up with a reasonable immigration solution in a few hours.
It is no surprise that Porter and Gehl determined that the share of salient issues deadlocked in congress has risen to 74% from 26% in the last eighty years.
But aren’t national elections different? Yes they are. The nominees, however, are a product of the same partisan primary process. How many times in the last few cycles have you voted for the “lesser of two evils” for president?
Porter and Gehl have several recommendations to disrupt the duopoly. Their key idea is a non-party primary with the top four candidates going on to a general election where ranked-choice voting will produce an instant run-off in the event no candidate wins an absolute majority.
Imagine how the 2016, campaign might have been different if the candidates needed to consider who the Gary Johnson and Jill Stein voters would select as their second pick? In an election like 2016, where no candidate won a majority of the popular vote nationally, the instant run-off would have decided the outcome in 13 states accounting for 127 electoral votes.
With 47% of the electors up for grabs in an instant run-off, the campaigns and even the nominees might have been very different.