This is an interesting election season that hasn't started yet. The important action of this election in its primary and caucus phase will of course be on the Republican side, as there is an incumbent Democratic president who has a lock on the nomination. So the fact that the Republicans are in the election news at this point is no surprise. What is rather surprising and, if I'm not mistaken, unprecedented is that the nomination is being largely decided before the first primary or caucus has been held.
Over the past few months, we have seen several Republican candidates rise in the polls only to sink again as either weird policy positions, poor debating performance, or skeletons emerging from their closets have lost them support among Republican voters. First it was Michelle Bachmann. She was riding high for a while, but doubts about her ability to handle the economy and the entry of Rick Perry into the race dramatically cut her support, and at this point she has little chance to win the nomination.
After Bachmann came Perry. A meteoric rise in the polls was followed by an equally-rapid fall as Perry revealed policy positions that were not in line with what Republican voters were looking for and displayed a truly clumsy and lamentable performance in the debates. Now Perry has sunk, too, but his fall has not resulted in a restoration of Bachmann as the political right's darling.
Instead, the focus moved to Herman Cain. Again, briefly, Cain was the man of the hour (the problem being that the hour occurred LONG before the nomination is to be officially decided). Cain has fallen, too (and unlike the others has actually suspended his campaign), partly because his gimmicky 9-9-9 tax plan looks awful to the degree people understand it, partly because of sexual indiscretions in his past.
Now, the white hat seems to be worn by Newt Gingrich, who has yet to implode and fall. But at this point, the first caucus of the campaign season is still almost a month away (Iowa is scheduled for January 3, 2012.) So there's still time for Gingrich, too, to self-destruct.
The Republican Party seems to be self-destructing, but what's particularly interesting to me is that this is happening so prematurely. The primary season hasn't even started yet, but the party is looking over and discarding candidate after candidate. It's as if the real decision occurs ahead of time through some other process, and the actual primaries and caucuses serve only as validations of that prior decision-making.
And that is in fact what I believe is happening. The decision-making is taking place largely over social media and Internet conversations among Republicans, in a form of Internet-based direct democracy. This is a variant of the same process that has given us the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, and the amazing volatility of the stock markets over the past year.
What I believe we are seeing is a fundamental transformation in the way decisions are reached in our society. Institutions and values, culture and politics, all of these follow the lead of technological change. All adapt to material circumstances, and those circumstances are themselves altered by technology. When it comes to collective decision-making, communication technology is what's important. A simple and deceptively innocuous invention, the printing press, led first to a rebellion against the Catholic Church that split Christendom to the core, and later to a massive, wide-spread movement across Europe and America to replace monarchies with democratic republics. All this just from a technique for cheaply reproducing written material -- which made widespread literacy economically feasible and led to demands first for the right of believers to read Scripture for themselves, and then for participation by literate citizens in the political process.
The Internet is a similar widespread change, dramatically accelerating the ability of people to communicate and interact. That's especially true of social media, which permit two-way communication on a scale and at a speed unprecedented. This change increases the ability of people to reach collective decisions independent of official authorities and political processes -- and thereby increases the capacity for direct, as opposed to representative, democracy.
I've written a pamphlet on the subject of direct democracy on a national scale which you can download free from here. But perhaps the larger transformation is what is happening not on this scale, but under the hood. The Republican Party's voters are making their decision about their 2012 candidate before the year 2012 even begins, and they are doing it on line in discussions about the candidates outside the official channels.