A Lever Long Enough to Suppress the World

Archimedes famously said that if you gave him a long enough lever, he could lift the world. Well, it works both ways. Using the long lever arm of mass media, a tiny core of politically powerful people controls the rest of the population’s choices, economics and future.

Systems design is the study of how to balance inputs into and outputs from a dynamic process so that it optimally serves the needs of the highest possible number of users of the process. From a systems design standpoint, American politics is a disaster:

inconsequential voters
voters who matter        
political activists
political power elite

About a third of Americans vote, but most vote so consistently that their votes, needs and opinions are inconsequential. Just a few “swing” voters are the target of politicians’ attention and advertising, the only voters who matter. In the 2000 election, Gore received 50.5% of the popular vote, while losing 3 states–41 electoral votes–by a total of 6,611 votes.

Last time, I suggested that there’s only a tiny sliver of the population zealous enough to be active in politics, and that it even takes a kind of zealotry to get out and vote. I don’t have the figures, but do any states have more than 1,000 full time activists? Sure, there are a lot of political hobbyists who will canvass occasionally or show up at a state convention and perform as directed, but by activists I mean those who live for or off of politics and do their party’s bidding whenever asked. My working hypothesis is that there are no more than 50,000 active political foot soldiers at any one time, less than.02% of Americans. Even if you think there are double or triple the number, the fraction is still vanishingly small.

In turn, those few activists are manipulated by a tiny political elite which is probably no more than .001% of the population (2,862 politicians, lobbyists, journalists and business leaders sounds about right for the political power elite in our enlightened Republic, don’t you agree?). Clearly, Americans aren’t chatting each other up to get out the vote, but rather responding to the unfolding media messages in the same passive way they might discuss episodes of Friends around the water cooler.

And, as Dave Winer often reminds us, it’s even worse than it appears. This tiny group of power brokers drives the agenda for a nation which the rest of the world depends upon for its very existence, in a protection-racket kind of way. This is a system that no conscientious systems architect would sign off on, but which most Americans meekly accept as how things have to be.

Paul Boutin points out in an enlightened Slate article today that attracting new voters is the secret sauce for any winning candidate, and that’s what the Dean campaign did well, though no one has the statistics to prove it. Dean’s coterie of new activists were an energizing force that establishment Democrats cynically shut down as fast as they could:

Recent polls showed Kerry and Bush at a dead heat. But it’s not so much a 50-50 split as 25-25—half the voting-age population has failed to show up in recent elections. Bringing in new voters—if you could find a way to do it—would swing an election much more easily than converting the people who already plan to cast their ballots for the other guy.

It’s this mechanism that the Dean campaign didn’t get quite right in time to empower its true believers to evangelize ever larger circles of new true believers. Next time, I’ll suggest (and demonstrate) that the meatspace evangelism failure may have been as much a web design fault as a political process breakdown.

12:24:18 PM    

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