The wind that for a generation was blowing from the right now blows from the left.
Whether you’re talking about Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Labour in England, the Pope in Rome or Democrats in the U.S., ordinary people have grown tired of conflict, tired of feudalism, and tired of excuses for prosperity failing to improve their lives while elites play zero-sum games in order to grab more-and-more power.
This wave has been building for a long time and it’s based on an economic fact. The age of oil is ending. The age of technology is here.
For technology to fulfill its potential takes an enormous amount of cooperation. Technology flattens hierarchies, and broadens bases. Technology demands liberty.
I have made my living covering technology since 1982. These trends are not new. What is new is that technology is now at the center of everything. It’s how we move money, it’s how we do science and art, it’s essential to participation in the modern world.
In his 1994 movie “Nixon,” Oliver Stone imagined a meeting between high-powered Texas oilmen and his title character, and set it around the Kennedy Assassination. We don’t have to imagine its technology-era equivalent, because the 2007 Google “hang-out” between Barack Obama and Eric Schmidt was broadcast online. The then-Senator was given his line, “a bubble sort is definitely not the way to go,” and he delivered it. It was like a secret handshake. The alliance was sealed.
Barack Obama, like Richard Nixon and Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a crisis President. America was capsizing as he approached his inauguration. There was a sense the whole boat could go under. He righted the ship with a liberal program, a $1 trillion economic stimulus whose impact is still being felt. America, alone among the major powers, stepped up to the plate when everyone else was selling and said “buy.” Through that action America’s global economic leadership was renewed.
Something similar is now required of America’s allies. Austerity has not worked. Monetary policy alone has not worked. With the private sector unwilling to drive demand, and with so much of what needs buying being the kind of common goods – infrastructure, health care, education – that no private company can buy or build by itself, government needs to step in and buy. Even at the risk of debt.
Economists have forgotten that policy makers have multiple levers for controlling events. Both are limited. The use of both can be overdone, and in both directions. Monetary policy can be too restrictive, and it can be too easy. Fiscal policy can be too restrictive and it can be too easy.
Since passage of the 2009 stimulus, politicians around the world have forgotten another very important truth. Debt is an asset. When you put debt on a bank’s books, that’s an asset. Deposits are liabilities. And governments aren’t families, nor are they businesses. Governments are banks.
In a technological age, growth assets are shared. The Internet is a growth asset. It isn’t “owned” like a railroad or a cable network is. It’s shared among a large number of entities, and it’s based entirely on voluntary agreements, the movement of traffic prioritized over nearly everything else, including content and costs. Other growth assets – roads, airports, seaports, health care and education systems – are also held by networks of people, public and private, who must voluntarily agree on standards of meaning in order for the systems to work.
This is the economic order of our age, which in turn has to become the central political order of our age. Politics follows economic and technological change, it does not lead it. Huge pieces of our system have been traded-out during the last seven years. Newspapers have been replaced by Web aggregators as news sources. Universities have replaced office towers as our economic centerpieces. The dislocation has been enormous, but the change has become very real, and most people understand it.
Thus there is a new political reality, and a new political majority. Cooperation, even consensus, is the political order of the day, because cooperation is needed to make the new economy go. Liberty is the political order of the day, because enormous amounts of brainpower are needed to drive the economy forward, and that only comes from free, educated, and freely educated minds.
Polls, like markets, are always filled with noise, but they are demonstrating this conclusively. The new majority in America consists of Democrats and like-minded independents. Independents, while the largest section of the electorate, agree with Democrats on policies and issues to a really remarkable degree. This has been the case for years, really ever since the President ran for office, and it is as powerful a force as the old Nixon-Wallace coalition was for my generation.
But it must be activated.
Nixon talked about a “silent majority,” and what he meant by that was that his voters weren’t easily activated, that they were generally passive, and that they often failed to show up at the polls. There is a “silent majority” active now. People didn’t show up to vote in 2010, and they didn’t show up in 2014, and they’re paying for it in the form of policies they don’t like, policies that don’t work, and politicians who show contempt for whole groups of people – black people, brown people, women, government employees – who represent the majority of their electorates.
This contempt is a good thing. It gets people mad. It gets them active. It drives them to register to vote. It drives them to the polls. It causes them to build coalitions, emotional attachments to people and organizations they see as representing their views.
That’s what lies beneath the politics of 2015. Donald Trump does not speak for a majority of Americans. For every person he activates, he antagonizes two, antagonizes them enough to activate them on behalf of opposition to his causes, or support for causes he despises.
This majority is centered where the new economy is centered. The new economy is based upon research, usually done in big cities, but it also exists in smaller cities as well, often called university towns. Austin, Texas is nothing like the counties around it, and neither is Athens, Georgia. Neither is Lincoln, Nebraska or Ann Arbor, Michigan. In the near term, these majorities can be gerrymandered, arranged in such a way that their share of the vote isn’t reflected in legislatures. But that only makes the majorities larger.
The result is a political realignment. Given the extremism of Republicans, reporters will call it a “permanent Democratic majority” when they finally identify it, but it’s not. There are forces pushing both parties to the left, although the one pushing Republicans won’t become apparent until the present nervous breakdown passes. Such a phase is a necessity for political progress – it happened to Democrats in 1972 with George McGovern, and to Republicans in 1936 with Alf Landon. It happened to Democrats when they re-ran William Jennings Bryan in 1900, and when they tried to run Horace Greeley against U.S. Grant in 1868. Extremism, even in the defense of liberty, quickly becomes a vice, for in extremism there is no liberty.
That’s how it will play out. The technology industries demand cooperation in place of the Manichean competition of the oil era. Technology demands relativism, diversity, and mass acceptance of very broad community norms so that no one’s potential contribution to progress is easily ignored.
Money drives the train. Technology will get what it wants.