Monday, February 22, 2016

Pandemonium? Blame the Media.

Presidential politics rides a wayward bus.

It's named Media.

Media revolutions drive voters away from party élites, as historian Jill Lepore says in her article about populism in The New Yorker.

Lepore looks back at party upheavals of the early 19th century.

Although slavery was the big issue, the rise of populism was driven by revolutions in media:
  • In the 1830s, advances in printing brought down the cost of a newspaper to a penny;
  • In the 1840s, newspapers began to get news by telegraph;
  • In the 1850s, newspapers began to include illustrations based on photographs.
"For a while, party élites lost control, until the system reached equilibrium in the form of a relatively stable contest between Democrats and a new party, the Republicans," Lepore says.

Then came the 1890s, when occurred another populist revolt, "which took place during another acceleration in the speed of communication, brought about by the telephone, the Linotype, and halftone printing, technologies that allowed daily newspapers and illustrated magazines, in particular, to carry political news faster, and to more readers, than ever before."

In the same decade, color printing appeared, which gave rise a nationwide "poster craze." Campaign posters papered every wall of every building, in every city; and every candidate "ran as an outsider."

Oddly enough, the 20th century was saner. 

Although voters saw the introduction of phonograph records, radio, weekly magazines, movies and TV, media's power to propel populists waned. 

"Despite the upheavals of the Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War, and Vietnam, the era of national newsmagazines, newsreels, and network broadcasting was a period of remarkable party stability."

But with the advent of mobile phones and the Internet, populism is again heating up.

"The American party system is not only a creation of the press; it is dependent on it," Lepore says. 

"It is currently fashionable, indispensable, even, to malign the press, whether liberal or conservative. But when the press is in the throes of change, so is the party system. And the national weal had better watch out. 

"It’s unlikely, but not impossible, that the accelerating and atomizing forces of this latest communications revolution will bring about the end of the party system and the beginning of a new and wobblier political institution. 

"With our phones in our hands and our eyes on our phones, each of us is a reporter, each a photographer, unedited and ill judged, chatting, snapping, tweeting, and posting, yikking and yakking. 

"At some point, does each of us become a party of one?"
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