Are you curious about the election?

Photo: Raymonde Marie Lacasse. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Watching the election results come in – and not come in – has always been a national pastime. Forty-four years ago I remember watching a close Presidential race being called on national media, then finishing my homework before going to bed. Twenty years ago we were shocked that the election wasn’t over when we got up the next day. Now, no one is surprised that the results are still up in the air. Court challenges and recounts, perhaps taking weeks longer, are also in preparation. One commentator likens our current political conflict to trench warfare, consuming immense levels of energy and effort with little or no effect on the ground.

How did we get here?

For the past few years, I’ve tried to look at our political mess through a different lens. The defining conflict of the 20th century was the clash between Communism and Capitalism – with some carve-outs for hybrid economic systems in Europe and Asia. Russia (and the Soviet Union) were required reading. Dissidents like Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov won Nobel prizes. The threat of nuclear armageddon was part of the popular culture, the stuff of spy thrillers and dystopian science fiction.

“Apocalypse” by Albert Goodwin. Source: Wikipedia. Public Domain

When the Cold War ended, a “peace dividend” propelled Western economies forward. The financial, physical, and human capital that had been devoted to non-productive national defense could be redirected. While political scientists speculated about the “End of History,” the internet, mobile technology, and – above all – the rise of software-dominated economies of data began to take shape. These economies favor communications technologies that have network effects which lead to increasing returns. Increasing returns mean a service becomes more valuable when more people use it. The more that people use phones, the more valuable it is to have a phone. The more we search with Google, the more Google and refine its search algorithm to deliver the search results we want. This isn’t just happening in the United States. Smartphones and app-based businesses can operate almost anywhere in the world, supported by global information networks.

The result has been a rise in economic inequality around the world. The “haves” tend to get more, the “have-nots” fall further and further behind. To some extent, this has always been the case with network companies. There were essentially no competitors to Western Union telegrams in 1900. But it wasn’t as dominant or pervasive in everyone’s life. Today, it’s virtually impossible to start a new business without a web site, Google page, Facebook page, and social media presence. These listings are as necessary as “yellow pages” listings were 20 years ago.

But every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The push-back from the software economy comes from those who have been left behind. A decade ago, a political thinker observed that the defining political conflict of our day isn’t between left and right, it’s between the “ruling class” and the “country class. The ruling class is increasingly connected and capable of using apps and algorithms to achieve its economic and political agenda. The country class is disconnected, disaffected, and distrustful of those in authority. Again, this happening around the world. It’s bubbling up from economic forces. And it’s not going away.

That’s why Brexit in the UK, France’s National Front, Germany’s AfD (and “pirate” parties), India’s BJP party, and other populist organizations continue to thrive. That’s why the highest energy in the Democratic primaries in the US came from Bernie Sanders – a populist politician openly skeptical of established Democratic Party platforms and policies. That’s why the Republican Party nominated and supports Donald Trump, a non-politician who has flouted Republican Party (and Presidential) norms for the past decade. It’s not left vs. right. It’s country class vs. ruling class.

And this is why polls and predictions have been so mistaken and so difficult to fix. How do you poll someone who isn’t plugged in? How do you understand people who don’t want to connect? That’s why there’s still a 50/50 split in our politics, despite the highest electoral turnout ever. The traditional questions pols and pundits ask are ruling class questions. They don’t begin to address country class issues.

Last year I read a powerful book by Chris Arnade, a former Wall Street trader who began taking long walks into “bad” neighborhoods around New York. Eventually, he became so fascinated with the people he met that he left his day-job to take photos and write full time about what he called, “back row America.” Here’s how he describes these folks:

They were the people who couldn’t or didn’t want to leave their town or their family to get an education at an elite college. If we were the front row, they were the back row.

Arnade’s book, “Dignity,” doesn’t offer political prescriptions. But he does assert that any solution will require greater understanding – from all sides, but especially from the ruling class. To which I say, “Amen to that.”

Chris Arnade. Photo by Brian Jones. Source: Flikr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.