I was talking with my old friend Jock Gill, who had called me late on a Sunday evening to rekindle a discussion we’d had years ago about how to leverage the Internet in the political process.
Gill, a retired White House staffer and now a part-time political consultant, had been a major source of inspiration for a book I’d written about the Internet and the political process, but that book was written twenty years ago, and naturally things have changed.
Gill’s timing was fortunate because I’d been formulating my ideas on how the center of power in the Western world had changed. Political and economic power had resided in the center of society, those with enough money and connections to influence what happens in government, but that seems to be changing.
Instead, the source of power had moved to the great decentralized world of the Internet and the people who were controlling politics, business and economic activity were doing it through a fast broadband connection.
This is more than a theoretical move. You can see the power of the people at the edge of the network simply by watching the 2016 presidential campaign play out. The two most dynamic players as this is written are Bernie Sanders, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for President, and Donald Trump, who is wrapping up his nomination quest by essentially running the delegate table.
What’s unusual about these two candidates is that neither is part of the center of their respective parties. Trump is far enough from being at the center of the Republican Party that the GOP establishment did everything it could to prevent him from winning the nomination. The Republicans failed in their effort because those pesky voters kept voting for Trump despite their best efforts.
The story is the same for the Democrats. Sanders was the longest-serving independent in U.S. congressional history until he officially joined the Democratic Party in 2015 when he launched his presidential campaign.
Despite the late start to his campaign, he has managed to out-raise his establishment-backed opponent through millions of small donations, and is gaining the mind share of a significant number of voters, notably the young and independent voters who haven’t been active members of the Democratic Party.
In both cases, the people at the edge of the network are making their collective will known, despite the active opposition of their respective parties. The one-time power brokers are finding that they no longer have unbridled power to accomplish their ends.
As a result, Trump keeps racking up primary after primary, state after state. Sanders is still winning primaries at a stage when nearly all campaign observers assumed Hillary Clinton would have the nomination locked up.
So who are those people at the edge of the network that are forcing their will on the traditional parties? They are the masses of people with fast Internet connections who have access to information and they have a means to express their desires.
Couple this with the seething rage of millions of current and former middle class voters who were far better off a decade ago than they are now, but who are educated, motivated and who have a desire to change their circumstances.
Presidential Campaign Shows Political Power Shifting to Network’s Edge
Then there are people without college educations who used to find sustainable employment as skilled industrial workers. They were makers and doers, but now they’re marginalized into low-paying jobs with no future because so much manufacturing capacity has shifted overseas.
These people live out on the edge of the network because they don’t have jobs with Internet access. They don’t have stable employment with prospects for long-term income growth. Instead they are either self-employed freelancers or they’re working for a small percentage of what they once earned or their parents earned for similar work. But they have network access and they’re using that access to express their will.
Look at how Sanders has based his campaign on the Internet, and how he’s handled his fundraising on a variety of sites that continually reach out to supporters. Those same people are kept informed, they’re invited to rallies, they’re asked their opinions and they’re asked to contribute a few dollars. By doing this, they’re keeping the Sanders campaign alive when, in any other year, such a maverick campaign would have long ago folded its tents.
The same is true of the Trump campaign, minus the need for donations. But the Trump campaign stays in touch with supporters through a constant stream of emails, phone calls and social media activity.
The constant outreach by both candidates is overcoming the combined efforts of both of the major parties and while Sander’s campaign may have gained traction a little too late for his effort to succeed, it’s certainly making an impact. Both candidates are leveraging the voters at the edge.
But if the edge is so powerful, you’re probably asking, why aren’t they in control? The answer, of course, is leverage.
In my conversation with Gill, I mentioned a quote by the Greek mathematician and scientist Archimedes, who said that with a long enough lever and a fulcrum, he could move the world. The problem at the edge is that while everyone knows about leverage, they don’t have one big lever. They have lots of tiny levers, many of which are pulling in the same direction, but not necessarily together as a coordinated team.
But suppose you could get all of these people at the edge to work together? Suppose all of these Internet connected people could find a way to work as a large team? Their power would be unstoppable. To some extent, the Trump organization has worked this out, and as a result Trump will probably be the nominee of the Republican Party, despite the party’s best efforts to prevent it.
But suppose you could move this beyond the frame of partisan politics into other areas that the people at the edge of the network care about. For example, suppose enough people at the edge of the Internet were able to find a common goal in something that affects their lives, such as the economy. Would there be a force strong enough to stop them?
Right now, the edge isn’t organized enough well enough to create and effect policy. When that happens you should probably hope you can figure out which way they want to push, because you won’t be able to push back.