Traditional Political Power Sources Waning, New Media Power Gaining

December 9, 2012
English: Jack Dorsey and Barack Obama at Twitt...

English: Jack Dorsey and Barack Obama at Twitter Town Hall in July 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the second part of a 2 part blog on evolving government power.  The first was entitled “Why Tax Rates Must Rise On The Top 2%”

What has already changed regarding the essence of power vis a vis changing media? The ability to consolidate popular power via ownership of major media and traditional forms of power is continuously waning, especially within key growing segments of the electorate like busy Moms, Hispanics, African-Americans, and of course, youth. Anyone with a blog, a Twitter and Facebook account or similar social media, can broadcast and promote ideas one to everyone, globally, instantaneously at almost no cost. Moreover, adoption past the chasm is bringing us to a “tipping point” of personalized anytime anywhere any form media as the preferred means of receiving mass communication. Witness, that the current administration has recently asked us to tweet to hashtag #my2k in order to force the opposition’s hand in lowering tax rates for 98% of Americans. They’ve begun to take the power of social media past the election, and into the governing. It is clear that news and opinion is being digested differently, and given the relative costs of the web versus cable TV we can expect to see more media channel substitution in coming years.  Once Apple shows us how it has “cracked the code” on TV, we may well see a spike in substitution that shifts our attention for a decade or more.

In marketing 101 (prior to the new social media) we learned about using different types of power to influence customers and market offerings. In my opinion, by enrolling congressmen in the tax pledge, the single policy tax SIG represented by Grover Norquist has made use of all of these.  The importance of the five forms of power espoused by French and Raven in 1959 is fading in the haze of a billion channels of communication now bombarding you from cradle to grave. Here are the traditional sources of power and how they result:

1. Coercive power – from a person’s perceived ability to punish for disobedience.

2. Expert power – from a person’s perceived greater skill and/or knowledge

3.Legitimate power – comes from a person’s position as giving them the right to make demands, and expect compliance.

4.Referent power – from a person’s perceived attractiveness, value, and right to respect from others.

5. Reward power – from a person’s ability to pay/remunerate for compliance.

Conservatives have used each of these 5 in order to enforce the no tax pledge. Even parents know that as their children are exposed to more data than ever before, they have lost some ability to rely on these power sources for control. What happens at home goes far beyond the front door. For every expert economist that recommends more education, there is one recommending tax cuts. For every climate change scientist sponsored by alternative energy, there is a not enough proof scientist sponsored by big oil (at least in terms of who we see in any particular televised interview). With so many experts readily available on both sides of every issue, expertise as a source of power in and of itself is diminishing.

The era of perceived objectivity is just about dead. In the past, famously successful people like Jack Welch were heralded and respected for their opinions.  After all, they were on TV and only experts are interviewed on TV. Now, when we hear a financial expert like Jack Welch questioning the authenticity of the Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment rate of 7.9%, his voice is rapidly eclipsed by the new media crowd who rely more on the smell test than they do on expert or referent power. The irreverent tenor of political discourse is accelerating, spreading, and the on demand mockery of respected figures via new media like Twitter and YouTube increasingly diminish them regardless of status. Today everyone’s voice is perceived as having a bias, and the voice of Stewie on Family Guy has orders of magnitude more Twitter followers than the voice of an industry titan.  Moreover, anyone’s tweet or post can “ring a bell” and go viral at any time. The assumption of biases and democratized media make any and all statements from expert or referent power sources less credible and less important to audiences.  It’s an “Emperor has no clothes” consumer generated media era.

As for legitimate power, moral compasses of everyone from Presidents to Generals to Congressmen to clergy to CEOs have been challenged in very public ways.  Innuendos often pass for true reporting. Character failures once hushed are now publicized instantly and globally with questionable recriminations. While the personal failings of the occupant of a respected office may still surprise some Baby Boomers, such news items have become just another day for Gen X-ers and Millennials who have been desensitized by seeing so many well-publicized character failures since birth. As for rewards, while free used to sound great, web professionals know that even free now means that you are the product. There’s always a price to pay. The power that any leader derives from the five traditional power sources is being devalued by so much data distributed pervasively among the crowd. This is happening in government, from the largest to the smallest businesses, and in communities everywhere. Today, the fickle crowd rules, not any individual.

Reliance on the fickle crowd filter does not mean that the crowd will always be right.  Google does not produce the most important results at the top of a search.  It does not deliver the timeliest results either. Google and search engines like it deliver the most popular result.  People want to know what’s trending on Twitter. A personality like a Howard Stern may say the most outrageous thing, and garner more attention and regard on an important world issue than a Nobel Prize winning astrophysicist. An individual’s perceived power over any issue is tenuous, and is only derived and maintained via a positive reception and retransmission / stream of their message throughout the crowd. If the crowd likes it, and re-tweets it, then it meets the smell test, perception is reality and it must be valid. Certainly, I think a case can be made the power of social media was “misunderstimated” by the folks on the right in the recent elections. This may not be news to many, but like the boiling frog analogy, I am not convinced that people have fully internalized what the move from traditional forms of power will mean in terms of consequences.  There was value in listening to experts prior to the era of character assassination driven by policy bias. If our first reaction will now always be to allege a person is crying wolf, what happens when a real alarm bell is not heeded?  Will governments begin to see their roles as saving us from ourselves at some point?

However temporary, power derived through new media popularity now outweighs traditional power from status, reward or coercion in the US.  An argument may be made that it magnifies each.  For example, when a greater volume of your supporters tweet, it is just so easy to tweet a $10 donation that those contributions can add up to a competitive advantage over big dollar donors pretty quickly. Fundraising is key, but as they say “message beats money”. At any point in time an unknown individual’s message re-tweeted by a popular individual can go viral. Why is new media popularity power more important and influential than traditional media’s consolidated sources of power?  Because there will always be another random  and temporary ‘power broker’ unpredictably around the corner. Its like death by a thousand cuts. Metaphorically, a huge school of fish will morph and change direction on the basis of any single fish’s behavior, while the whale around them is in a constant search for the high volume of nutrients needed to sustain it as a huge organism.  If you believe that crowds will normally produce better results than any given individual leader, the declining potential for any manufactured power base to unduly influence the electorate or their elected officials over time is definitely a good thing.  Exactly how we get there is yet to be seen.

Post Script:

After writing this post, but before posting it, I ran across a CNN article entitled

Chambliss fires off on Norquist’s anti-tax pledge

CNN Politics website November 22nd, 2012

In the article Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss became the first to apparently agree completely with the spirit of my first blog post on raising the tax rates on the top 2%.  From the article, Chambliss is quoted:

“I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge,”

“Asked if Chambliss is concerned Norquist may use his resources to combat a re-election bid, the senator said, “In all likelihood, yes.”

“But I don’t worry about that because I care too much about my country,” he said. “I care a lot more about it than I do Grover Norquist.”

The two-term senator from Georgia added he’s “willing to do the right thing and let the political consequences take care of themselves.”

Folks, there is hope after all.