Media Trends Will Change America

American society is undergoing the most rapid and most fundamental changes ever, and politics seems utterly unaware of this. Insofar as politicians notice the trends at all, they see them only through the lens of old-world thinking. How can we use text messaging and social media to get out the vote? There are far more fundamental issues than this, such as are political structures designed decades and even centuries ago even relevant to the new social structures?

Younger people are far more likely to build their social networks online than previous generations. This being so, isn’t geography one of the least important things about someone? When the census leads to New York losing Congressional representation, why should it draw its ‘districts’ geographically? Broadcasting led to greater centralization in the US, with both state and federal governments expanding into new areas, as people came to see their politicians as screen heroes. Perhaps smaller, decentralized news and information networks will lead to a reversal of this trend.

Other trends will include globalization. If people’s social networks are global and organized around common interests not locality, this will dramatically affect immigration. In principle, any American citizen can marry a foreign citizen, creating a route for legal immigration. Traditionally, only small numbers of people have done so, yet is likely to become very much more common.

Social media tend to favor individual action over collective action. This trend will lead to decentralization of the economy and of activist groups. The mainstream media does not seem to understand the leaderless ‘structure’ of the tea party movement – or left-wing anti-capitalism demonstrators. Activists who lack a leader seem incomprehensible to them – but the issues they raise will not go away.

While these trends may not lead to a dramatic realignment between the right and the left of American politics, they will challenge both America’s parties internally. Social structures which favor individual action over collective action will tend to favor the libertarian wing of the Republican Party over social conservatives. This will cause a slow but dramatic shift in the balance of power on the right.

On the left, the changes will be even more dramatic. The Democratic Party is little more than the client party of public sector unions. It stirs up racial grievance for the purpose of mobilizing ethnic minority votes, but will not actually address issues of concern to minority families. It opposes school choice, for example, because the teaching unions require this.

But unions inherently favor collective action: it is their reason for existence. In the new world of social media, businesses and activist groups have patchy records, but unions have been uniformly awful. It is difficult to see such organizations keeping their iron hold on the Democratic Party in this new world.

By contrast, environmental groups – especially Greenpeace – have been outstanding in their use of social media. It seems likely that environmental groups will grow in their influence on the Democratic Party while public sector unions will lose theirs.

There is, however, an alternative. There is much inertia in the American party system. The main parties are subsidized by the taxpayer and typically take 95% of the presidential vote between them. But the Democrats could end up being challenged on the left by the Greens who are in touch with growing trends while the Democrats are tied to dying sectional interests.

Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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