Reflections on technology and the 2016 elections

Way back in 2008, Off the Bus reporter Mayhill Fowler filed a report on an appearance by Hillary Clinton during that spring’s Democratic primary. The piece opens with a quote: “‘Being here this morning is a gift,’ Hillary Clinton says to the small band of supporters, several hundred strong, gathered under the Saturday morning sun at Good Will Fire Company No. 2, Station 52 in West Chester, Pennsylvania.” Fowler continues,

The Senator is late for her first event of the day; her voice is hoarse. But like the day she is bright and calm. Gone are the faux smiles and waves, the slight brittleness, that have been part of her stage entrance so many times on the campaign trail. Being here this morning is a gift are the first words out of her mouth. It’s clear she means it. This is the perception of an older woman, one who has watched friends and family pass on, who has wondered why they and not she, who has had to settle for answers not on the great philosophies but on the simple things. A new morning as gift–there isn’t a wise woman in the world who doesn’t share Hillary Clinton’s feeling. But that a presidential candidate would choose such an opening remark four days out from a primary that looks to be ‘the one’ is extraordinary. For the remark and its tenor show that Hillary Clinton has been digging deep within herself, asking herself some hard questions.  But it’s too late.

What I love about Fowler’s essay, why I remember it all these years later, is the beautiful rendering of the lived details of the moment, in a way that captures something essential about politics. Fowler leaned towards Obama, but in noting the depth of “Being here this morning is a gift,” she writes as someone who identifies with Hillary – “there isn’t a wise woman in the world who doesn’t share Hillary Clinton’s feeling” –  and uses her identification, her shared experience, to express something key about the moment, about Hillary, about politics. The essay goes on to discuss Hillary’s unique ability to communicate policy issues in plain language to connect with the voters of Pennsylvania, as well as the awkward attempts at mudslinging against her opponent. Read in its entirety, the piece helps me understand why Hillary Clinton won Nevada three weeks ago, and why she lost Michigan last week.

What Fowler accomplished in her essay was not simple or easy. But I think without careful explorations of feelings like hers, we will never understand the role of technology in politics.

I was reminded of Fowler’s piece after reading Clay Shirky’s bravura commentary on the 2016 primaries, in the form of fifty tweets about how “social media has broken the ability of elites to determine the boundaries of acceptable conversation.” As smart as it was, there seemed to me something lacking in Shirky’s treatise. At first I thought of some of the details missed: in the long view, Trump’s rise owes less to social media than to the old tech of talk radio; and the aftereffects of the 2008 economic collapse, the bank bailouts and so on, are at least as important as anything technological in this election cycle. But it’s not just about piling more factors into the analysis. There’s a problem with how Shirky imagines technology.

Shirky tells a story in which the steady march of new technologies (cable, the web, social media) exploited by renegade candidates (Ross Perot, Howard Dean, Barack Obama) gradually undermined the American political parties’ capacity to set the boundaries of debate as they had in the days of network television, to the point that now, with the rise of Trump and Sanders, the parties have lost their coherence. It’s wonderfully terse: “Perot adopted non-centrist media, Dean distributed fundraising, Obama non-party voter mobilization.” That’s twenty years of political drama, a compelling, gripping narrative arc, in eleven words.

And of course technology does matter. It has been obvious ever since the Dean campaign that the simple math of internet powered small donations offered a significant alternative to traditional high dollar bundling, and to the political commitments that such bundling entailed. Bernie’s small-donor powered fundraising would have been inconceivable on a national scale before the spread of the internet. The mainstream media’s historical power to exclude non-centrist candidates with self-fulfilling prophecies about electability had repeatedly presented an insurmountable barrier to the likes of Jesse Jackson and Ron Paul, and to Howard Dean in the last month of his campaign. The fact that, in this cycle, both Trump and Sanders have been able push through that barrier cannot be explained without reference to voters’ capacities to find alternate narratives on social media platforms.

But that’s not the whole story. People like to say that nobody predicted this election, but back in 2013, Nicco Mele, who had cut his political teeth as webmaster for Howard Dean’s campaign, said, “The primary lesson of the last four cycles, maybe five cycles, is that the advantages of the establishment are greatly diminished, perhaps completely obliterated . . . The notion that [Hillary] can coast to front runner status on her history and contributions to the Democratic Party certainly didn’t hold true in 2008, so I don’t see any reason it’ll hold true in 2016. . . . In 2008, 6 million people gave $100 to make Barack Obama president. And those 6 million people made him a household name and no one’s going to do that to Hillary Clinton. And I think that kind of power, people feel it online and respond to it. … Online, smaller donors like to think they created you, that they made you, and no one will be able to feel that way about Hillary.”

If you squint you might think Mele’s prescient observations closely tracked Shirky’s: they both say digital technologies have eroded centralized power bases. But there’s a key difference: Mele knows that giving online is also about a feeling, about the sense that you are actively making your candidate a household name, that “online smaller donors like to think they created you.” Knowledge of a widely shared, specific feeling can only be found through experience. If you only look at bullet-pointed timelines of gadgets and campaigns, you can’t see it. In the 2014 mid-term elections, my email inbox exploded with entreaties from Democratic candidates across the country, begging for money in order to keep the Republicans, with their poisonous policies, from controlling the Senate. Liberals like myself all knew what the Democrats were against, we all agreed with them, but there was no sense of actively being part of the creation of something new. And on balance, the Democrats lost that round. They had not learned the lessons of Dean in ’04 and Obama in ’08, not because they didn’t understand the technology, but because they didn’t understand the feeling.

I don’t want to just sing the praises of intellectual caution, of a rich sense of history, or of narrative journalism. (Jill Lepore recently penned an essay that offers all three, yet her analysis is closer to Shirky’s than than Fowler’s or Mele’s.) And I don’t want to get mystical about complexity or the irreducibility of experience. C. Wright Mills was correct that “a mere enumeration of a plurality of causes is . . .  a paste-pot eclecticism which avoids the real task of social analysis” (Power Elite, 243).

The point is that some grasp of shared, lived experience is necessary (if not sufficient) to any useful judgment about the effects of technology. Too often we imagine technology as a kind of shortcut, an easily identifiable “thing” that solves our dilemmas, political and intellectual. Faced with uncertainty and conflict, we point to some tech, in the hopes that it will dispel the fog of our confusion and assuage our anxieties about our future. It’s not that technology doesn’t matter, but that “technology” or “the internet” or “social media” are not things, they are tangles of accumulated practices and experiences that cannot be understood outside of social context; speaking about them as if they are explanatory, as if they might be the solution, just causes more confusion. (There’s a well developed literature that insists on decentering technology, on breaking it down into specific sets of habits, embodied practices, variegated social relations.[i]) As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton for a time bought into the notion that Twitter could provide a fix to the problems of the Middle East.[ii] The tendency to point to technology as the explanation for our confusions, as the solution to our political dilemmas, is a widespread habit, and for the moment, it’s a habit with problems. It’s too clever by half (like so much of Clintonian thinking: don’t ask don’t tell, financial deregulation). It didn’t work for the Democrats in 2014, it won’t work for us now.

One of the “aha” moments for me about Bernie’s campaign, a moment when I first thought it might really go somewhere, was last July when I heard that Zack Exley signed on as an adviser to Sanders. I knew of Zack because he’d learned some tricks about online fundraising and organizing while working for, and brought them to Dean’s campaign. (We can probably blame Zack for the ubiquitous “ask” that structures fundraising emails.) After the Dean campaign ended in the spring of 2004, many young staffers took their experiences with internet-powered grass roots campaigning into various professional lives, working for other campaigns, creating consulting firms, and the like. Zack did some of that, but what impressed me most is he also spent some time touring the U.S. in a pickup truck, visiting evangelical communities around the country. His blog of the trip, full of stories of face-to-face encounters that turned into astute observations, narrated his growing belief that the American left needed to engage in dialog with the evangelical community, that there were communities out there who might have common cause with the left on economic and environmental issues, commonalities that the left was ignoring. Zack gets his ideas about what’s politically possible, not just from polls or the received wisdoms of the punditocracy or various academic salons, but from sympathetic engagements with ordinary folks from all walks of life. Zack can lay claim to being as much of a technology expert as anyone, but that would mean nothing if he was not also someone who loves small “d” democracy, who is open to the unexpected, someone who thinks hard about others’ feelings for change, others’ passions to have a say in making the future. That’s why, as I write this, he’s out there making history.



[i] Ever since Raymond Williams (The Long Revolution, First Edition edition (S.l.: Chatto & Windus, 1961)). introduced the concept of “structures of feeling,” diverse scholarly literatures have probed the relations of subjectivity, feelings, and affect social structure. Approaches range from Frankfurt school critical theory (Illouz, 2007) to affect theory (e.g., Papacharissi, 2014; Ticineto Clough & Halley, 2007) to questions of authenticity and its ironies (Banet-Weiser, 2012). Eva Illouz, Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism (Polity, 2007). Zizi Papacharissi, Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology, and Politics, 1 edition (Oxford ; New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014). Patricia Ticineto Clough and Jean Halley, eds., The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social (Duke University Press, 2007). Sarah Banet-Weiser, Authentic TM the Politics and Ambivalence in a Brand Culture (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2012).

[ii] Kentaro Toyama, Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology (PublicAffairs, 2015), 35.


This was crossposted on the Social Media Collective blog.