The Coming Political Disruption

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Noting that the U.S. “is entering an era of great political disruption, a bottom-up revolution on the scale of what upended the music, television, movie, media, and retail industries,” National Journal’s Ron Fournier has a few questions: “How soon until we stop settling for an inferior product in Washington and at statehouses? When do we demand more and better from the Democratic and Republican parties — or create new political organizations that usurp the old?”

What I think Fournier is mostly getting at here is that this “bottom-up revolution” will lead to disruption at the top level — the proliferation of third-party candidates, etc. But I’m more interested in the corollary he hints at: The fact that it is unrealistic to think the guy who manages his bank account on his iPhone, orders a car via Uber, buys tickets to a baseball game on StubHub and on the way trades some stock — will view government as passively as his grandfather. Nor should he. Eventually, he will expect the same convenience, efficiency and user-friendly interaction from his local DMV and post office (or better yet, use Stamps.com or Fed-Ex).

The dirty secret is that, right now, neither conservatives nor liberals have much interest in making government more efficient. Conservatives have a philosophical opposition to it, and, ironically, liberals see it as a political challenge: Creative destruction inevitably produces some losers — and their coalition of union workers and incompetent bureaucrats is contingent on maintaining the status quo.

But something’s gotta give. As Fournier suggests, at some point, the public simply will not tolerate the government being so much less efficient than every other aspect of life. Perhaps that will mean that third-party candidates will catch on, or even that one of the major two parties will disappear. Perhaps a more optimistic and salutary notion would be for Republicans and Democrats to be forced to actually compete for our votes — to serve us better (no, I am not advocating a purely technocratic form of politics where philosophy and values are out the window — nor am I a supporter of direct Democracy. I’m no tech-utopian, nor am I a Luddite. As Mayor Laguardia used to say, “There is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage”).

Now, conservatives are often correct when they say that private enterprise and free markets can often do the best job. We see this with companies like Uber replacing taxi cabs by providing a superior product. This wouldn’t have been possible before iPhone apps. But not everything can be, or should be, completely privatized. In some cases, technology is empowering us to make informal public-private partnerships. Take, for example, Code for America’s “Adopt-a-Hydrant” app which “allows citizens to claim responsibility for shoveling out fire hydrants after heavy snowfall.”

Other things, such as law enforcement, prisons, national defense, border security, etc. can be made more effective by utilizing technology which will empower citizens to help the government — but also, to hold them more accountable to us. The trend of putting cameras on police officers is a prime example of this. On one hand, it’s utterly Orwellian; on the other hand, it increases transparency and accountability.

We’ve come full circle as a society. In the old days, you knew everyone in town — including the local police officer working the beat. You were thus responsible to the community. Then, urbanization kicked in, and we fled our towns and villages and became anonymous. This was freeing and liberating in some ways, but it also gave birth to all sorts of negative behavior. Today, when I get in an Uber, I know who the driver is, and he knows who I am. We both rate each other, and thus, we both have a stake in preserving our reputation. This is utterly unlike the experience you have in a taxi cab, and perhaps it’s no surprise you get better service.

Maybe some day you will rate every interaction with a cop?

Matt K. Lewis