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What Will the Disruption of Politics Look Like?

By Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin -- March 2015


Take just one moment and think about the word disruption. How do you feel about disruption? Do you have a positive or negative response when you contemplate disruption?


Some people will realize their reaction to disruption is very negative. These are more likely to be people who have something to lose – a job that offers a steady income, a life that provides purpose or at least order – and disruption means they could lose these positive aspects of their life. Many people may be neutral toward disruption, but those who have a negative view may be surprised to know that disruption is a very positive concept for some people.


Among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and other tech center venture capitalists, disruption is the goal that can justify companies and unlock riches. This has spread to Wall Street where for nearly two decades stock pickers have been rewarding companies that threaten to disrupt established industries.


Disruption is certainly a positive concept among the attendees at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, TX (aka SXSW) we have just attended. For the mostly younger, well-educated techies clustered around every wall socket charging their devices, disruption means opportunity.


We all know at least some of the disruption stories so celebrated by believers in the new economy. You do not have to be old enough to remember when Eastern, Pan Am, and TWA ruled the skies and “Ma Bell” was the telephone company, to know that the news and music industries have been totally disrupted by online media, manufacturing is threatened by 3D printing, and the taxi industry is currently being disrupted by Uber and Lyft. From law to finance; from education to medicine; no profession is safe from a coming wave of disruption.


Disruption is Inevitable:


This is the real truth about disruption: whether you see it as positive or negative, disruption is nonetheless our inevitable future. And if this is true in business and the professions, it is almost certainly as inevitable in our national politics. You can see evidence of the disruption all around us today, with the decline of the political party structures and the rise of crowdfunding, the Super-PACs, and billion dollar donors. All of this is now funding campaigns that are using every new form of social media to get the message out and big-data analysis to micro-target their Get-Out-The-Vote campaigns.


But disruption does not stand still. It tends to gather momentum, and we suspect we are due for a shift on a grander scale than, say, state-of-the-art Obama 2012. If not by 2016, then surely by 2020, we can foresee a disruption of politics that is unimaginable from today’s vantage point. Sorry, but we are not going to drop a billion dollar idea in the next sentence. We do not know what the next paradigm shift will bring, and we may not even recognize it while it is happening, but we expect that by the time we are looking back on the 2016 or 2020 races we will see that something very large in the way campaigns are financed, how they connect and interact with voters, the messages they deliver, or the promise of a more direct form of democracy will have changed politics as we know it today.


One of the highlights of our visit to last year’s 2014 South by Southwest festival was a panel that celebrated the big blue data machine that upset the established Hillary Clinton versus John McCain order and elected Barack Obama in 2008 and then re-elected him again in 2012. The digital strategists from those campaigns (now managing new start-ups or working for global public relations and advertising corporations) explained what a billion dollars buys in really big (every voter in America) data sets and all-channel communications. The presentations were enough to boost confidence that the Democrats had opened up a durable advantage on data driven campaign tactics but after a massively disappointing 2014 election for Democrats, our confidence could be a bit shaken.


To be sure, blaming the big data and new media gurus for the results of 2014 is a bit like blaming inadequate bilge pumps for the sinking of the Titanic, there were far larger forces at play. It is one thing to utilize new message channels and precisely target the messages going through them, but if no one is listening and you have too little to say, the results are likely to disappoint. There is a tendency to focus on the technologies when observing the passage of time rather that the ideas the technologies allow. It is the ideas, however, that are transformational.


Ready to Try Anything and Everything


Whether or not they have a big idea, the mostly still unannounced presidential campaigns are focusing on the latest technologies. In a fragmenting media landscape, there are new communication channels emerging weekly to reach our mobile phones. Campaigns seem to be convinced they must employ all of them. So Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, and Rand Paul have all taken to Snapchat.


While we were in Austin for SXSW, Meerkat continuous online streaming was the subject of conversation, and already Martin O’Malley, Jeb Bush and Rand Paul have used the application, but in the week that followed, Twitter announced Periscope, another online video streaming program that is likely to be far more popular. Some lawmakers are already experimenting with using Periscope to talk about net neutrality and the federal budget.


But the real question is not what social networks, chat, and video service candidates employ, but what new ideas, and ways of funding their campaigns and expressing ideas emerge from the many technologies. This, more than the latest trending mobile application, holds a greater potential to upset the established political order in this presidential cycle or the next one.


Which Candidates Are Most Burdened by Legacy?


Even if we do not know the exact form of the next political paradigm shift, we can still gain perspective by looking at the current field of presidential contenders and ask who looks most likely to gain or lose from a major shift in the landscape. There is a pejorative term that is widely used by those who worship disruption to describe the newly struggling existing order. The term is “legacy” and there is one leading candidate for president that far and away most embodies the concept – enough to make the conventional wisdom about a Hillary Clinton versus Jeb Bush contest seem exceedingly unlikely.


Try this exercise: list what is top of mind about each major candidate that is old and new about their appeal. There may be many things about Hillary Clinton in the “old” column, but these are more than offset by the opportunity she offers to elect the first woman president of the United States. On the other hand, Jeb Bush would be the second son of a white male president to be elected to the office of president. He would carry the legacy of economic policies that tanked the economy, and an interventionist foreign policy that has completely destabilized the middle-East.


It is a false equivalence to view Clinton and Bush as a battle of two political dynasties. Jeb Bush may be smarter than his brother, but he is the pure legacy candidate in the race. The same cannot be said of the first woman with the experience to be a legitimate occupant of the White House, who happens to be married to a popular ex-president who grew the economy and replaced the budget deficit with a surplus.


You can do your own legacy vs. disruptor handicapping among the other announced and unannounced candidates for president. On the Democratic side, clearly Martin O’Malley has signaled a desire to assume the disruptor role by casting Hillary Clinton as burdened by legacy. O’Malley would likely advance Democratic goals through a modern data driven approach to politics, policy and technology.


While Elizabeth Warren is adamant that she is not a 2016 candidate, she wears the disruptor label very well, especially in her approach to economic policy. Warren’s top senate campaign staffers presented at the SXSW Interactive Festival in 2014, making a strong case that the campaign had found a sweet-spot mix of high technology while being very personal in the appeal.


The much discussed split within the Republican Party between the “Establishment” wing and the “Tea Party” wing is interesting in that it is a bit unclear who is disrupting whom. Senator Ted Cruz is perhaps most associated with the Tea Party wing in his support of conservative social values while disrupting pro-business orthodoxy in the establishment wing of the party by railing “against crony capitalism.” It is the establishment wing that argues the party has to change in order to appeal to Hispanic Americans, younger voters and women who have been turned off by antagonistic GOP positions on immigration and social issues while supporting Wall Street and traditional corporate interests.


Scott Walker will try to make the case that he’s the biggest GOP disrupter for having survived his attack on the core Democratic legacy of public employee pensions. Rand Paul timed a visit to Austin during the 2015 SXSW with the announcement that he was opening an office to be headed by veterans of Ted Cruz’s Senate campaign. Paul had seemed the most fit for the world of tomorrow in terms of youth appeal and tech savvy, but his latest attempts to be appealing to socially conservative “values voters” may tarnish that libertarian brand.


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