U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Do Changes in Communications Technology Explain the “New Populism”?

In comments on Robin Marie’s recent response to Timothy Minella’s guest post on Tocqueville and Twitter, Cory mentioned Jill Lepore’s recent piece on the new populism and party realignment in The New Yorker.  I hadn’t read the Lepore article yet, but the conversation sparked my interest, so I did.

Lepore attempts to put the rise of populism in this year’s presidential primaries into the history of changing party systems in the United States. And she sees party system change – including the unusual patterns we’re seeing in this primary season — as driven largely by changes in mass-media technologies. Let’s say I’m unconvinced.

At the heart of Lepore’s argument is a breakneck runthrough of the history of American party systems, the font of which was the fight over the ratification of the Constitution. “If it hadn’t been for the all-or-nothing dualism” of the ratificiation fight, Lepore argues, “the United States might well have a multiparty political culture.” But that fight begat Federalist and Anti-Federalist newspapers. And the newspapers begat the first party system.

Every time that political communication underwent a revolution, Lepore argues, “the people” were “pull[ed] away from the elites.”  Cheaper newspapers begat the second-party system in the 1820s and 1830s; illustrations appeared in the press as that system collapsed and the third party system emerged in the 1850s.  In the 1890s,  “the telephone, the Linotype, and halftone printing, technologies that allowed daily newspapers and illustrated magazines, in particular, to carry political news faster, and to more readers, than ever before” and the fourth party system emerged. And so forth.

Which brings us, eventually to this year. “There will not be a revolution,” Lepore confidently proclaims,

but this election might mark the beginning of the seventh party system. The Internet, like all new communications technologies, has contributed to a period of political disequilibrium, one in which, as always, party followers have been revolting against party leaders.

But after fitting the changes we’re going through this year into a pattern nearly as old as the republic, Lepore suddenly expresses concern about what’s going on today. Sure previous communications revolutions simply altered the party system.  But having declared earlier in the piece that we could easily have been a functioning multiparty democracy were it not for the ratification fight, Lepore now pulls V.O. Key off the shelf and proclaims the absolute importance of a stable party system.

And for once, we may be facing not a change in the party system but its elimination, because the media itself is now under threat:

The American party system is not only a creation of the press; it is dependent on it. It is currently fashionable, indispensable, even, to malign the press, whether liberal or conservative. . . .  But when the press is in the throes of change, so is the party system. And the national weal had better watch out. It’s unlikely, but not impossible, that the accelerating and atomizing forces of this latest communications revolution will bring about the end of the party system and the beginning of a new and wobblier political institution.

This all strikes me as an extraordinarily navel-gazy position for a staff writer for The New Yorker to take.[1] Yes, changes in communications technology have a profound effect on our politics. But the issue of slavery was far more important in the collapse of the second party system than the rise of newspaper illustrations (though those illustrations certainly affected readers’ senses of the issue of slavery).  The rise of radio, the arrival of the modern, mass mediated presidential campaign, and the creation of the Gallup poll certainly affected the emergence of what scholars call the fifth party system in 1932.  But the Great Depression was pretty important, too.

And this is ultimately what I find frustrating about Lepore’s piece.  Populism, she suggests, is a side effect of changes in communication’s technology. It’s not about the wrenching economic changes the country underwent in the Gilded Age, the social dislocations of the Great Depression, or the economic facts that underlie the growing sense among many Americans today that our economy and our political system are only serving a tiny elite.[2]  It’s just that too many of us are on Twitter and not enough of us are reading magazines like The New Yorker.

[1] Lepore is of course also a scholar and the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard.

[2] Maybe Lepore’s position as the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard is relevant here, after all.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. So, it’s like crude Marxism, except the base isn’t the relations of production but the means of communication. Weird.

  2. If you buy into the thesis of Robert Gordon’s book the Rise and Fall of American Growth, it isn’t new communications technology that explains the current political situation. What we’re suffering from is the absence of economically significant innovation. People talk about disruptive technologies but nothing is on hand remotely comparable to the advent of indoor plumbing, the automobile, or electric power. Even the dynamism contributed by the dot.com revolution of the 90s has dissipated. The general disgruntlement with the traditional parties is a reaction to economic stagnation, not a consequence of Twitter. Folks who work in the media naturally overestimate its importance. The big fact, though, is a dog that is not barking.

  3. I assumed that Jill Lepore’s “political communication” article supplemented New Yorker Twitter and Facebook site promotions of inaugural New Yorker Presents television episodes (I haven’t watched the series yet via Amazon Instant). I’ll think more on your post!

    • I emphasize supplemented.
      Also: I reread the Lepore article, and she opts for “obviously driven by ideological movements, by the emergence of new economic issues and circumstances, and, especially, by changes in the electorate” and “also influenced by novel forms of political communication.” I inferred that she argues for myriad factors (facilitators?), but privileges “political communication.” She additionally distinguishes among various “drive[rs],” but does not highlight the possibility of mutual inclusion and mutual exclusion in “influence.”

  4. Agree with Cory, the communications industry now reaches many in short bits of video or blurbs. How these will along with economic and social changes may realign the public in different groups. Certainly a quick tour through partydom and the means by which the electorate got information. That the current status is to call both Trump and Sanders Populists seems to mean both are like many citizens seem upset with the status quo. But they are not a “party” will be fun to see how things turn out. I am sure professor Lepore will enjoy watching, whatever happens. Forecasting is for pollers.

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