Back in the day the only way to get your message across as a politician used to be traveling around the country, getting out on the hustings and talking to people. In London there are ‘Speakers Corners’ dating back to the 19th century where people could come to speak and debate.
Beginning around the 1980’s we saw the emergence of a new kind of politics that was increasingly dominated by two emerging and interwined factors - money and media. During this time political leaders have got very good at using the media and controlling the message they want to send to the voters.
In some countries political leaders chose to own and/or control the media to guarantee that they only say the right things about them and their party. Most countries haven’t been quite so blatant. But in all cases politicians have a wealth of resources to ensure communications are carefully shaped with the appropriate amount of spin to present their party in the most favorable light. Getting the media on side has become central to political success.
During elections candidates also raise an ever increasing amount of money to fund advertising campaigns and other marketing activities. This is especially true in the US where there are no limits on how much money individuals or corporations can contribute.
All of this gives politics a lack of transparency. Everywhere you look there are conflicts of interest. You can never fully trust it. You wonder what you can believe. You also wonder what all these donors want in return. It just doesn’t feel very democratic.
Over the last few years this media and money dominated brand politics has reached new heights (or should that be depths?). Never has people’s opinion and trust in politicians been as low as it is today.
But I think we are now beginning to see a backlash - politics is being disrupted and the catalyst for this is the Internet.
It feels like for years there has been a growing, pent up demand for something more honest and more direct in politics. You can tell that just by talking to people. I think the Internet has provided the tools to fulfill this demand. It strips away the layers and enables more transparency.
Politicians no longer need to be so dependent on big donations from organizations and wealthy donors. They can use the Internet and email to generate vast numbers of small donations. They can also use social media to communicate more directly with huge numbers of people virtually for free.
In the same way, we can now challenge politicians like never before. Thousands of people can be assembled around a certain cause in a matter of minutes. There’s really nowhere to hide.
Politicians used to have to gain experience and build up a base of support over many years. This is also being turned on its head. Outsiders can now come into politics and raise their profiles very quickly.
Donald Trump is probably the best example of this. Trump has 7.5m followers on Twitter - that’s about the population of New York. For most people (including myself) the thought of Donald Trump in the White House is horrifying and we are shocked that he has managed to get so far. Clearly the ability to rise so quickly to prominence does have its risks. It may mean that the candidate has not had the time to acquire the necessary skills and experience; that they are superficial in their appeal.
But I believe the broader trend is a really positive one. When you go through periods of intense change there will always be opportunists who exploit it in the wrong way and give the doubters the evidence they need to resist.
Politics is being disrupted by the Internet in a way that has happened to almost all industries. I think it has taken longer in politics because of how entrenched the established political parties are (usually as a duopoly) and also because of the ‘...we’ll give you money and you then you help us to make even more money’ self-serving cycle in politics.
But the walls are coming down. The Internet massively reduces the entry costs and, in doing so, changes the game. You can build a brand, raise money and communicate with people at scale and without prohibitive costs. But you’ll only be successful if you develop an authentic ‘voice’ that is what people want and expect now. A voice that is more open, more direct and more transparent.
I think we’ll see more and more ‘challenger candidates’ and even ‘challenger parties’ emerge over the coming years in lots of different countries. Politicians who are not constrained by the past and who are able to take advantage of this new environment. I’m looking forward to seeing it and believe it will be good for us, the voters.
You could say that the Internet is like a global network of speakers corners, and with that politics is being returned to the people and that has to be a good thing.