Washington’s political class fundamentally misunderstands the role of politics and government in American society. They act as if government is the central force in American life and that its decisions guide the course of the nation. In historical reality, societal trends embrace new technology and the deep currents of public opinion lead the way. Government follows along a decade or two behind.
A quick review of our nation’s history shows that the first 200 years were characterized by changing technology and expectations moving us to a more centralized nation.
In the transportation realm, we moved from horses to canals to railroads during the 19th century. Then things really took off in the 20th century with the introduction of cars and planes.
Communications saw a similar pattern. When the country was founded, the fastest way to send a message was to find the fastest horse. Then, during the 1840s, the amazing technological breakthrough of the telegraph allowed people to communicate almost instantly. It’s hard for us today to appreciate the significance of that change and before people got used to it, the telephone changed everything once again.
By the 1960s and ’70s, centralization of communications was as powerful as it has ever been. There were just three national television networks, and they attracted 90 percent of the TV audience. Those same networks provided news for radio as well. In print, the Associated Press and United Press International provided just about all the national and international news read by the American public.
The trend towards centralization was everywhere. Rather than small businesses serving a local community, big corporations made their appearance. Oil, steel and railroad companies operated on a scale never before seen. The Sears catalog became a fixture in millions of homes and trains delivered the exact same products on the exact same terms to millions of distant households.
Government, of course, played a role in all of this. Sometimes it helped move things forward, and sometimes it was an obstacle to progress. But government never drove the process. Society changed and government adapted.
As society became more centralized, so did the government. Politicians were happy to ride the wave of societal trends as it brought them more power and money.
But the trends changed starting in the 1970s with the launch of cable television networks. That gave individuals more choices in the 1980s, and the Internet expanded those choices in the 1990s. Now we’ve reached a level of personalization powered by more than 100 million smartphones. The culture of individual choice and customization is so strong that no two of these smartphones are alike. We have different apps, music and more.
Over the past 30 years, as society has moved away from centralization, the political class has resisted. Government has grown ever more centralized. In fact, the federal government today directly controls a far larger chunk of the nation’s economy than it did just a generation or two ago.
That disconnect exists partly because politics and government always lag behind. It’s also partly because politicians are not thrilled with riding the new wave that disperses power away from the political class.
The disconnect cannot continue. Sooner or later, the politicians will concede and the government will catch up.
Simply put, a one-size-fits-all central government cannot survive in the iPad era.