Time To Take a Silicon Valley Hammer To the Two-Party Duopoly
This year settles it: The two-party system in American politics is ripe for radical, burn-it-down, Internet-fueled disruption.
The two parties might have been the towering sequoias of the U.S. political system, but they now stand dead and hollow. The 2016 presidential nominating process has been like one of those disastrous alpine blowdowns—a freak storm that leaves millions of trees worth of tinder-dry kindling wood on the forest floor, just waiting for a hot, dry wind and a spark.
“Is this the best America can do?” and “Who’s got a match?”
Fuel the burn
But how? How do you burn down a system with a 160-year-old stranglehold on our body politic?
I believe it’s time to adopt the approach of America’s favorite societal pyromaniacs: the technologists and venture investors of Silicon Valley. We need to take their strategies and tactics for disrupting and dismantling ossified industries and put them to work to eviscerate the two party system.
In dead earnestness, it’s time for the party in the cloud—a citizens’ political party-as-a-service. A 21st-century fast, agile digital movement built on the foundation of a powerful social web organization and communication platform. Not a party of insiders or elites. A party that lets the idiot fringe be the idiot fringe on both the left and right, and instead seeks to serve the citizens in the middle.
In fact, let’s just call it the Citizens’ Party.
As venture capitalist Hank Vigil of Seattle-based Acequia Ventures said after a long discussion where I first broached the subject to him, “I think what you’re talking about is creating some kind of technological infrastructure that forms a kernel capable of attracting talent to create the swarm dynamics that overwhelm the traditional model.”
Yes, Hank. Yes. That is exactly what I’m talking about.
“Swarm dynamics.” That’s a phrase nobody in politics has ever said. Swarm dynamics that allow us drones to gather together to batter down state and federal election law barriers to entry, and bring candidates and policies to the fore that actually represent mainstream American thinking, and burn those two big old dead trees right down to their jet-black stumps in plenty of time for November, 2020.
I want us to come together to build this Citizens’ Party to enable the broad range of Americans who fall under the fat part of the bell curve in our political thinking and attitudes—those of us who find the Democrats’ socialism-fueled platform as repugnant as we find the Republicans’ nativist one—to identify and nurture candidates and raise funds and build organizations that reflect our non-outlier beliefs about how our country should work.
I want Americans who believe in getting along with other Americans—who still think that we’re all on the same team and that we’ve got to find a way to pull together rather than beat the snot out of each other—to self-organize in a way that is vastly more powerful and transparent and user-friendly and effective than are the two doddering, self-absorbed almost-bi-centenarian incumbent parties.
I want those of us who find the byzantine, arcane presidential caucus/primary/delegate nomination system to be mindlessly archaic and broken to go and do something about it. Something big and muscular and bristling with a healthy preference for economic prosperity and innovation and tolerance and a sense of shared purpose and destiny—the stuff that truly does make America exceptional.
If we’re going to disrupt this market for political leadership—the market the two parties collude to control in a way no Justice Department would ever allow in any other context—we’re going to need to bring expertise from the technology, political, policy, legal, communications, and fundraising industries and communities into the swarm and make them all buzz together.
It will require us to develop and follow a roadmap and methodology that Silicon Valley has used to astonishing effect to disrupt the status quo and steamroll complacent, lazy, irredeemably customer-hostile competition in dozens and dozens of industries before this one.
And when it happens, and it can happen, this disruption’s going to be vastly more satisfying. Because it won’t be done for profit or for self-aggrandizement. It will be done for our kids and each other—the same reasons the best Americans have always come together to accomplish hard things.
The Two-Party Disconnect
21st century America is a place where consumer things increasingly just work. Any physical good that exists can be on our front porches 48 hours from now. Unimaginable entertainment and social options are available to us anywhere, anytime with a few taps of the magic screens in our pockets. The world we live in, whether we’re average Josephines or one percenters, has been utterly transformed by information and connectivity, and now new information-based tools and business models are even starting to reform broken sectors that everybody needs like education and healthcare.
All that re-engineering and systemic improvement comes to us from organizations—new ones in most cases, reinvented older ones in some—that grasp the technological zeitgeist and ride it in order to serve our (and thereby, their) needs.
Except in one consumer market—that for political leadership. In that market, American consumers would like to find some honest men and women who appeal to a broad majority of us, who understand the dynamism of the world we live in and the technology that’s reshaping it, and who are guided by some stomach-calming personal qualities like honesty, hard work, common sense, thrift, courage, respect, kindness, and maybe most of all, the ability to seek and find common ground.
And what do we get when we try to order that for our national front porch?
We get Donald F. Trump and Hillary F. Clinton. That’s what.
Built to Last… 160 years?
One reason why the political services market is so broken is the wildly geriatric age of the organizations serving it. The younger of the two, the “Grand Old Party,” is 162 years old.
Quick: Name every phenomenal customer-oriented company you do business with that’s 160 years old. I’ll wait.
It’s also because the two parties have built their own gigantic regulatory barriers to entry inside an electoral-law system of their own molding. And because members of the two organizations themselves legislatively man the self-designed barricades, they’ve been able to repel all attempts to compete with them for almost two centuries.
Imagine if you were Jeff Bezos, circa 1994, and every member of every state legislature and Congress was named “Barnes” or “Noble.” Think you’d have a clear runway to building your category-killing company?
But it’s even worse than that, because Barnes & Noble used to run some pretty good bookstores. The two political parties are taking the technological tools that every other kind of consumer organization has used to make and deliver products and services that appeal to the fat center of the American consumer psyche and are instead using them to design products—candidates and policy platforms, in their case—that appeal to the most extreme tastes of their most extreme consumers.
It’s like going online to order a boxed set of all the James Bond movies and then receiving snuff porn videos. Over and over again.
Enough. It’s time for our national Hulkamania moment, where the blows to our collective head from the fists of the two-party system stop concussing us and instead start building that crazy, wide-eyed intensity (in the two-thirds of us that don’t find blind loyalty to extreme political ideologies to our liking, anyway) that can enable us to rip our shirts off and pound the hell out of our Republican and Democrat tormentors.
And maybe actually find some leadership that can pull us forward from the center instead of pulling us apart from the extremes.
I’m not suggesting somehow that Silicon Valley can save our political system. It’s clear that there’s broad disagreement as to whether the technology industry is America's most powerful engine for economic growth and vitality or whether alternatively it's some kind of vampiric middle class woodchipper.
But who cares, in this case? We’re watching a large cabal of party insiders on both sides carry out an ongoing 17-decade theft of America’s political patrimony. The Valley’s denizens (and related digital forest-dwellers in Seattle, Boulder, Austin, Reston, and elsewhere, lumped for simplicity's sake under the “Valley” umbrella) have a burning urge to innovate and a strong experiential knowledge set about how to disrupt huge existing industries.
What I’m suggesting is that the Valley has an approach, a kind of rough algorithm, for the way its ecosystem attacks and has successfully disrupted enormous markets/problems/opportunities over the past 30 years. This “Valley Way,” not surprisingly, isn’t uniform or codified, and of course often fails. But there’s a discernible pattern to how it’s gone about its successful work, particularly when invading an information-driven industry like politics.
If I were to give you my outside observer’s take on that algorithm for building revolutionary and disruptive organizations from scratch, I’d identify ten core elements in the process:
1) Start with knowledge of the full technological stack—the available tool kit—and what existing participants in the marketplace are doing with it already.
This is table stakes. You can’t use information and technology as your disruption engine if you don’t understand how the engine works. And of course you don’t want to spin your wheels disrupting a market that’s already been disrupted. So you come to the fight armed and aware. And the political market hasn’t yet been disrupted — not in the Valley sense, anyway. It’s been co-opted by some ill-intentioned mountebanks, but it hasn’t been disrupted.
2) Identify high-energy, high-achieving, highly intelligent, aggressive, inquisitive and hard-working individuals, and organize them into two- or three-person insurgent teams.
The single greatest determinant of success in the Valley, you’ll hear so many times when talking to people there that you’ll come to see it as gospel, is the quality of the entrepreneur and his or her founding team. It’s the sine qua non of disruption.
3) Encourage those teams to identify huge commercial and societal problems and dysfunctions, and to seek out and break down the root causes of said dysfunctions.
At its best, the Valley doesn’t create small companies that offer niche improvements to existing products or business models; instead, it creates wildly different approaches to serving huge existing categories. (Online retail vs. 6,300 physical Wal-Mart stores, Uber vs. unreliable, corruptly-regulated taxi companies, iTunes vs. Tower Records, etc.)
4) Pool capital to back the teams to identify and create small technologically-driven demonstration footholds while identifying plausible product and service roadmaps for the climb ahead.
Valley entrepreneurial teams can get a few hundred thousand to a few million dollars to start work on a big problem and to begin to try to craft a business model solution to it. They aim for “minimum viable product” to get into the game, knowing that they’ve got to start somewhere.
5) Attack the climb. Test the footholds and either keep climbing or pivot in search of better footholds.
Valley VCs don’t expect a complete, elegant solution to be laid on their desk pre-funding. They expect early investments to be used to design small-scale, testable models that allow further exploration and/or route correction.
6) When successful approaches become apparent, slam the accelerator to the floor and aggressively pour human, financial, and technological resources at the opening.
The whiff of successful progress inevitably brings the need (and usually the abundant supply) of new capital to exploit the opening like Hun invaders pouring through a breach in a walled city’s fortifications.
7) Reach for alliances, partnerships, expertise and more capital to build scale quickly.
Dominating and disruptive new companies almost always seek to achieve the power and efficiencies that scale brings, and they want and need to achieve it before existing providers can effectively fight back. The power players in the venture capital business are masters at giving their rising young companies this form of organizational superfood.
8) Provide real value to build a community of fervent followers, and foster the virality of your offerings.
When a new model is succeeding and the fledgling company is providing something to a growing number of customers that’s exponentially better than what they’ve gotten before (think of the evangelistic fervor of Apple users), find ways to help those customers join the battle and recruit other new converts as quickly as possible.
9) Use scale, momentum and community to batter down barriers to entry and regulatory doors.
Not to beat the Uber drum, but they and Airbnb are probably the two best examples of companies that have used their true-believer customers to help overwhelm local authorities trying to keep incumbent providers safe from brutal new competition.
10) Fail fast, intensively collect data on what works and doesn’t, and iterate, iterate, iterate to magnify success.
Traditional corporate brands innovate slowly and with overweening caution lest some misstep “damage” their standing with their customers. Valley disruptors tend to move products quickly to market and use intensive feedback and a strong measure of transparency and communication to ask forgiveness rather than permission from their users. And then they repeat the cycle as quickly as possible.
The most difficult element for the Citizens’ Party effort? The political entrepreneurs. It’s not a for-profit game, so that obvious Valley motivation is off the table. (But if you believe the accounts of what motivates millennial entrepreneurs, it’s about “making a difference” more than it is about their bank accounts—so there’s hope.)
Big Problems and Total Addressable Markets
The Valley likes to attack Big Problems. Healthcare’s the darling there right now, not surprisingly. And the Valley also likes big TAMS—total addressable markets.
This one (American politics) serves, directly or indirectly, 320 million people. Its successful outputs directly control more than a third of the US GDP. Eighty percent of those 320 million people think the top level of that stack—the federal government—is badly broken. Sixty percent of voters, meanwhile, think the direct output of the two party duopoly sucks.
So check and check.
Product and Service Roadmap
Mapping out a prospective path for how your company gets from an un-air conditioned class C office building to Destroyer of Industries is a critical step in the creation of any revolutionary enterprise. That’s what a product and service roadmap does.
While it’s not certain what a smart, informed, motivated team would come up with for the Citizens’ Party, certain elements of what it needs to create and offer are clear:
• Form of organization. It’s a real political party. Not in the Iowa first, New Hampshire second, blind loyalty third kind of old-fashioned political party. But the Citizens’ Party is also definitively not some feel-good, can’t-we-all-get-along non-profit, either. We’re talking about an honest to goodness 26 USC Section 527 political organization. Just like the two dead sequoias. Play to win.
• Technology platform. The cloud computing and software-as-a-service references are just technology model starting points. There’s no illusion that a group of coders are going to stand up a competitive political party. But if we’re designing a 21st century political organization around 21st century technologies in order to dominate a 21st century societal landscape, it’s quite likely that what we create will have its foundation in a sophisticated digital platform. The party will likely have an approach that moves from the physical, linear, proximity-based world we’ve lived in—with precinct walkers and door knockers and phone banks—to one that is anchored in our modern virtual reality. (Does anyone you know who’s younger than your grandmother like or appreciate having their door knocked on by a creepy political volunteer?)
• Ideology and policy development. Here’s a radical thought: Maybe the Citizens’ Party should, by definition, stand for what the center 60% of Americans stand for. Rather than the “I’m a Republican but….” or “I consider myself a Democrat except for…”-style excuse-making, maybe the ideology just flows from, and wraps around, the participants. It could center on a methodology to produce candidates who reflect the will of voters—and it could also help place priority on the perception of being able to build a consensus around reforming a horribly broken government. That means the party needs to provide aggregation and analytics on the core values, beliefs, and emerging opinions of the 60 percent. The party is a two-way market enabler, where its users provide information about their needs and preferences and candidates provide information right back about their policy approaches and personal insights, seeking a match.
• Fundraising. No illusions. Money makes the political world go ‘round in exactly the same way it does the business world. Star fundraisers in a new technologically-centered party architecture might look exactly like they do in the duopoly—or they might look more like YouTube or Twitter stars—individuals whose content or analysis or informed commentary make them emerging authorities on emerging candidates. But lest you think that disruptive digital organizations can’t come to play with the big boys, Apple is the 9th largest revenue company in the world, and Amazon is 44th after just two decades in business, and growing at one of the fastest organic rates in the Fortune 500. If the Citizens’ Party punches start landing, money will flow like blood from an MMA fighter’s nose.
• People/volunteers. The Republican and Democratic parties still don’t have high-functioning digital hubs, and what technological expertise there is tends to reside in individual campaigns. A disruptive party will put the technology builds at the center of its agenda always, with no greater focus than in its ability to find and organize human resources—both volunteer and staff—for its candidates and campaigns. Making technology available to all its candidates could also put the focus on issues and personal qualities and capabilities rather than on who can build the best data shop.
• Legal. No illusions here, either. If you think Uber or Napster or 23 and Me have faced huge legal and regulatory obstacles, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The two parties will wage wild-eyed state-house-to-state-house jihad against any prospectively powerful and disruptive new force in the political market. The Citizens’ Party will need the same hardball mobilization and legal skills demonstrated by the likes of Uber to get its users to help overturn the duopoly’s barricades.
• Nominating process. Transparency to see through to clearly defined nominating processes are critical. The ridiculous complexity and non-standardization of the duopoly’s nominating processes are, as they say in the software business, a feature not a bug—designed to repel all but members of the parties’ inner priesthood from seeking or controlling access to power. Further, those processes aren’t designed to produce the best choices. They’re an amalgam of tradition, ego, greed, and band aids.
Economists would say that the selection of a political leader in a democratically-advised republic like ours is a kind of market, but since there are no exchanges of value and no prices, it’s what’s known as a matching market. The members of one group—voters—need to match themselves with members of another group —candidates— to get the leadership services they seek.
I’m not a market design expert, but I’m smart enough to know you’d go recruit someone like the god of smart market design economists, Stanford’s Nobel laureate Alvin Roth, who’s designed marketplaces to match everything from organ donations to medical resident fellowship placements, to help the party figure out what a 21st century political matching market ought to look like. Those designs will no doubt be oriented toward making the nominating process—the party’s “marketplace”—fair, orderly, and ultimately worthy of consumer trust.
At the presidential level, it would be easy to imagine a disciplined plan by which party customers vote securely online—yes, that’s entirely plausible for a party nomination process—in five or six evenly spaced primary tranches. What tranche a state goes in, rather than favoring some and disadvantaging others, could be determined by rotation or lottery. Seems a lot more logical and fair, doesn’t it, and more likely to produce a non-anomalous candidate?
No one person has all the answers or talents necessary to design, build, and deploy the solution set to fire up a new common-sense and consensus-driven political movement. But the elements are all out there. Everything we need is resident in the brains of some combination of individuals — software engineers, financiers, algorithm designers, market designers, communicators, evangelists, political scientists, social memeticians, pollsters, analytics gurus and god knows who else.
Why hasn’t this happened already?
Creating the party in the cloud is a weirdly cross-disciplinary effort that will require a wide variety of subject matter expertise.
In my experience, most Valleyites and political professionals alike will, on being invited to discuss the possibility of disrupting the political system, first say something like, “A new party? Well who would you run for president?”. Which of course would have been like asking Howard Schultz where he planned to put his 24,000th Starbucks store when he was pitching for seed funding to open his first one.
Valley pros see the overwhelming complexity of the legal and procedural barriers to entry and conclude they’ve got better things to do than try to figure this out on their own. To the extent any of them have dipped their toes in the water, they’ve tended to try standard electoral politics (Meg Whitman, Steve Westly) with varying degrees of success or have been donors to major-party candidates or toyed with pet issues or technology projects. Political pros meanwhile, are by and large afraid of technology designed for anything other than identifying and turning out voters.
As for a movement arising on its own somehow, the 60 percent of us in the center are neatly cleaved in two, half swallowing hard to justify the socialist energies of the left and half trying to rationalize the nativist and racist line of the hard right. While there’s very little of substance standing between the two 30 percent voter blocks on each side of the separating line, we’ve both long been successfully divided and conquered by the centrifugal forces of partisanship.
But so what? The Valley crowd didn’t have a depth of understanding about the intricacies of public livery laws when Uber was formed in 2009. Alvan Bovay was no Karl Rove when he organized that first proto-Republican party meeting in Ripon, Wisconsin in 1854. And the rising new Ciudadanos party in Spain is finding ways to grow from the center outward, and changing the balance of power in the process.
I believe it’s time to organize some sit-downs at The Cup in Boulder, Buck’s of Woodside, Houndstooth in Austin, and anywhere else investors and innovators gather. I think it’s time to find a core political entrepreneurial team—and start whiteboarding and talking, connecting dots, hypothesizing, and testing. Good ideas appeal to good names, and good names beget other good names.
Because disruption starts with a kernel, remember?