The Rise of Networked Tribal Politics

This year is strange. Not simply for Donald Trump’s kamikaze politics or Hillary Clinton’s aspirational cronyism, but for the immense shift it’s revealed in America’s political structure. We are witnessing the rise of networked tribal politics and the fall of traditional institutional systems. In a sense, politics is becoming like the internet. With this change comes disruption.

The history of American politics was once one of increasing organization and hierarchy. Parties as tribal affiliations gave way to political machines dispensing patronage that greased the wheels of power. Smoke-filled rooms, which for generations had been the informal conduits of power, were gradually aired through more open primaries. But the essential remained: the party.

Politics in the first-half of the 20th century was downstream of much broader changes in popular life. As Yuval Levin describes in The Fractured Republic, the nation that was birthed in the Industrial Revolution and matured through world war was an exceptionally unified and cohesive one, with an overwhelming confidence placed in large institutions. What became a mid-20th-century model of national politics was similarly upheld by large, hierarchical party structures consolidating power amid declining polarization.

The 1974 Budget Act embedded these mid-20th century assumptions in the structure of Congress. Committees and leadership came to drive the legislative process. Newly elected members embraced this congressional hierarchy, and America’s major parties ensured the benefits of incumbency and fundraising rose according to one’s rank.

But “Congress has changed a lot,” explained Levin during a recent event at the American Enterprise Institute. “That process just doesn’t work well anymore. It’s not possible to centralize authority that way anymore, especially because you can’t centralize knowledge anymore.”

Instead of governing institutions, we have a weakened network of individuals embedded in political tribes. This change is part of a broader shift from the mass communities and large institutions that were the hallmark of mid-century America. They have instead been replaced across society with narrower, more homogenous networks. If this new societal order resembles the internet, it is because the digital order is downstream of our communal order.

America’s institutional political order has so far been replaced with a far different and, at least in the short-term, more destructive form of politics. Politics is now dominated by individualists who are loyal to tribes more than institutions. Individuals who believe that compromise violates a moral code of their person and tribe. And who would rather see gridlock than to make a deal with people outside of their personal interest and tribe. This is the politics of the internet age.

Parties and their leaders are no longer the primary source of power, money, or information in politics today. Instead, political power structures are flattening while resources flow horizontally between nodes in a political network. Each node’s power rests on particular individuals who happen to be nested within weak organizations. That is to say, individual members are becoming empowered while the surrounding institutions are weakened and decaying, and outside organizations have more influence over politics than ever before. It is through these individuals and their affinity groups — tribes — that politics gets done today.

Members of Congress are the most visible manifestations of this new political space. They are groping for a sense of direction, realizing — perhaps just vaguely — that the game has changed. How, they wonder, does a networked Congress function? This is the narrow version of the most important question looming over the long road to our political future: how does a networked politics work?

If today’s political right or left often seems rudderless or leaderless then, it is because our institutions and elite have been replaced by networks of individuals within tribes, and everyone is trying to figure out how to navigate this new reality. Whatever change has happened in politics began decades ago in a society already changing toward networked communities, and then dawned on the political environment with a rapidity few anticipated.

What this will mean for the future is anybody’s guess. Jonathan Rauch has called in The Atlantic for a return to machine-based politics. His nostalgia is understandable, but not realistic. Network-based affinity politics are ascendant and unlikely to be reversed.

Just as this networked reality emerged first in America’s broader society, the ways we manage this dynamic in the future will come from society rather than our policymakers. Not only because of their diminished clout and inability to observe change happening to them, but because most members of Congress have never actually seen their institution function normally.

It is up to us then to search for ways in which new institutions have grown out of today’s networked communities. We will need to be clear-eyed about how some old political structures will necessarily have to be swept away; we can already see a kernel of change when we compare AEI’s Open Source Policy Center to the Congressional Budget Office.

There will be far greater change in the years ahead. America’s politics will likely endure more years lost in a fog of change, waiting for the winds of order to blow down from a society that is itself lost.