The attention-based democracy

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

You’re probably familiar with the concept that ours is now an information economy. That concept isn’t entirely correct.

In a 1997 article in Wired magazine, former theoretical physicist Michael Goldhaber argued persuasively that economies traditionally have assigned value to tangible goods based on scarcity, but there’s no scarcity of information in the information age. In fact, consumers are overwhelmed by it. Instead, what’s really valuable these days is attention. There’s always another link on which to click, but people only have one brain.

If we’re living in an attention-based economy, then we’re definitely living in an attention-based presidential campaign, as these past few weeks have demonstrated. With 22 announced major party candidates (at last count), what really matters is who can stand out from the crowd. And who’s standing out right now is Donald Trump, leader (by far) in the Republican Party polls.

In the spirit of Trump, a master of hyperbole, I’ll make a somewhat hyperbolic statement: Donald Trump has the most liberal track record of any candidate to run for the Republican presidential nomination in a long time. He has donated a lot of money to Democrats (including Hillary Clinton, who he’s praised). And while he argues that was just the cost of doing business, he also was a registered Democrat and did not register as a Republican until 2009. Also in the past he has said that the economy does better under Democrats, that he supported nationalized health care, and that he was pro-choice on abortion.

Some of this occurred long ago, and he has changed his positions. That’s fine by me, because I also change my positions sometimes. But usually political candidates pay a price if people think they’re flip-flopping.

Trump is not paying that price, in large part because he’s the master of getting attention, and he’s used that ability to tap into some prevailing political undercurrents like no information-based candidate can hope to do. His statement that Mexico is sending rapists and other criminals across the border cost him a lot of business but gained him a lot of attention. Attention is more valuable, especially since a lot of Republican primary voters agree with what he said and will ignore his past political dealings and statements. Those things are mere information.

Eventually, the 17 Republican candidates will be winnowed to five or six, Trump included. The others are fighting for survival using whatever tools they can to stand out from the crowd. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said on the Senate floor that his own majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, had lied. The speech did not help Cruz’s standing in the Senate power structure, but it got him some attention. Arkansas’ former governor, Mike Huckabee, said that President Obama’s Iran deal was akin to marching Israel to “the door of the oven.” The Holocaust reference was condemned by many pundits, which was good for Huckabee – who, it should be pointed out, has always been a strong supporter of Israel. But he really struck gold when President Obama criticized him by name, saying his remarks were “part of just a general pattern that we’ve seen that … would be considered ridiculous if it weren’t so sad.” You can bet the staff members in Huckabee’s Little Rock headquarters were exchanging high fives after that.

The glass-half-full perspective is that, in the end, hyperbole only gets a candidate so far. Once the field has shrunk, then this will become more of an information-based campaign, and if Trump, Huckabee or Cruz wins the nomination, it will be because Republican primary voters have focused on their beliefs, their histories, and which one of them can best beat Clinton.

The glass-half-empty perspective – and I’m trying not to engage in my own hyperbole, because the media works the same way as politics these days – is how vulnerable modern campaigns are to demagoguery. It’s not healthy when political viability comes from mere attention-getting, especially when that’s accomplished by riling people up. That’s probably always been the case to a degree, but the dangers are magnified when the country is so culturally divided and when candidates can use unlimited campaign funds to divide us even further.

In other words, these conditions may make it more possible for a candidate to be elected who’s really bad at governing but really good at standing out from the crowd. How can voters combat that? By gathering information, and paying attention.

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