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Election 2012: The End of the Middle of Everything

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WASHINGTON -- Dick Lugar was a nice guy who stayed too long. But his crushing loss is also a valid data point in a profound and troubling trend, obvious not only in politics but in every other aspect of American life.

We are losing the mediating middle of everything, and the result is a country paralyzed by social and economic as well as political division.

The remorseless logic of global capital (think: big banks and super PACs) and the middleman-crushing power of the Internet (think: Amazon and the Tea Party) are combining to end not only the "small r" republican vision of the Founders but also many essential, intermediating business and social structures.

The Founders feared both the Monarch and the Mob. Now the salving, balancing middle is being ground to dust between the two.

Like an engine without oil or a knee without cartilage, we are in danger of seizing up. We are losing many of our lesser but essential sources of authority, credit, guidance, service and judgment. Face-to-face dealings, accidental acquaintances, the happenstances of geography and commerce are being replaced by a net-based cacophony of political flash mobs, stovepiped thinking and mail-order trade for virtually every product and service.

A partial list of who is under pressure: families with time to be a family, independent-minded elected representatives, small farmers not beholden to Monsanto or Cargill, county chairmen, "big tent" politics, independent business and sales agents, weekly newspapers, local radio and TV stations, teachers with freedom to teach, principals with latitude to run their schools, local religious leaders respected for their character and judgment.

In politics, the national parties have ceased to be mechanisms of consensus or even mechanisms at all. The power resides entirely with ideological, commercial or personal money.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, two cool, aloof, effective assemblers of the new machinery, rely entirely on their own purpose-built campaigns, which have allegiance to no one but them.

Congress is now a home for the politically incapacitated. Senators who once had a year or two to attempt statesmanship and independent thought begin running for reelection even before they are sworn in.

As for the media, the days are long gone when a news anchor like Walter Cronkite could end his broadcast by saying, "And that's the way it is," and most people in the country would nod in agreement. There are no such truly unifying figures today, and most of the money in televised news is spent on ideologically discrete presentations of it.

The Internet makes possible the assembly of new intermediating institutions, but those are still in their infancy for the most part. In the meantime, mighty and basically unaccountable companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and others conduct, facilitate and dominate monarch-to-mob-and-back commerce.

To fend off both the monarchy and the mob, the Founders resurrected the Roman ideal of republican government, updated with a Newtonian clockwork of countervailing powers. They saw further protection against political tyranny in an economy of widely dispersed private property -- the ideal for them was the English yeomanry -- and in a rich social soil of education, family and homage to faith that would produce solid citizens.

Today, the Monarchy isn't a Hanoverian in a dusty wig, but rather a silent alliance between an all-knowing, all-benefit-dispensing Washington and billionaires (real people or corporate "people") given new freedom to exert their power by spending at will.

Today, the Mob isn't a witch hunt in Salem, but rather an Internet increasingly ruled by the worship of the viral and made profitable largely by companies that specialize in the Schumpeterian work of wiping out social supply lines of local human interaction with generations or even millennia of tradition.

The risk is that in the name of democracy, we are going to destroy it; that in the name of freedom, we are going to lose it; and that in the name of bringing the budget under control and saving the middle class, we are going to lose both to the Monarchy and the Mob.

Other than that, things are going fine.