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07/06/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

UK Elections Inspire Witless Microtrends From Mark Penn

Oh, Nick Clegg. I'm sorry, I'm so, so sorry. But you have become a Microtrend.

It's not Clegg's fault, of course. The culprit is Burson-Marsteller chief executive and oft-mocked Clintonista Mark Penn, who today writes that "Cleggmania" will soon be coming to these shores, with the same indefatigable certainty as other U.K. exports, like "Torchwood" and "knifecrime."

Thursday's elections in Britain could be a harbinger of what is likely to come to America in the not-too-distant future: new movements and even parties that shake up the political system. Cleggmania shows that even the most tradition-bound electoral systems are facing the pressures of rapid change made possible by modern communications. These movements may not win out of the gate, but they will become significant political factors.

Shhhh! Nobody tell Mark Penn that Clegg's Liberal Democratic party is not a new party, but actually part of a tradition-bound electoral system since 1988. And maybe nobody should point out that the "modern communication" innovation that has thus far stoked "Cleggmania" was the decision to televise a political debate. Such an idea would, indeed, be a significant game-changer in America, where we often go whole weeks without a debate on the teevee during campaign seasons.

Penn continues:

While the Constitution established three branches of government, the system of political parties grew up outside of that, securing itself through what were at first formidable local infrastructures and later with skillful redistricting, ballot-access laws and contribution limits that worked to preserve the status quo.

I've no idea, in all the world, what the "three branches of government" has to do with any of this, unless Penn is suggesting that there is some kind of inevitable numeric divinity at work. I'm a little more baffled at the "at first formidable" idea he presents. Ballot access laws are still formidable. Redistricting is still a huge determining factor. And while incumbency is rather conventionally seen to be a liability in this particular year, it typically is a tremendous benefit to the career politician.

And unless I am mistaken, the way the Supreme Court just ruled in the Citizens United case will unleash a tidal wave of money and influence-peddling into our electoral reality, all of which will make "preserving the status quo" even easier. You think some third party is going to command Goldman Sachs's money any time soon? Amazingly, Penn does think this!

The Supreme Court has made it easier to launch massive paid political advertising campaigns; the Internet has made it possible to mobilize millions of voters quickly. From Connecticut to Pennsylvania to Florida to Utah, the pattern is emerging that when the left or right extremes mount a primary challenge, the incumbent can move outside the party -- and win. More and more candidates, especially self-funders, are considering the independent option.

You read that right. Mark Penn thinks the Citizens United decision makes it easier for you and me to mount "massive paid political advertising campaigns," because if there's one thing that JP Morgan and British Petroleum and PhRMA love are outsiders who will "shake up the system."

In addition, I'm baffled by Penn's grasp of the temporal nature of this trend: in the same paragraph, the phenomenon he describes is simultaneously "emerging" and under consideration. Mind you, there have been no "massive paid political advertising campaigns" mounted since the Supreme Court decision from which one can extract data! That's likely to change this year, however -- but I'm going to wager that the Supreme Court decision will favor candidates who do not "move outside the party."

But look: what about the fundamentals? There's this whole matter of Britain having an entirely different electoral system than we do, right? I'll let Jonathan Chait explain:

What's missing from this explanation is the structure of the political system itself, where the combination of first-past-the-post voting and the electoral college makes third-party campaigns extraordinarily difficult. Under the right conditions, a third-party challenger might have a chance once in a while, but over time the structural forces favoring the two-party system will invariably reassert themselves. This is political science 101 stuff.

What's the typical best-case scenario for a third party in the Electoral College? Basically, you can take a significant enough share of the raw vote to spoil the chances of one of the two dominant binary choices. That's about it. Third parties in America don't get any further spoils. They don't get a share of the pie. They don't get to negotiate with other parties to form a government. They get to go home, their footnote-in-history in hand.

Seriously, this is precisely how simpleminded this stuff gets:

Today, about 40 percent of Americans are political nomads, wandering from party to party in search of a permanent home. They peer at more than 100 varieties of coffee drinks at Starbucks and wonder why they have only two bipolar choices in politics.

Oh, I get it. Americans are afforded a wide variety of coffee choices, so it follows that they must also desire a wide variety of political options. This thought must occur to everyone, everyday, as they wait in line each morning to basically order the same drink they get every single day of their lives. (Also, did it not occur to Penn that the "permanent home" in his analogy appears to be Starbucks?)

Basically, Penn does what he always does -- write paragraph after paragraph of pure, grass-fed confirmation bias. Penn believes that the growth of self-identified independent voters constitutes a fertile ground for new political parties to emerge, and that "socially liberal and fiscally conservative voters" are trapped between choosing between the "the religious right or the economic left." Let's kick it back to Chait for the short, sharp deconstruction of this:

Of course, these are Penn's own views. There's no evidence that they constitute a vast, ignored center. If you look closely at ideological fissures within the electorate -- Pew's "Beyond Red and Blue" survey does this very deeply -- it's clear that the far larger cohort is the opposite of Penn: pro-government social conservatives. That's actually the cohort that's being ignored, both by the Democrats, who are more socially liberal than their base, and the Republicans, who are far more economically conservative. The parties are more responsive to their elites, who lean more socially liberal and economically conservative than the voters. But, of course, since elites also produce the political commentary, you get a constant stream of journalism and punditry asserting that there's a vast ignored middle of social liberals/economic conservatives when the truth is the opposite.

Penn closes with this:

But if the deficit continues to mushroom, health care festers and the economy nose-dives a second time, the growth of new parties and movements would be hastened. It may not happen in 2012, but one of the next three presidential elections is likely to feature a major new player under a new banner. The conditions are simply too ripe.

So, what are the specific conditions that would favor the rise of a third party in America? Everything going to complete shit. SO LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS!

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