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Hey, Over Here, The Real Long Tail of Politics!

December 3, 2009

Big ideas are simple ideas and five years ago none spread as quickly and as pervasively as Chris Anderson’s Long Tail. Like all insights, Anderson’s is fruitful and others were quick to steal, adapt and apply it to other domains beyond those envisioned in the book. (Not to mention that referring to it signaled intelligence and a hip oneness with techno-geek-speak. At the time, this was only slightly more frequent than applying the theories of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball beyond baseball.)

So remember the Long Tail of politics? Yeah, why force the binary in politics, right?!? Because the idea seemed so exciting and new–it had the aura of a Silicon Valley zeitgeist–many pundits applied the appellation to their preferred candidate. We were told that Barack Obama captured the long tail of politics.  Some interpreted it as a fundraising tool for plundering candidates who could give the appearance of caring about niche, long tail issues. Newsweek called Ron Paul the Long Tail Candidate.

Now Arnold Kling had a hand in starting this, but what’s interesting to me is that all the pundits missed the point of Kling’s contention. He wrote:

The Long Tail is not the political center. It is not a third party waiting to form. It is not a coalition. It is not a “silent majority” of either the right or left. It is simply every variety of political belief that does not fit within the two major parties.

To satisfy the needs deep in the long tail, Kling proposed “Virtual Federalism,” which entails (gasp!) letting people choose their political jurisdiction, rather than having it dictated by geography. And yet, what everyone seemed to miss was that by participating in American politics, you are by definition forcing the binary, which could serve as our new slogan here:


Take a look again at the graphic above (from Kevin Kelly). It represents the profit-making elements of a Long Tail economy, whether it be songs, books, websites, movies and so on. When explaining the Long Tail, Kelly points out that almost everyone makes a switch in what they’re talking about. In pockets 1 and 2 in the graph, people talk about creators. And in politics, they’ll talk about candidates. But when people get to explaining the Long Tail in pocket 3, they switch and stop talking about creators. Instead they start talking about aggregators of other creators’ work. “What happens to the creator?” Kelly asks. His answer:

The creator is dropped when we get to the long tail “pocket of profit” because the long tail is not profitable for the creator. It’s profitable only for the audience and aggregators.

Kelly’s talking about money-making opportunities here, but I think what he notices offers a good way into the idea of going meta in politics. Instead of products like books, songs and movies, think of governance and political philosophies. (It’s beyond me why Marxist professors don’t wake up and see themselves simply as a local car dealer, flogging the newest model from some intellectual Detroit.) Anyway, by going meta, and thinking at a systems level, you grow less interested in individual creators and more fascinated with aggregators. How to pitch competitive governance? Simple: it’s Amazon and Netflix for politics. And unlike Kelly, I think in governance, the best political system is the one that extends the shelf space all the way down the long tail to all three profit pockets. Too bad governance can’t be mailed to you in a red-envelope with a return slip, though it should be obvious that Seasteading is one attempt to do this.

So let me reformulate Chris Anderson’s thesis to this:

Forget coalitions led by a few megahit politicians at the top of the polls. The future of governance is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream.

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