Reality is beginning to dawn even on leaders of the establishment. The political media machine they work for may keep them in power for the time being. But it also traps them aboard a political Titanic by systematically destroying the economic, ecological, and cultural resources that keep us all afloat.
Smart leaders know this can’t last. But they can’t change the designed-for-gridlock system by themselves. They’re not in charge of it. No human being is. The political media machine is more like an artificial intelligence. It is run by an algorithm. Its coding must be rewritten. But the coders—half on the right and half on the left—are locked inside a “deep state” of fear and hate. Most would rather go down with the ship than collaborate with the “other side” on a transition plan.
We want to get these two together. We’d like to make it safe for Republicans and Democrats to profess their newfound love and devotion to each other. They may never live happily together, but they can govern successfully together. We know that Republicans, for example, would like to express their concern about worldly “Democratic” objectives like peace, social justice, and protecting the environment. And we know Democrats would like to acknowledge that good outcomes require more than good intentions—that Republican ideas about hard work, individual responsibility, market systems, and gratitude to a higher power help lead them to their heart’s desires.
But Republicans and Democrats can’t meet each other for coffee these days, much less for holy trysts like we are suggesting. Something keeps us apart. Not some person. Something.
Realize this: the leader of the free world is now primarily an algorithm, a simple-minded formula for political, media, and economic power that chooses the person we call the president and many other electeds, as well as the ideas they are permitted to champion and we are obliged to obsess over, tweet after tweet, click after click, day after day, until we just can’t click anymore.
Don’t get me wrong: Joe Biden the man is very real, and his supporters have legitimate aspirations and grievances.
So too, however, do their angry counterparts. In fact, their core grievance is much the same: Entrenched interests have captured our democracy. The people want it back.
If the left and right joined together, they would comprise a 70 percent majority capable of the power shift they claim to want. But oddly, combining forces is the last thing they want to do. It’s as if their divisions were being orchestrated according to a formula that keeps them from ever forming the political majority that could take back their power.
The Algorithm that is the president is the set of digital triggers that result in the most online click-throughs and cable TV views, which in turn generate the most dollars spent by advertisers, who are rewarded with the most money spent by consumers (once known as citizens) for the products and services the ads promote. It’s democracy on autopilot. The formula that optimizes these ends does not actually reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—that would be ridiculous. It’s a formula, after all.
Instead, the formula delivers to that address the human who most closely embodies the messages that trigger the clicks and views that warrant the ads that keep consumers spending on the stuff we need to buy to keep people employed, in debt, impulsive, distracted, and oblivious.
The Exploiters-in-Chief of the Algorithm are the media and political operatives whose power and profits derive from ideological war.
Joe Biden is their product—the one our clicks paid for in the run-up to November 2020, when the software in charge selected the candidate who delivered the most wide-open eyeballs and suggestible brains to the advertisers who pay the bills and build the power of the media and political industry.
The political media state regulates more than just our politics and media. Its coding also allocates labor and capital across major public and private institutions around the world, in ways calculated to help keep the nation armed, the people employed, and the status quo in power.
In other words, it’s more than the electoral process that is rigged. It’s much of the national and international agenda, including almost every decision about how to raise, borrow, and spend money. We think people are in charge, at least in America. We’re pretty sure they’re not us. They are the other people—the ones exploiting, invading, cheating, or controlling us. But it’s not them—no, not even that them. True, they can use the system for selfish benefit. But they can’t shut it down or redirect it to serve us all. Not by themselves, anyway.
This ought to concern us. Most evidence suggests that the framers of the Constitution envisioned a human being, born on our soil or to a citizen, at least thirty-five years before the day of inauguration, mindful of our mission and with a high capacity for complex thought, as the elected leader of the nation. Few if any provisions in our founding documents provide guidance on how to check and balance digital sovereigns lacking physical form and ruling outside any limits to their terms and powers.
But here we are.
Rather than lamenting this uncharacteristic lack of foresight by our Founding Fathers, it now falls to us to remedy this situation, if we choose to. Because, while we didn’t intentionally create the Algorithm that is our president, we can now intentionally—and with due haste—hack into the system of governance and modify the formula to better fit our needs. Very soon, within an election cycle or two if we want, we can seat an actual human being at that desk in the Oval Office—whether Joe Biden or someone else. It’s up to us. That’s democracy.
Let’s explore how we might do that.