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The muscular middle; princess photo foulup; uncanny cerebral valley: Newsletter 13 March 2024

The Candidate

A new politics arises from the ashes of the American disaster, AI proponents and doomsayers wrestle, books as chatbots, plus three people to follow, three books to read, and a chance to see me debate at Berkeley.

The inspirational rise of the muscular middle

I’ve freakin’ had it with the American political system. It’s time to hack it with a new kind of politician: intelligent, tech-savvy, vigorous, and powerfully centrist.

First off, what’s wrong with they system we have now? It has become at the same time impotent and toxic, due to flaws that are endemic to the system.

First, the American system is and for the foreseeable future will be binary. There are two parties. What the parties stand for changes over time: remember when Republicans were for free trade? But the parties themselves own a powerful and immobile infrastructure that’s built into every level of American politics. Power in Congress comes from voting blocs, and those voting blocs align around parties. In a presidential election, any third-party or independent candidate draws more from one party than the other, which gifts the less-affected party with winner-take-all electoral votes in swing states. Ralph Nader effectively torpedoed Al Gore; Ross Perot’s candidacy helped elect Bill Clinton. While a third party could theoretically displace the Democrats or Republicans, the damage it would do to the party it was closer to would subject it to poisonous opposition.

Second, the parties themselves are subject to extreme partisan forces. Winning the presidency requires “energizing the base,” where the zealots are. In the House of Representatives, the most extreme members can bring down the speaker by simply insisting on adherence to their most partisan views.

Third, accumulating power takes time. That rewards politicians that have been around a very long time. Such politicians are quite old and beholden to the old ways of doing things. This is how we got the oldest candidates in presidential history in the 2024 election. True, Donald Trump broke the mold in 2016. But his inability to effectively control the bureaucracy, the Congress, and the Republican Party in his first term limited his ambitions. By the time he had fully consolidated his hold on the party, he was yet another aging politician.

Fourth, traditional media has always been drawn to the most extreme and short-term perspectives on the election, since that’s what excites the audience. But at least there was a commitment to truth. Now there is a fetish for polls, gaffes, and personality politics, relegating actual policy discussions to the background. Social media rewards the most lurid and, often, made-up bits and pieces, reinforcing each of our prejudices by showing us what we want to see. AI and deepfakes can only make this worse.

The endgame has devolved into what we are now faced with: two elderly incumbents whose most powerful arguments are that the other guy is worse, and an impotent Congress beholden to extremists that’s barely able to govern, let alone solve America’s biggest problems.

It is too late to fix this in the 2024 election cycle. But assuming we survive that cycle, it’s clear to me what we need next.

It’s not revolution. It’s hard for me to see how violently casting aside the whole structure of American government is going to suddenly result in something positive that any reasonable fraction of the electorate might want.

What we need is a class of politicians reflecting intelligence, vigor, and moderation.

We need intelligence because the problems of the next several decades are not amenable to twentieth-century thinking. The next generation of politicians must wrestle the government’s role — and it must have a role — in how to nurture the power of AI without risking humanity’s destruction. They must manage a superpower in a world roiled by power-hungry totalitarian regimes in Russia and China, cyber-warfare, and a regional Middle East conflict that threatens to involve and engulf the whole globe. Climate change is real, and will soon threaten coastlines and livelihoods. These are problems that require bold and intelligent leadership and an intimate familiarity with the power and drawbacks of technology.

We need vigor because it is no longer possible to be passive. The focus for the future must be on doing bold things, not consolidating political power.

And we need moderation because no politician from either extreme can inspire the mass of Americans. Despite the polarizing forces of parties, media, and social media, there are still a mass of Americans who just want the freedom to work, raise their families, and get along with their neighbors. Some have been swallowed by extreme views, but if they went there, they can come back. I don’t think it’s too late to inspire people to come together around the things they agree on. (If you don’t think this is possible, read Diane Hessan’s book Our Common Ground, which makes the case based on interviews with hundreds of voters that Americans agree on more than they realize, if only such policies are articulated properly.)

When such an inspiring political movement arises, one party or the other will be swallowed by it. Obama’s version of liberalism swallowed the Democrats; Trump’s populism swallowed the Republicans. It has happened before and will happen again; it is the American way.

We’ve really only been living with this sickness in the body politic for about 10 years. I fervently believe there is a path back to sanity. It’s time for a new political class to arise, inspire, and take leadership of our parties and our nation. I look forward to embracing these modern thinkers. America is waiting for you.

News for writers and others who think

Last week, I wrote that in a world of deepfakes, who you get your information from is as important as what that information is. As if to prove my point, the Princess of Wales posted a photo intended to dispel suspicions that she was ill — and instead got the media roiled up by doctoring the photo. Institutions like the British monarchy will destroy their credibility with such stupidity; corporations, governments, news media, and yes, royal families have no business participating in the public eye without understanding the uses and misuses of technology.

In The New Yorker, Andrew Marantz explores how AI doomsayers and AI proponents are part of an incestuous subculture in the “Cerebral Valley.”

According to Publishers Lunch, Dutch publisher Maven is creating a new format — a chatbot created from the text of a book that you can query and ask questions (subscriber link). I could see this format emerging next to ebooks and audiobooks as another way to get access to authors’ insights.

Audible improved its terms for independent authors, thanks to indie author Brandon Sanderson.

Three people to follow

Daniel Pink, whose expertise as an author now transcends books: whatever he says, it’s going to be a deeper insight than you’re normally used to.

Vanessa Camones, PR maven deeply connected to AI innovators.

Betsy Stevenson, bringing impressive perspectives to macroeconomic thinking.

Three books to read

Outside in: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business by Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine (HMH/New Harvest, 2012). Still the best book ever on customer experience.

Transformative: Build a Game-Changing Strategy, Retool Your Organization, and Innovate to Win by William Kilmer (Amplify, 2022). How disruptors become successful, with definitive case studies.

The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) by Seth Godin (Portfolio, 2007). Don’t give up. Or do. But this book will help you decide.

Meet me at Berkeley, Friday, April 26

Bay Area writers, authors, and publishers: sign up for the Publishing Professionals Network conference. I’ll be debating publisher Jeevan Sivasubramaniam on the promise — or illusion — of big ideas in books.

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