The New Iron Triangle
In 1981, Gordon Adams described an "Iron Triangle" in American politics – a symbiotic, if not parasitic, three-way relationship in America among special-interest constituencies, members of congress, and bureaucracies. These groups could form a stable network, passing favors and money in a never-ending round-robin of power. The system fed on itself. It could function indefinitely and in defiance of outside forces that might try to disrupt it, bent on benefitting its own interests. The classic diagram showing the old Iron Triangle is below.
The diagram stands out in one stark way: nowhere in that image do the interests of the people appear. Special interests stand in place of constituents, receiving legislative and policy support and giving the money and publicity that drive election wins.
Today, American politics is dominated by a New Iron Triangle. And it’s worse.
The New Iron Triangle
At the apexes are three of the darkest forces in our public lives. One is perhaps the most familiar – dark money - meaning political spending meant to influence the decision of a voter, where the donor is not disclosed and the source of the money is unknown. Usually this means non-profits or Super PACs.
Because you don’t know where the money is coming from, and it is not subject to any contribution limits, there’s no legal control on the amount of influence that one political interest can have, and no political control (in the form of blowback or shame from disclosure) on the source of that influence. Groups or individuals can control the positions and agenda of our candidates.
This isn’t just a problem…it’s a big problem. Open Secrets points out that dark money spending rose by a factor of 50 between 2004 and 2012 to above $300 million…and then was being spent at a rate 10 times higher than even that in 2015. In 2014, of the top 10 U.S. Senate races, 60% of the money was from outside groups. Since then, the ratios have only risen. On the Democratic side, major environmental groups alone spent well over $100 million in the 2018 election. On the Republican side, presidential candidates lined up to grovel before Sheldon Adelson, who alone spent $100 million in 2012. Regardless of what you think of the agendas of any particular groups or individuals, does anyone think they don’t influence candidate positions?
The bottom line is that there is gusher of money in American politics, almost $7 billion spent in the 2016 cycle, and the proportion that comes from interest groups and individuals, especially those with undisclosed sources of funding, is growing rapidly. And they are controlling the agenda.
The second apex is what I’m calling dark media, which I define as media that caters to and reinforces a narrow worldview, with little balance and often with little adherence to facts. People have long sought out to validate their own views by seeking out like-minded media and opinions. But the decline of news sources that adhere to basic journalism standards at both the national and local level — asking questions, presenting the other side and checking facts — has been matched step for step with a rise in right-wing radio (I’d balance that with a comment about a rise in left-wing radio, but that flamed out spectacularly), biased cable news, and of course, social media-fueled online news.
And while there is nothing inherently dark about social media (though Facebook critics may beg to differ), it’s been well-established that social media has put people’s ability to view the world through “filter bubbles” on steroids, and today about 40% of us use online media as the major source of news and information, with the proportion only rising.
The point is that one may take Sarah Palin’s view about the downsides of news being filtered through the mainstream media, but there are clear benefits to having trusted and relatively neutral media…at the other end of the spectrum, experts consider it very likely that Russia significantly influenced our last election through online fake news. So the dark media effect has pushed many of us into self-reinforcing political channels (literally), and may have already overtaken our ability to have balanced, intelligent, fact-based public discourse, leaving us open to trolls, extremists, political warfare profiteers, and hostile foreign powers.
The third apex, what I call dark psychology, is the growing belief in political circles that nuance, balance and moderation are for chumps. This may seem like the haziest of the three forces, but it is very real. The fact that our President made more than 6,000 false public statements during the first two years of his presidency is just the culmination of a trend. It used to be that political ad makers and communications gurus would caution their candidates that incendiary language or simply making false claims had a downside – the potential for blowback from moderates and swing voters, negative media stories, and anger from donors. The temptation was always there: it’s well established and repeatedly shown that inflammatory charges are effective, and that extreme rhetoric works. But there were usually voices in the room looking to pump the brakes. Does it look like those voices are being heard today?
Of course, as with the original iron triangle, the key is that the new iron triangle is self-reinforcing and insulated from the interests of the people. Dark money is interwoven with dark media: the latter benefits from ad purchases and sponsored content placements aimed at the base voters they serve, and those media outlets then return to dark money groups an unparalleled ability to selectively target those base voters. Dark money also fuels dark psychology, and vice versa: there is every incentive for dark money groups to use the most extreme rhetoric without restraint because it’s effective and the blowback has nowhere to go; in turn, dark money groups – and just about every politician these days – understand that partisan outrage is the best fuel for fundraising (any doubts: check your email inbox), and they try to stoke it as much as possible.
And finally, dark media is what dark psychology goes home to and kisses on the cheek at night. As noted above, dark media thrives on reinforcing and feeding political filter bubbles: you can make a lot of money online in a small niche, writing fake partisan news. And there is an inherent natural selection online, a survival of the fittest where clicks beget shares, shares beget clicks, and Breitbart can rise to a top news source and then crash in the never-ending race to create extreme content.
It’s a bleak picture. And as with the original, the new iron triangle will be hard to shake. There are ways to try. Money in elections is an issue we can tackle. Regulation of social media platforms is getting a hard look. And of course, focusing on steps toward reinvigorating and re-empowering the center in American politics would serve as a restraint to the extremes. Following these pathways will not be easy. The present alternative is worse.