Unscaling political parties and disintermediation.

Unscaling was not a  phrase I was familiar with in a political context, though the basic principle is certainly well known: conventional business paradigms are being disrupted by technology.  To unscale refers to the specific act of “dismantling all large-scale, vertically integrated, mass-market institutions”.

I have been writing about the disintermediation effect that we are witnessing during the US primary elections. While the current US election cycle is an especially vivid example, there has been a global trend in political establishment disruption, with the rise, for example, of the Podemos party in Spain, Syriza in Greece and the AAP in India.

In particular, Podemos made use of owned media to build its brand awareness.

I think that what Podemos shows, and what other social movement groups like Juventud Sin Futuro or Oficina Precaria show, is that you can combine the autonomous, digital media campaigns with an active reaching-out to mass media”, says Cristina Flesher Fominaya, author of Social Movements and Globalization

These disruptions have been in the form of new parties. What is different about the US is that we are seeing long-established mainstream parties being disrupted. Applying the idea of unscaling in this context, media disintermediation does not just apply to the relationship between politicians and the mainstream media. It also applies to the relationship between politicians and their parties. Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have not only had to fight issues with media coverage, they have also had to battle against their party’s establishment. Their success is an example of successful unscaling.

Republican or Democratic validation used to matter — it would get candidates in front of newspaper editorial boards and on TV, access to phone banks and help draw the live crowds. Today, YouTube stars have bigger audiences than most TV shows, blogs cut out the media middleman and Meetup groups and Twitter get the crowds organized.

In parties with a primary or voting system to nominate candidates, new media has now provided an opportunity for candidates to bypass their party’s establishment and still effectively campaign for nominations. This means that the disruption to the political mainstream may not follow the antecedent of new parties but as insurgent candidates taking over established ones. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party may prove to be a more typical model in the medium-term than Podemos.  At the very least, we are in a transitory phase before this vision of startup political parties can become a reality:

 The economics of unscale predict that many startup parties will challenge the big parties and steal their members. Some will catch on, re-bundle voters around issues they care about and reach enough scale in a new way to have influence.

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