Losing the middle

BitDepth #981 for March 24, 2015

Timothy Teemal reported a Facebook status he read as a threat to the police last week. Funny to one person can read quite differently to another in the cold world of online interactions. Photo courtesy Timothy Teemal.
Timothy Teemal reported a Facebook status he read as a threat to the police last week. Funny to one person can read quite differently to another in the cold world of online interactions. The police are said to be investigating the matter as a death threat. Photo courtesy Timothy Teemal.

In just one week, T&T has experienced two shocks to the electoral system that do not bode well for the next six month’s worth of electioneering.

Between the nword matter and cyatgate, politics gets a rare play in this space, earned through an apparently profound misunderstanding of how the Internet works and specifically, the lubricating power of Facebook.

In one case, a political functionary and ardent supporter of the sitting government was outed as having an unfortunate and clearly racist rant on Facebook.

In another, the Opposition Leader had an excerpt from a speech to the political faithful become first, a news item, then go viral.

Curiously, the race based rant was common knowledge in my circles on Facebook for months, along with posts that pointed to joyous status messages by the same individual after he moved into his new HDC home a couple of months ago. Someone in that secret group went whistleblower, though the media came to the story quite late.

For most of the last year the discussion around political matters has been fairly heated, but this week it all seemed to have died down. There’s a deathly silence, the kind of stillness you might expect between realising that you’re way too far out on a branch in a tall tree and the horrid crack that heralds your imminent fall.

I have no horse in this electoral race. A long time ago I discovered that there is a certain type of person that gets drawn to a certain kind of job.

Thirty-five years ago, I spent a couple of years doing PR at CLICO and began to understand the profile of a successful agent.

It would take longer to understand the nature of a successful politician, but eventually that sad knowledge would come.

It is one of the great axioms of politics that the people who don’t want the job are exactly the people who should actually be doing it and those who crave it the most should be institutionally barred from any such consideration.

Such notions are, of course, fundamentally middle-class. In politics, those who inevitably prove to be the most important to political strategy are the very rich, who can fund the expensive popularity contest that modern elections have become and the very poor and most disadvantaged, the low-hanging fruit of the casual political promise.

This is the greatest mass of the local body politic, and it is to them that the crassest and least sophiscated of coded messages and promissory notes are pitched.

It is the growing middle-class of T&T, the generally well-educated, financially satisfied and difficult to persuade grouping that has proven to be the decisive hand that moves elections in favour of one party or another.

It’s a group that’s generally silent and contemplative until election day, when, in their numbers, they can either decisively shift the balance of power in favour of one party or another or simply abstain, leaving the election decision to emotional responses instead of reason.

The middle has powered two political parties, the ONR and the COP, both of which shattered in the face of political reality and the disappointment is real.

Many of those who would naturally find common alignment in such a party now engage in extended contemplations on Facebook, considering both what is being said as well as how it is being said, if the lengthy threads that have arisen discussing both matters are any indication.

It is here, I believe, in hundreds of small but intense discussions on Facebook, that the election of 2015 will be lost and won.

News time moves differently here. Stories are not published and set aside. They surge and ebb with a surreal rhythm, prompted by new information and perspectives that keep discussions going long after they have faded from the news agenda.

So intense are these engagements that they can push stories back into traditional print and broadcast media. That may rarely happen, but politically, these conversations should worry the big players in the next election far more than they seem to.

For every reappearance of a meme, video clip or incriminating screen capture in my Facebook newsfeed, there seems to be an iceberg sized mass of discussion and debate beneath pushing it back to general awareness.

These are not the vociferous posts of the politically committed, fired by anger and delineated in capital letters, though some inevitably pepper every thread, but reasoned and puzzled deliberations of the politics of the day.

A lot of smart people are confused and deeply disappointed by both of the major parties and are finding lots of company in that space.

Political missteps, and let’s be clear, not dealing with that racist incident months ago and that ill-advised bit of folksy poetry are errors of a significant order, are no longer confined to the heat of the campaign trail or the short attention span of the traditional media anymore.

That changed five years ago, but neither party seems to have understood that the way that social media is being used for considered purpose has also evolved.

The party that gets their strategy around that reality first and tempers their approach to match the continuous heat of contemplation that the campaigns will be subject to in 2015 is likely to be first past the post.

For now, and for the middle, both have registered a stunning, echoing fail that’s hushed intelligent discussion of matters so stupid that they defy sensible engagement.