“America is change.”
– James Bryce in The American Commonwealth (1888)
“We have reached the epoch of the nanosecond.
This is the heyday of speed.”
– From Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (1999) by James Gleick
President Biden is being pounded across the political spectrum due to the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, Republican senators like Lindsay Graham and Tom Cotton rushed to declare the Biden administration an overall failure and some called for his resignation. But even veteran Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who worked for Hillary Clinton, wrote that the Afghan situation was a worse debacle than the Bay of Pigs invasion, which utterly failed in 1961 to overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro – whose brother is still running the country 60 years later.
The images of children being thrown over fences, refugees falling off planes taking off and the funerals of American soldiers are about as bad they could be. Further adding to the bad news: Moderate West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who holds the balance of power in an evenly divided Senate, said he could no longer support the president’s $3.5 trillion social spending bill (“some in Congress have a strange belief there is an infinite supply of money to deal with any current or future crisis, and that spending trillions upon trillions will have no negative consequence for the future. I disagree …”), thus endangering Biden’s “Build Back Better” program. These events have taken their toll on the president’s popularity. His job approval rating dipped below 50% in every public poll for the first time, with fully 61% of Americans disapproving of his Afghanistan performance. While Afghanistan was undeniably a policy error and public relations disaster, the president’s best hope of a political recovery is that both dramatic images and rapidly processed information can cause the voters to change their mind at a faster rate than ever, a trend called the “Feiler Faster Thesis.”
This theory was developed by freelance writer Bruce Feiler. He based his theory on the work of Alvin & Heidi Toffler in their 1970 bestseller “Future Shock,” which diagnosed modern society as being buffeted by “too much change in too short a time,” and the above-quoted book by James Gleick. The idea was popularized in a March 2000 article by Mickey Kaus in the web magazine Slate. Feiler’s thesis posits that with the rise of the 24-hour cable news cycle, the internet and now social media, voters can receive and successfully process information at a faster rate than ever and, thus, often change their minds in an instant.
Kaus wrote: “As a result, politics is able to move much faster, too, as our democracy learns to process more information in a shorter period and to process it comfortably at this faster pace. Charges and countercharges fly faster, candidates’ fortunes rise and fall faster, etc.” Kaus then predicted the Bush-Gore race in the fall of 2000 would likely have many unexpected turns: “We have no more idea what the public image of Bush will be in November than we have of what Chicago will look like in the year 2100.”
That was Feiler’s Thesis. But what about results in the real world?
We’ve seen enough quick political shifts in 21st century American politics to confirm the accuracy of this theory. The 2000 election was full of enough twists to fill a novel: The GOP primary contest saw momentum repeatedly change for George W. Bush and John McCain with Bush and the Republican Establishment finally succeeding in wearing the maverick Arizona senator down.
That was just a warmup for the fall campaign: After stumbling behind for months, Al Gore surged into the lead after he dramatically kissed his wife at the Democratic National Convention. Bush came back during the TV debates and seemed headed for a solid victory. But five days before the election, the story about Bush’s 1975 drunk driving arrest reset the election yet again. Over the weekend, Gore rallied with independent voters. By Monday night, Frank Newport of the Gallup Poll was on CNN saying the election was now “too close to call.”
Indeed, it was: Due to huge margins in coastal states like New York and California, Gore ended up winning the national popular vote by less than 1%, while Bush carried vital Florida by just 537 votes out of nearly 6 million – with a recount controversy that lasted five weeks and required a Supreme Court intervention to settle. Nor was 2000 the end of political volatility for Bush: A Gallup poll released on Sept. 10, 2001, showed a hypothetical Bush-Gore rematch would be once again be too close to call. The next day, on 9/11, American history changed forever, Bush soared to 90% in the polls and this helped drive his successful re-election campaign in 2004.
Hillary Clinton benefited from “Faster Politics” in 2008 and was victimized in 2016. In the first year, she finished a poor third in the opening Iowa contest and seemed destined for another defeat in New Hampshire. But when the press piled on her the weekend before the primary – former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote that it seemed that every reporter wanted to put it on the record that they never liked her – and Hillary got emotional at a public forum, women voters rallied to her, sparking a comeback win in the Granite State that kept her career alive.
However, the Feiler Thesis helped end her career: In the fall of 2016, Hillary seemed safely ahead of Donald Trump (after a tape emerged of him making highly inflammatory comments about women). Ten days before the election, FBI Director James Comey made the “bombshell” announcement that the FBI would investigate emails she sent as secretary of state on a private server. This disclosure revived doubts about Hillary’s character and Trump won the key states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by 1% to score the biggest upset since Harry Truman in 1948.
In the 2020 Democratic primaries, the career of former Vice President Joe Biden seemed about to end with a whimper after he finished a disappointing fourth in Iowa and a shocking fifth in New Hampshire. (Since the primary system began in earnest during the 1970s, no one in either party had won a nomination without finishing first or second in either of the first two contests). But the Democratic Establishment feared the nomination of Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders and rallied to Biden as the “electable” alternative. Buoyed by the endorsement of South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, Black voters (who now are a majority of Democrats in many Southern states and the base of the national Democratic Party), keyed a Biden surge that allowed him to win South Carolina on Feb. 29, 2020, and then primaries on March 3 in states where he hadn’t even campaigned. In less than 72 hours, Biden went from also-ran to frontrunner and eventually easily won the nomination. It was a textbook example of “Faster Politics.”
Not just Washington
I’ve also observed this trend in local elections. For example, California Gov. Gray Davis went from being elected governor by nearly 2 million votes to being recalled by 1 million in what must have seemed to him to be a bewilderingly short time. The man who replaced him, action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, went on an even wilder ride. Here’s how Daniel Drezner on the website for Foreign Policy Magazine described it:
“The last few days, I’ve been seeing television ads for the DVD release of ‘Terminator 3 – Rise of the Machines.’ The movie was put into theaters just four months ago – it was the big July 4th release. Between then and now:
1) Speculation started about what Schwarzenegger would do if the recall succeeded. 2) The petition drive for the recall succeeded. 3) Speculation mounted that Schwarzenegger would not run in favor of Richard Riordan. 4) Schwarzenegger defied the conventional wisdom and announced his candidacy. 5) The number of candidates increased to three figures. 6) Schwarzenegger seems to stumble. 7) A Ninth Circuit panel tries to delay the recall. 8) The en banc Ninth Circuit unanimously overrules the panel decision. 9) The whole Arianna Huffington experiment ended. 10) Debates were held. 11) Davis is perceived to have some momentum while (Democratic candidate Cruz) Bustamante flames out. 12) The Los Angeles Times springs its October non-surprise (that Arnold behaved badly on movie sets). 13) Davis is recalled and Schwarzenegger is elected.”
Drezner called the 2003 recall election, “the Feiler Faster Thesis on steroids.”
In 2015, I was working for the challenger to a longtime Los Angeles City Council member who had been in office for more than two decades with a lackluster attendance rate. We seemed to be doing well with both our phone banks and door-knockers getting good responses. But on the weekend before the election, it was revealed that our candidate had made some joking references to the allegedly bad driving habits of Mexican Americans on a website (called Ask a Mexican). His candidacy collapsed immediately in a heavily Hispanic district.
Feiler’s Faster Politics Thesis has been vindicated at both the national and local political levels. James Bryce wrote about the dynamism of America in the 19th century and it is even truer today.
So yes, Biden had a terrible August that severely damaged his administration. But new issues will almost certainly arise in the coming days, and if he deals with them more successfully, the Feiler Faster Politics Thesis guarantees that voters will give him another look.
Patrick Reddy is a Democratic political consultant and the co-author of “California After Arnold.” He is now working on a book on 21st century American politics.