For Upset Victory, Go Where They Ain't?

Christensen_027_-250.jpgPolitics as we know it, is ripe for disruptive innovation.  The major parties and other major players look a lot like a lot like industry giants, lucratively lumbering along, good at what they do, but vulnerable to something better.  The parties are obviously not good at producing great outcomes in government but they are good enough to dominate, like the lumbering big three automakers in 1970.  The Chevrolet Impala was quite a machine back then – and very hard to compete with head-on.

“Innovation guru” Clayton Christensen, a Business Professor at Harvard, interviewed in the July-August Harvard Magazine believes the way for innovative challengers to win is not to compete head-on.  Christensen’s theories are based on historic patterns in economics, not the broader field of political economics, but your humble blogger believes the lesson is worth a look.

The disruptive innovator in industry competes with non-consumption according to Christensen.  Non-consumption, in Christensen’s parlance doesn’t mean complete non-participation.  It can mean marginal participation; second hand or infrequent buyers for instance in the car market.

Redefining what is being consumed is part of the innovative opportunity according to Christensen.  He sees an opportunity for a cheap electric car for teens that is “really not a car.  It’s a mobile sound system.” And it a product which in Christensen’s estimation, parents would buy for teens.

The disruptive competitor in party politics may not look like a party.  It may look more like a media enterprise.  In politics, we need to examine the whole citizen experience: who gets what for what, in order to find opportunity for disruptive innovation. 

The transactional foundation of our party structure was originally patronage.  Votes may have been freely tendered or bought for the price of a drink but the manpower that mustered the votes came from the ranks of directly interested individuals.  The livelihoods of a limited number of people are still very directly at stake in politics, but lower value transactions on a much broader scale could empower an innovative campaign.

The political “non-consumer,” is not necessarily a non-voter, non-contributor, or inactive citizen any more than the early buyers of cheap Japanese cars were poor, carless people.  But the non-consumer is marginalized in the current market.

Age probably defines the biggest single non-consumer market in politics.  Like the early career, ex-hippie baby boomer of the '70's, who could only afford a Toyota and wouldn’t have wanted an Impala in the first place, most of our 20 something population don’t want to spend the time and money required to have political influence and they aren’t that interested in the experience provided by most campaigns. 

There are countless other non-consumer prospects for any innovative campaign – not necessarily the most needy or those that would benefit the most but those who have the means and the motive to become consumers.

The established players aren’t stupid.  They are trying to innovate from within and to serve the non-consumers themselves.  The Obama campaigns managed to adopt innovative methods and attracted many young people.  But, like General Motors in 1970, with 775,400 Impala’s rolling off the assembly lines, the established players have an existing business to attend to.  That means opportunity for you!


Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva used with permission

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