As Congress returned from summer recess to a plate heaped with work — President Donald Trump added a gooey serving of immigration reform Tuesday on top of the debt ceiling, the budget, hurricane relief and tax reform — another of America’s key institutions is marking 10 years that shook the world.
These simultaneous events have caused the strangest picture to form in my mind. I see Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) the Senate majority leader, as the tonsured abbot of a Benedictine monastery in the middle of the 15th century. The abbot’s job is to oversee production of handwritten Bibles by monks in the abbey scriptorium. He and his predecessors have tended this vitally important labor for hundreds of years.
But now a goldsmith named Gutenberg, in a German town called Mainz, has devised a machine that can produce identical Bibles — or any other document, for that matter — quickly and cheaply using movable metal letters and oil-based ink. And the abbot is awakening to the realization that nothing will ever be same.
When Apple unveiled its first smartphone in 2007, the company sparked a communications revolution likely to be as transformative as Gutenberg’s. It’s the nature of such seismic change to shake the institutions of culture and society to the ground.
The explosive essence of the printing press was its ability to transmit information widely across space and time. Laypeople could own and read their own Bibles, and the result was the Reformation. Scientists could record their observations to share with other scientists, and inventors their innovations with other inventors, and the results were the Scientific and Industrial revolutions. Philosophers could spread their ideas to activists, and activists to more activists, and one result was that durable document that begins: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union . . . “
If all of those changes could flow from oily ink on slugs of alloy, what earthquakes will follow from a technology that gives to nearly every human the tools of worldwide mass communication? I find the question frankly mind-boggling.
But one thing is clear after the election of 2016 — the first American election truly dominated by mobile communication and the social networking it sparks: The future is cloudy for the likes of Mitch McConnell. The power of traditional party leaders flows from their ability to make, and control, connections that are otherwise extremely difficult. A well-run party controls the connection between a candidate and a line on the ballot. It controls access to key donors, who can open the gateway to television, the great persuader. Through these and other linkages, the party mediates the most important connection of all, between the candidate and the voters.
We saw last year that the power of the smartphone is vaporizing these functions. Donald Trump captured the Republican ballot line even though he had no appreciable connection to the Republican Party. Nothing like it had ever happened to an American political party. Trump had his own access to television after decades as a public performer and provocateur. More important, though, was the way he leveraged his celebrity via smartphone. His millions of followers on Twitter and Facebook became a rapidly growing Party of Trump. His supporters felt a personal and authentic connection that left no room for mediation by GOP elites.
Democratic bosses narrowly avoided a similar loss of control. Only their insider system of superdelegates cushioned them from the threat of a takeover by independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Powered by smartphone connectivity, Sanders supporters were able to crowdfund a nearly $230 million primary challenge that almost ousted the choice of the party leaders, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In the cloisters of the Senate, Abbot McConnell’s scribes are his 51 fellow Republican senators, who, to one degree or another, must be asking themselves what this revolution means for them. If they fall into line behind their party leader on such difficult issues as debt, taxes and immigration, can he shield them from the critics who mobilize at the touch of a screen? Of course not — McConnell can’t even shield himself from the president’s tweets.
Perhaps Democrats could help him through his legislative minefield? That path is no easier. McConnell’s knack has always been discipline, not compromise. Reaching across party lines is unnatural for a man whose devotion to the Republican Party is as pure and permanent as a monk’s vow.
Moreover, it’s highly uncertain how much compromise is possible in this new age of direct connectivity. Any Democrat who votes for legislation that frees McConnell from a jam and gives the president an occasion to brag is likely to face a storm of internet opposition.
In short, Pennsylvania Avenue is not the place to read the future of politics. Look instead toward Cupertino, California, where on Sept. 12 a new iPhone will remind us that change is the new normal.
David Von Drehle is a columnist for The Washington Post. He is the author of four books, including “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year.”