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When given real choice, especially the choice to go elsewhere, consumers will drop even the most beloved of brands for options that enhance their experience and increase their autonomy. We have all witnessed and participated in this revolutionary transfer of loyalty away from those who tell us what we should buy or think and toward those who give us tools to think and act for ourselves. No corner of the economy, of cultural life, or even of our personal lives hasn’t felt the gale-force winds of this change. Except government.
Think of any customer experience that has made you wince or kick the cat. What jumps to mind? Waiting in multiple lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Observing the bureaucratic sloth and lowest-common-denominator performance of public schools, especially in big cities. Getting ritually humiliated going through airport security. Trying desperately to understand your doctor bills. Navigating the permitting process at your local city hall. Wasting a day at home while the gas man fails to show up. Whatever you come up with, chances are good that the culprit is either a direct government monopoly (as in the providers of K–12 education) or a heavily regulated industry or utility where the government is the largest player (as in health care).
Unlike government and its sub-entities, Kodak couldn’t count on a guaranteed revenue stream: Consumers abandoned its products, and now the company is basically done. The history of private-sector duopolies and even monopolies is filled with such seemingly sudden disappearing acts: The A&P supermarket chain—if you’re under 40 years old, or from the West Coast, you probably haven’t even heard of it—enjoyed a U.S. market share of 75 percent as recently as the 1950s. Big-box music retailers and bookstores were supposed to bestride the land like colossi at the turn of our new century, but Virgin megastores have all but disappeared, and Borders has been liquidated. Dominant newspapers in one-paper towns were able to book some of the economy’s highest profit margins for four decades—more than 20 percent a year, on average, positively dwarfing such hated industrial icons as Walmart—yet with the explosion of Web-based competition, these onetime mints are now among the least attractive companies in the economy.
There is a positive correlation between an organization’s former dominance and its present inability to cope with 21st-century change. As technology business consultant Nilofer Merchant has aptly put it, “The Web turns old industries on their head. Industries that have had monopolies or highly profitable duopolies are the ones most likely to be completely gutted when a more powerful, more efficient system comes along.” We need to hasten the inevitable arrival of that more efficient system on the doorstep of America’s most stubborn, foot-dragging, reactionary sector—government at the local, state, and especially federal levels, and its officially authorized customer-hating agents, the Democrats and Republicans.
The most important long-term trend in American politics is the half-century leak in market share by the country’s political duopoly. This January, Gallup released its latest study on the question of political self-identification, finding that "the proportion of independents in 2011 was the largest in at least 60 years"--a stunning 40 percent. Democrats were at a desultory 31 percent, and Republicans proved utterly unable to capitalize on a bad, Democrat-led economy, trending downward to 27 percent.
Voters free from the affiliation of party membership are more inclined to view political claims with the skepticism they so richly deserve, to hear the dog whistle of tribal political calls as deliberate attacks on the senses rather than rousing calls to productive action. By refusing to confer legitimacy on the two accepted forms of political organization and discourse, they also hint strongly that another form is gathering to take their place.
When duopolies bleed share of a captive market, something potentially revolutionary is afoot. The Bush-Obama era of bailout economics and perennially deferred pain has produced a political backlash that has been evident most every time voters have had an opportunity to vent. When blue-state California was allowed in May 2009 to pass judgment on its political class, via a five-part budget-fix referendum (including “onetime” infusions of income tax and lottery proceeds) supported by a nearly unanimous cross-section of major politicians, newspapers, and interest groups, the slate lost by an average of 30 percentage points, despite opponents being outspent by an average of seven to one. Eight months later, unknown Republican Scott Brown won Teddy Kennedy’s old Senate seat in a three-to-one Democrat Massachusetts. Congressmen mostly canceled their traditional August town hall meetings in 2010 after getting too many earfuls in 2009, GOP establishment candidates for Senate were upended by Tea Party insurgents from Delaware to Kentucky to Nevada, and limited-government Republican insurgent Ron Paul has more than doubled his vote over 2008 so far in this presidential primary season.
For the first time in recent memory, participants in the political process, many of them newly engaged, are openly imagining and pushing for a world other than the one they currently live in. A certain spell is on the verge of breaking, with impacts we can only guess at.
Matt Welch (email@example.com) is editor in chief of reason and Nick Gillespie (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor in chief of reason.com and reason.tv. They are the co-authors of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America (PublicAffairs), from which this essay was adapted.