America’s policy elites have much to learn from the cable industry’s losing battle with “cord cutters.” In failing to adjust to changing consumer preferences, cable companies have lost nearly 33 million subscribers in recent years and are struggling especially with consumers in their 20s and 30s.
The point of intersection with foreign policy is this: The average American wants choice and personalization, not a bundled, take-it-or-leave-it offering. That has left the market wide open for new entrants willing to break with past business models and orthodoxies, from Netflix to Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPredictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure A review of President Biden's first year on border policy Hannity after Jan. 6 texted McEnany 'no more stolen election talk' in five-point plan for Trump MORE.
Customer and voter loyalty are more fluid than ever, particularly for younger Americans. A case in point: Americans’ identification with a particular political party is fading as an increasing number of voters describe themselves as political independents.
And the facts speak for themselves. In perhaps the most extreme example, between 11 and 15 percent of Americans voted for Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJudge denies Trump spokesman's effort to force Jan. 6 committee to return financial records Gina McCarthy: Why I'm more optimistic than ever on tackling the climate crisis The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks, Senate balks MORE in 2012 and then voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
Consumers and voters have access to more information than ever before. All of that information at their fingertips makes Americans feel more empowered to question existing choices.
They have seemingly endless thirst for alternatives. This also seems to make them more susceptible to false claims or empty promises. In rejecting the old, they aren’t necessarily conducting rational comparisons but are instead acting on impulse or simply rejecting the status quo.
The biggest consumer frustration with cable has been the unwillingness of companies to “unbundle” offerings, allowing a la carte selection at a reduced price point. Why pay for 140 channels when you only watch five of them?
For American voters, there is a similar rejection of party platforms. In the 2016 election, Donald Trump seized on this desire to “mix and match” ideologies.
Policy elites decried the lack of overall substance and continuity in the 2016 Trump platform, but he showed mastery of the new market dynamics that connected with a winning cross-section of voters on the issues that resonated with them: “the wall,” “better deals” in trade and allies’ contributions to collective security, restoring American industry and tax cuts.
This stood in stark contrast to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe dangerous erosion of Democratic Party foundations The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat Left laughs off floated changes to 2024 ticket MORE’s carefully articulated platform that touched on every major policy issue facing the United States, including the funding and process to achieve these. But it felt like an old-line party platform, not a dynamic, individual-voter-oriented offering.
Many Trump “subscribers” may now regret their choice as the president fails to deliver on key promises, but he continues to dominate the information cycle with his unbundled issue set.
2020 presidential aspirants would be wise to begin their campaigns not with top-down, comprehensive political offerings, but with a bottom-up assessment of what voters want. It can be a two-way conversation with time for policy rigor.
But those candidates who fail to understand the new paradigm of emboldened voters seeking choice and novel “mix-and-match” approaches beyond traditional party platforms will surely be swept aside by those who do.
Sam Brannen leads the Risk and Foresight Group and is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.