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A World Without Gatekeepers?

It may be easier than ever to become a famous singer, writer or comedian, but to become a winning politician, you still need to know the right people.
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Dark boardroom

Last year, comedian Patton Oswalt delivered the keynote address at the Montreal Just for Laughs comedy festival. The speech (like much of Oswalt's work) is both funny and profound, particularly the section he addresses to the people he refers to as comedy's "gatekeepers"—the entertainment industry executives, focus groups, talent agents, and others who determine who gets bookings, shows, and albums, and who doesn't.

As Oswalt explains it, the gatekeepers are increasingly irrelevant. Any actor with an iPhone, he notes, now has as much film-making power as Orson Welles did when he made Citizen Kane. The tools needed to make a film, a TV show, an album, or a book were once very rare and expensive, and just a handful of companies in the country determined whether the project happened or not. Today, pretty much all you need is an idea.

To some extent—at least within the entertainment field—Oswalt is right. The big studios still exist, but their monopoly on entertainment is gone. New skits or routines can be posted on YouTube or as podcasts and get out to millions of people instantly, virtually for free, without any gatekeeper's approval.

And yet it's not like every good idea rises to the top. I don't have a great sense of what determines success in the current system, but there are still lots of good ideas out there, and they don't all get shows. (Similarly, there are plenty of crappy shows still taking up valuable air time.) Girls is really good, but I can't believe Lena Dunham was the only recent college graduate in New York who could write clever story lines about recent college graduates in New York. There just aren't enough TV time slots for every good performer out there. Someone is making these decisions. Gatekeeping is occurring, but it's probably a lot less organized and transparent than it used to be.

All this is actually a segue into a point about politics. There is a widespread perception that the same thing that happened to entertainment elites also happened to political elites. A century ago, if you wanted to run for office, you needed the backing of a party boss or some major money figure; no one could do it on their own. You needed expertise, infrastructure, and lots of money—more than any one person could amass. Yet today, the thinking goes, it's possible to put together a campaign by yourself. A charismatic speaker with a bit of money can just hire some people and use some clever marketing tactics (Facebook ads! Viral videos!) and get himself elected. You can probably do it all with an iPhone.

Except... it doesn't actually work that way. No, the party bosses don't quite work the way they used to, but they're still there, in one form or another. And people who think they can make it in politics on their own fail far more often than they succeed. In research for my book, I studied the backgrounds of people involved in local politics in California. It turns out that lawyers and businesspeople, the people we tend to think of as strong potential candidates, have no real advantage in elections—they do about as well as anyone else. The people who do have electoral advantages are those who have worked for officeholders, are related to officeholders, or have ties to political organizations like unions or interest groups.

In a similar vein, the book The Party Decidesshows how party insiders (such as donors, activists, officeholders) have effectively determined the presidential nominees within each party since 1980. In many of these nomination contests, there's a charismatic, entrepreneurial outsider candidate who vies for the title through campaign spending, good press, inspiring speeches, etc. (Think Howard Dean in 2004, John McCain in 2000, Jerry Brown in 1992, Gary Hart in 1984, and so on.) He almost invariably loses. The reason is that the gatekeepers still exist. You won't find a Boss Tweed or a Mayor Daley sitting in a smoke-filled room deciding who gets to run and who doesn't, but a fairly small number of influential party insiders are still making these decisions for us.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing! The political gatekeepers have an incentive to pick people who are actually good at their jobs, lest they destroy their party's brand name. Take away the gatekeepers, and you really do have a popularity contest, in which the best-looking and richest people will often win. Gatekeepers can actually make some pretty good decisions.

But let's not just assume that anyone can make it in politics, or in entertainment, by virtue of their own luck and pluck. That's actually bad advice for people starting out in either field. It may make us feel all egalitarian, but it's just setting people up to fail.