Quick. Who's the national leader of the Tea Party movement? Of Occupy Wall Street?
While conservative think tanks and fundraisers are certainly doing what they can to steer the tea partiers, and while Democratic politicians would love to get closer to OWS, I don't think any of us can name one identifiable front-person for either of the most potent political movements of the hour. In fact, it's the need for the decentralization of wealth in this country that got OWS going in the first place, and it's tea partiers' fears of a strong central government that unite them.
This decentralization is becoming more prevalent in technology too. Computing is less about mainframes than it is about the cloud. And big power plants may give way to net zero homes that use no energy, or efficient solar panels on individual homes and businesses, or district heating plants that work at the neighborhood level.
And decentralization has hit media hard. Big newspapers are much less prevalent and powerful than they used to be while a plethora of blogs and websites provide a sea of information and opinions, some of it even accurate. The three big networks have a much lower market share then they did before the 200 channels of cable TV.
The question is: Is this a good thing? The immediate answer, especially on the left, is yes, of course it is, and why do you even ask?
Well, I ask because I remember the 1960s. I remember George Wallace standing in a schoolhouse door while a Kennedy administration Justice Department official and federal troops moved him aside to allow the first black students to attend the University of Alabama. I remember how "state's rights" was used as the bludgeon that kept institutional racism in place until it was broken by the power of a centralized federal government.
And I ask because there are problems that are just too big to be dealt with effectively in a dispersed way. Global climate change is, well, a global problem. So is nuclear arms proliferation. So is water and air pollution and the population explosion. There are a host of problems that don't respect national borders, much less municipal ones.
And we seem much less capable then we have been as a nation to act as one. Our divisions and the splintering of opinions, ideas and lifestyles into ever more narrow subsets seem to be growing. Can we name a national consensus about much of anything of importance?
As a general rule, I think that the widespread trend toward decentralization is a good thing because it means more democracy. And there's little question that the diminished power of three TV networks and a handful of big newspaper editors is a good thing. It seems to me that the world is becoming more democratic in that way.
But the question is: can we build institutions of consensus to tackle the big issues that require it in a decentralized world?