Three factors democratize society: technology, legislation, and periods of duress. This year, we have witnessed the effects of each.
In August of 1965, Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prohibited the infringement, denial, or delay of the right to vote in American elections nationwide. No longer would African-American voters in the South be tasked with literacy tests, puzzles, or memory exams. When President Johnson signed the legislation, it came to the rescue of women like my grandmother. A well-educated woman, she could read and write and calculate. And yet my grandmother cast her first vote for President in 1968 at the age of 44. Until Section 2 was passed in 1965, her own state’s laws and practices prevented her liberty. By then, she’d had all six of her children; two were in college. The Voting Rights Act made it possible for her to safely travel to her local polling station and cast her vote. The simple act of electing one’s government emboldened my grandmother, Dorothy Smith. Legislation democratized citizenship in the American South.
In April of 2003, Jack Ma’s fledgling Alibaba was faced with a crisis. China’s annual Canton Fair was severely hindered thanks to a dangerous SARS epidemic. The year prior, the Canton Fair featured 135,000 exhibitors and $19.7 billion in business-to-business goods traded. This particular year, the fair saw an 85% drop in attendance with just $3.8 billion traded. Ma determined that it was in Alibaba’s interest to attend the event but it did not meet the management’s revenue expectations.
Ma used the pandemic to directly address two concerns. Ebay was beginning to encroach on Alibaba’s growth. Through the frustrations of that year’s Canton Fair, Ma understood that too much of commerce was dependent on traditional retail channels. In that eight days of quarantine, the Alibaba team engineered the solution. Alibaba launched Taobao, its peer-to-peer marketplace, and Alipay. The two systems remain pivotal to the corporation’s growth to this day. This moved Ma’s original vision for Alibaba away from a traditional B2B company and towards the marketplace of today.
In just two years, China’s eCommerce ecosystem outflanked America’s. Ma is to thank for this. A period of duress democratized commerce in the Guangzhou region of China and then its entire nation.
In January of 2020, Hal Lawton decided to take on a unique challenge. When Lawton left Macy’s to lead Tractor Supply, it was to snide remarks and laughter. But what Lawton has accomplished since January of 2020 has been nothing short of remarkable. The nation’s largest rural lifestyle retailer increased third quarter revenue from $122.1 million in 2019 to $190.6 million in 2020.
Tractor Supply made fast delivery to rural customers a priority by working with Roadie, a same-day delivery service. With the partnership, Lawton scaled same-day delivery from 20% to 100% of Tractor Supply’s stores. In doing so, Tractor Supply gained an advantage over Amazon, Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Walmart. Last-mile availability proved that online retail wasn’t for urban America alone. Rural citizens now have access to many of the supplies and practices that urban and suburban homeowners take for granted. Technology democratized retail in the rural United States.
The New Digital Electorate
At the core of democratization is the work of making difficult tasks simpler. The act of democratization turns the impossible into the ordinary and the undesirable into the customary. Technology, catastrophe, and (often-divisive) legislation have long played a role in the progress that arises out of moments like the ones we’re in. With each passing year, we see more of these examples. In 2020, all three converged at once. And in each case, a direct-to-consumer philosophy was at its core.
With a pandemic raging on, citizens voted by mail from the comforts of their homes. For a number of reasons that will not be covered here, this translated into a shifting electorate. More Americans voted than ever, thanks in part to this cycle’s emphasis on mail-in ballots to promote safety, voter participation, and ease. Forward-thinking legislation produced a solution for a period of duress.
These disparate worlds intersect.
At the same time, digital-first technologies like Zoom, Amazon, Netflix, OpenDoor, Instacart, Carvana, and Shopify expanded their roles in daily American life. Like voting rights legislation, these technologies produced a solution during a period of duress. These disparate worlds intersect.
We are beginning to see the early signs of a shifting electorate that will be influenced by digital real estate more than its physical counterpart. According to a report in July 2020 that referenced the response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Pew Research Center noted that 22% of US adults have changed their residence or personally know of someone who did.
As students continue to distance learn and adults shift to remote work, the household becomes a secondary location for education and occupation rather than a respite from it. The largest technology companies in America have built employment strategies around this new normal. Meanwhile, the largest entertainment companies are building direct-to-consumer strategies to reach customers where they are: in the home. Local governments are already competing for new citizens while working to retain the existing ones.
To attract a new generation of Tulsans, the city launched a philanthropy-funded incentive scheme in November 2018. The program, Tulsa Remote, awards $10,000 grants to digital nomads who land in Tulsa and stay for at least a year. Along with the cash, the George Kaiser Family Foundation provides amenities like co-working space, and a connection to a thriving (and growing) domestic ex-pat community. 
The shift to online education, remote work, gaming, live conferencing, and leisure is a new form of agglomeration. A leading indicator, consumers have contributed to the first period of inflation for electronic products in over a decade. Over quarantine, these purchases provided gateways to work, socialization, and play. But if these behaviors become more permanent, cities will struggle to account for them. 
What may we observe over the next five to 10 years as a result? The United States may see a complete reconfiguration of states that were once reliably “blue” or “red” as urbanites migrate upstate or out of state. Or retirees will take advantage of incentivized urban living. Americans have become less reliant on their physical surroundings for community, work, education, and entertainment. And our post-vaccination future will still reflect the lingering changes caused by this year-long season of democratization. One thing is for certain: agglomeration is no longer a physical manifest of human resources, housing, and retail. Agglomeration is digital now. And that means that where we live follows our virtual loyalties and not our physical ones.
The second-order effect of the mass adoption of streaming and remote technologies is a digital electorate that may be unpredictable for quite some time. The American political industrial complex will have new behaviors to account for.
By Web Smith | Art: Alex Remy | About 2PM