The Death of the Phone Call


The radio and the telephone and the movies that we know
May just be passing fancies and in time may go.

The movies sure, the radio sure, but the …telephone? Andrea Peterson of the Washington Post notes with some surprise that president Obama’s favorite comms platform, the Blackberry, was literally dying. The parent company laid off nearly half its workforce only last week. “That’s bad news for the platform’s most prominent user, Barack Obama.” Not so long ago it was the symbol of wired power.


Obama’s BlackBerry dependency was touted as a sign of modernity before his 2009 inauguration, to the point where it was a news story that he was allowed to keep the device post-inauguration. But technology that seemed cutting-edge in 2008 now seems painfully anachronistic. Obama was reportedly “befuddled” during an attempt to call a volunteer from an iPhone during the 2012 campaign.

But the phone call has been dying too. Most people now communicate by text or other types of messaging. In fact less than half of all Britons surveyed made a single call a day. By comparison young Americans send 88 text messages a day, a trend that if anything, is growing with each passing day.

Dana Brownlee, a corporate trainer based in Atlanta, says the issue of phone aversion frequently comes up in her project management training sessions. One of her clients, a manager at a large utility company, recently had to teach his young employee what a dial tone was and explain that desktop phones don’t require you to press “Send.”

But if the practice of “ringing people up” is falling prey to the changing habits of the young, it is withering among the politically powerful for a different reason. It is declining because of the increasing difficulty of sealing a deal by achieving agreement within a small circle. The conference call — the successor of the smoke filled room of the 19th century — can’t cut it any more. The accusation that Ted Cruz has killed the dialog between the political parties with his incendiary attack on Obamacare obscures the fact that the telephone deal has been declining for a long time in this age of diminished consensus.


In a simpler time not long ago a President simply needed to make calls to the right people to make things happen. He’d call the Prime Minister of Great Britain or the President of Egypt. The very ancient will even remember something called a Hot Line with which the White House could call the leader of the Soviet Union in case the boys got out of hand. That’s how things got fixed.


With the decline in consensus those types of calls are increasingly pointless. What the New York Times called the diminished President finds less and less scope for doing business by simply phoning foreign leaders. For one they let the telephone keep ringing. The President of Syria — if so grand a title can be used to describe so meager a man — has openly mocked him, and asked for a billion dollars into the bargain to put away his chemical weapons arsenal, should the President of Syria feel like it after taking the money. The President of Iran actually declined to shake Obama’s hand in New York. Hillary Clinton was left cooling her heels in China when she was Secretary of State. John Kerry has fared little better; he spent days waiting for the Soviet Foreign minister to answer his entreaties. No, the phone ain’t what it used to be.

So if Cruz isn’t taking calls any more who else is? President Obama himself resorted to the extraordinary measure of sending a “penpal” letter to Iran via Sultan Qaboos, not because the telephone between Washington and Teheran doesn’t work any more but because they wouldn’t take his call. What’s changed is the nodes not the edges.  The most important component in a communications system isn’t the existence of the channel but the existence of the source and the sender. And the word we use for the existence of political endpoints is ‘legitimacy’. People have to be worth calling to call or take calls from.


The demise of the political phone call tracks the demise of consensus, the instrument of personal intimacy has lost its efficacy in direct proportion to its fading power to produce an enforceable deal.

Who people listen to is established by common assent. People obey the laws, stop even at red lights in the middle of a deserted suburb at midnight from assent and not because a policeman is near. The president used to be powerful because we used to listen to him.

Consensus determines who you take a call from. People file taxes and follow laws not because they’ve gotten letters or phone calls from just anybody, but because they’ve received them from people whose importance they acknowledge. Once they stop acknowledging then they don’t pick up the phone any more.  Then the only alternative method of enforcement once assent is withdrawn is to assign a policeman to each citizen to compel compliance, a method which if effective is ruinously expensive.

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The international consensus also operated on perceived legitimacy. Once upon a time a phone call from the White House threatening to send an aircraft carrier battlegroup was as effective as sending the vessels themselves. When the President wanted to lobby congress, he just called certain key representatives and they got things done. In this atmosphere, business could be done using what Victor Davis Hanson described as the Voice of Saruman system, in councils where ordinary folk stood aside open-mouthed while the Great decided their fate in terms beyond the capacity of mere mortals to comprehend.  The chieftains could freely talk among themselves “of oil blackmail, trade threats”, weighty matters in which children were not supposed to meddle, for nobility had its own reasons and prerogatives.


The phone worked in the world of “Dave” and “Vladimir or “Angela”. It was the medium of intimacy. The unguarded statement, the inside joke.  The great could even make fun of Ted Cruz among  themselves — off the record of course.  It was the prerogative of the Great.  George Bush was perhaps among the first chief executives to suspect the coming conflict between the old Voice of Saruman system and the Information Age. He was told by lawyers to stop using email because it put everything on the record.

President George W. Bush was reportedly a regular e-mail user before taking office, but sent his online friends a digital farewell note shortly before his inauguration. “My lawyers tell me that all correspondence by e-mail is subject to open record requests,” he reportedly wrote in an e-mail on Jan. 18, 2001. “Since I do not want my private conversations looked at by those out to embarrass, the only course of action is not to correspond in cyberspace. This saddens me. I have enjoyed conversing with each of you.”

Bush didn’t connect the dots quite yet, though he could at least still make phone calls back in the day, as Barack Obama used to do in his first term. But in reality that era was already ending. The significance of Ted Cruz’s lese majeste was that he cheapened all the special private numbers the players used to closely guard. Cruz’s refusal to pick up the phone diminished the instrument for the RINOs too. That’s why they hate him so much; they’re not worth calling any more. For what’s the use of calling John McCain if he can’t deliver Ted Cruz?



The political phone call won’t come back until consensus is restored.  What all this talk about “civil war” and “incivility” amounts to is that for the moment the consensus has been suspended.

At least the British understood that Cameron was humiliated when he couldn’t bring over Parliament. It took the leaders of the GOP a little more time to realize that obvious fact also applied to them.  Cruz simply hammered the last nail into the coffin Barack Obama himself built in trying to make a play for the health system. He thought he could live without consensus, by diktat, through the bully pulpit. That his Blackberry would rule no matter what. But from that point onward there was really nothing to talk about, and if the Senator from Texas didn’t say it openly it was only a matter of time before somebody else did. The consensus, like the voice call, has been declining for quite some time. We are just noticing it now, entering the period when everything has to be done the hard way. It is no longer possible to make things happen by just picking up the phone and dropping in a dime.

Oh, could you help me place this call?
You see the number on the matchbook
Is old and faded.

Oh, let’s forget about this call
There’s no one there I really wanted to talk to
Thank you for your time
Oh, you’ve been so much more than kind
You can keep the dime.

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Cross-posted from Belmont Club


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