American politics has never been a dreamscape of considered, civil disagreement and wonky progress toward consensus. American politics and the American press have always been rambunctious, tendentious, and at times violent arenas, with warring papers and ideologies fighting viciously. At the founding of the nation, the populace was so whipped up with anti-Catholic fervor that George Washington, who was trying to enlist the French to help in the colonists’ struggle against the British, publicly condemned the “vicious and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the Pope” to tamp down the mania.
So let’s not romanticize the past. Still, one worries about the state of civic engagement in America. To be specific, two tendencies stand out. One is widely lamented, but the other is just as pernicious. First is the tendency to insulate oneself in social media where one regularly hears his own views reflected, or at least his enmities validated, but rarely considers the complexity of the issues or the limits of our knowledge.
A recent article in the Washington Post highlighted how to get ahead in today’s media landscape. Chronicling the new “yellow journalism,” the Post article profiled two formerly
unemployed restaurant workers [who are now] at the helm of a website that gained 300,000 Facebook followers in October alone and say they are making so much money that they feel uncomfortable talking about it because they don’t want people to start asking for loans.
The two seem moderately self-aware, realizing that they’re producing rotgut content that does nothing to broaden knowledge or civic engagement:
There are times when Wade wonders what it would be like to write an article he truly believes in. “In a perfect world,” he says, it would have nuance and balance and long paragraphs and take longer than 10 minutes to compose. It would make people think. But he never writes it, he says, because no one would click on it, so what would be the point?
And lest anyone believe our modern day Woodward and Bernstein are just hard driving ideological conservatives,
“It would be a perfect time to open up a small liberal newspaper right now,” he says as he types a post with, “The Democratic party is finished! Just wait til you see what happened today… .”
“It would,” Wade says. “There is so much animus on the left right now.”
“You could get more traffic than we do now,” Goldman says.
“It wouldn’t be very hard to argue the other side for me,” Wade says, as he types a post that says, “LIKE + SHARE IF YOU LOVE TRUMP! It’s time to heal the nation. All the lies that we have been fed about him were wrong. He is not a Nazi, he is not a Xenophobe, he is not Deplorable, he is not racist and he is about to make America great again!”
As these two young media mavens dole out Facebook fodder that’s the media equivalent of Monster energy drinks and Hot Fries, another tendency in civic debate should be lamented as well: the fetishization of so-called fact-checking. This became a topic of conversation during the debates, when there was controversy whether the moderators and/or networks would fact-check the candidates in real time.
The problem here is that almost none of what we debate in politics is fact. Does cutting taxes increase government revenue? Would bombing Bashar Assad’s forces produce a favorable outcome to the Syrian civil war? Is a revenue-neutral carbon tax possible?
None of these questions is amenable to fact checking. If a candidate said the boiling point of water was 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or that human beings are silicon-based, we could fact check those things. But when it comes to the social science questions that our politics centers on, the objects of debate are rarely facts. We are debating, usually implicitly, theories that carry with them ideas about what sorts of things are important, what sorts of things cause various outcomes in social and political life, and how to value various goods.
By treating political questions as disputes about fact, we render our opponents not just wrong but deranged. They are denying facts, so at best they must simply be stupid.
I’m not sappy about politics, but between the sludge on Facebook and the prissy fact-checkers, our political discourse has gone from bad to worse. There seems to be no way out other than to turn off, tune out, and unplug ourselves from the media we’ve been using to form our opinions.
Maybe things would get better if over our turkey and pinot, we just talked face to face with somebody we disagree with. Listened to him or her. Think about what’s being said. And see if we can’t get beyond the demonization and echo chambers that have helped us down into the pit where we find ourselves today.