More than any other election I have experienced in the U.S., our current Presidential election is making me sick; I feel bloated with the nasty, unavoidable concoction of personality dissection, gossip, and partisan commentary I am fed everyday. I am not the only American who feels this way. We all play a role in the production and relentless distribution of this public pollution, but some of us have greater roles and greater opportunities for influence, and therefore greater responsibility for a political discourse, indeed a political culture, that is now a national disgrace. I hold as particularly responsible the two major parties (occasionally joined by the thin-voiced, childish mimicry of the Green Party and Libertarian candidates) and the media.
At lunch a few days ago, a friend tried to pinpoint when the shift happened from assessing Presidential candidates on the basis of what they stand for to what they are like, where what they are like is a shallow morass of un/successful image-creation, ability to sound like a living-room or bar buddy, common frailties, irrelevant transgressions of relatives and associates, shifting status on a prurient standard of sexual/gender correctness, and portentous judgment on private thoughts and communications that are increasingly publicized and read as the fundament of a “right to information” in democratic process. Attempts to present what candidates stand for in terms of potential policy and action, based on their past records and the substance of their current statements are covered over by either fear-mongering partisanship (…which the major parties now resort to with mind-numbing normality. If you read their emails to their supporters – a daily barrage – it appears that this is the basis of democratic politics in the US. And, yes, I fully intend the “equivalency" in my critique here.); or small-minded commentaries on character that may claim to have a moral basis, but end up sounding like the verbal sniping of a Hobbesian schoolyard.
As a voter and a donor to campaigns, I have become increasingly frustrated by the way my party treats me like an ignorant partisan, and I have every reason to suppose that the other party does the same with its supporters.* I continue to believe that under the fluff of fear-mongering partisanship and personality-focused nonsense (both spiteful, usually about the opponent, and hagiographic, usually about one’s own candidate) that my party does hold the values that I hold about access to justice and wellbeing for all people in the country, and the role of government in creating conditions for such equality of access, but I find myself losing interest as the party and political campaigns seem simply to want to trigger me into sheep-like partisanship. I also would like to believe that the other party, under its own fluff of fear-mongering partisanship and personality-focused nonsense, holds values important to its supporters, including what they see as the role of government. I probably don’t share some number of their values and, for the most part, I disagree with their conclusions on the role of government and actual policies, but I’ve lost a sense of the substance of what the opposition stands for, given the irrelevancies they promote, presumably to trigger their supporters into simplistic partisanship. I would love to express my substantive disagreement in public argument and mobilize it in political contest, but, in our politically segregated lives, the space for public conversations across political differences is narrow and cross-partisan language is either politely flat, or poisonous.
So I attribute significant responsibility to the major parties for the national disgrace of our politics and political discourse. But I hold the media, “the watchdog of democracy” (if this were a snapchat story, you would see and hear my snort), even more responsible than the major parties.
As spouting “news,” indistinguishably from opinion and speculation, has become easier, news outlets compete to capture eyes and ears for their trivial, but often deliciously damaging, tidbits. As “right to information” becomes the right to uncover, publish, and comment on every private communication, regardless of its relevance to the substance of what a person, party, or platform stands for, the top news yesterday, for example, was about what Colin Powell said about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in private emails. I am interested in what Colin Powell would expect from a Republican candidate in terms of policy and governance and the ways in which Donald Trump falls short of his expectations; I am interested in what Powell would be concerned about with regard to Hillary Clinton’s leadership. I am not interested in his casual, abbreviated private judgments on either candidate.
Pretty much everyday, I find articles that express, or defend against, snideness, spite, or gossip about the candidates, or even more irrelevantly, their families or associates. Sometimes these articles are routinely sensationalist, or colloquially written and unpretentiously pointless; other times they have a sober tone but belong to the same universe of amplified personality-, gossip-, and arena-style politics. Any critique (like this blog piece!) is ultimately sterile because by itself it does not recalibrate the functions and content of “news” and “media."
And yet, I believe, the media with its new technologies, forms, and opportunities is the best equipped to shift our political culture back to substance, not just of personal character and capacity, not even just of the values that underly policies and the practical details of policies, but of the whole framework of values and policies of which a candidate is the face, as well as the legislative, knowledge, administrative, and civil society networks that necessarily undergird, drive, and contest those policies. Even while the internet and new social media have multiplied and amplified polarizing voices of innuendo and adulation, I have been astounded by the range and depth of information available to me with a network connection, and charmed by the way some people’s use of social media has shown me new ways to question and understand the world. Oddly, given my current cynicism and frustration, I am confident that journalists and commentators can craft a world of media that does the serious work of democratic public culture while keeping, if/as we must, the entertainment of free-wheeling burlesque and caricature. Will they? Will enough of them make an effort to draw us away from the untenable political culture we have today?
* Communications strategists from both parties would do well to consider the framing, language, and tone of a recent letter by a long-time Republican Precinct Committeeman in Illinois, Chris Ladd.