For this, my final post for the course, I would like to take a different tone from what I typically write. I usually try to roll some aspect of readings or discussions we have had in class that struck me into an argument or a larger, related point. This post is not going to be that. This post is going to be a culmination and examination of the alarming things I have read and seen throughout the semester that, in my opinion, are leading Americans down a dark, frightening road.
It is perhaps too easy and too tempting to take a defeatist, cynical view of the state of modern American political communication, but that is because there is so much to be cynical about. I came to this course with a bit of (perhaps naive) optimism intact, hoping to leave with a better understanding of the ins and outs of political communication, particularly as it is concerned with the field of journalism, because it is a relationship that has always fascinated me. However, now that I am nearing the end of the course, I have to honestly say that I wish I could press F5 (refresh, for those uninformed) over and over until I had unlearned everything that I now know.
I think the crack in the foundation started for me with “The Outrage Industry,” a piece by Berry and Sobieraj. While of course I already knew that there was such a thing in existence, as evidenced by Fox News (and I use the term “news” very loosely in referring to that network), I do not think I had fully grasped the extent to which news in this country had changed.
It is easy to point to Fox News as the glaring example, but after reading that piece I started to see all of the news that I consumed on a daily basis in a very different light, and I was astounded by how even more moderate outlets like CNN and the liberal stronghold MSNBC were engaging in the very same tactics. I think that the most alarming part of this for me was that, until that point, I had not even stopped to consider those two networks as being part of the outrage industry. In my mind, outrage belonged solely to the right wing. Yet, as I thought more about it, I saw news figures I had come to know and trust like Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes ginning people up on outrage as well, albeit in a much less obvious and more nuanced fashion.
I also began to see it online, where almost every headline was some reaction to something that someone said that someone else did not like. The Politically Correct Police were everywhere, ready and willing at any moment to swarm and strike out at anyone who said something they deemed inappropriate. Perhaps the most stark case of this I encountered was when comedian Bill Maher had Ben Affleck on his show and the two had a heated debate about Islam and Islamophobia. The social media (and news media) backlash toward Maher in the following days and weeks was astounding to me. I could not help thinking that today’s media had become dominated by outrage, that the entire news cycle is fed and maintained by a steady stream of it.
The crack in the foundation of my naivete only grew larger after reading Alexander’s “The Performance of Politics.” This was another case of delving deeper into something that I already knew to be true. I think that, in all honesty, most Americans know that all of politics is a performance, a drawn-out game of charades, but for whatever reason we all accept it and get caught up in it anyway.
I am guilty of this myself. As a young gay man, voting for the first time in his life, I was sucked into the whirlwind of the 2008 Obama campaign, sold on the ideas of hope and change. Somehow, despite my already overwhelmingly strong level of cynicism about American government, I was able to suspend my disbelief and convince myself that Obama had what it took to really change things for the better and to save us from the collapse I thought we were heading for.
However, knowing what I know after reading Alexander, I feel like a childish fool. I now have the tools to see how and why I was swept away by the Obama campaign and why it was silly of me to think that one man, no matter how much he talked about and promised it, could actually change the course of United States politics. Not only is it impossible, it is impractical and political suicide for a candidate to even attempt to make good on the promises of change. The promises are made only as a means of selling themselves to the American public, and they are promptly checked at the front door of the White House when and if the candidate is elected.
If these two pieces of writing began the crack in the foundation, the piece by Didion, “Insider Baseball,” turned it to dust and blew it away. I cannot emphasize enough how beautifully that piece articulated my thoughts and feelings about American politics. It is clear, painfully clear, in fact, that Americans on the ground level have no place in their government. There is no seat reserved for them at the table. Our role, or at least as it seems to me, is simply to serve as bodies to fill auditoriums during campaign stops or to be available for manipulation and mobilization.
Didion talked about media events and campaign trails being made by and for the media, events where there are no “outsiders” to muck the perfect camera shot up, and that is just it: Americans are the backdrop to a political narrative, a narrative where they are not even tertiary characters, let alone secondary or primary. The message I took from that piece was that government today, while it may still be made by the people, is in no way, shape or form for the people.
Which brings me to the ideas we have discussed most recently: that of “slacktivism” or “clicktivism,” and the shift away from direct political engagement among everyday Americans in the early part of the 1900s, to armchair check writing in the 60s and 70s, to Facebook likes and tweets in modern times.
As I said in class, there is something inherently American about the idea of participating in democracy from the comfort of one’s couch or office chair. Why bother going out and protesting or anything like that when one can simply make a PayPal donation to MoveOn or any of the numerous other such organizations who will be happy to send someone out to do it for you?
What I did not say in class is how much that depresses me. As angry and cynical as I am about government right now, there is a part of me that refuses to give up or to just stop caring altogether. Make no mistake, I want to stop caring, but I just cannot. In my mind, to give up, throw your hands in the air and admit defeat, or admit that one has no power on an individual level so why bother at all, is to give up on citizenship altogether. If we do not participate, then of course we do not have any power. Participation is our power.
Unfortunately, I do not think that sentiment is shared among my peers.
So many people I know, within and outside of my age range, have given up and stopped paying attention to politics. Though that frustrates me, I also cannot say that I blame them, because it is so easy to do right now. Yet, the answer to this problem is not to make Facebook posts and tweets about how awful our Congress is; it is not to sign a worthless e-petition in an attempt to convince oneself that they are making a difference.
Though it is true that there is strength in numbers, there is no amount of clicking that is going to save the world, no matter how convenient—or at times powerful—it may feel to do so.
One million likes on a Facebook page mean nothing. One million Twitter followers mean nothing. One million signatures on an e-petition mean nothing. One million bodies on the grounds of Capitol Hill, however? That means something. So, how do we get back to that?
At the start of this post I said I wanted to press F5 on everything I had learned about political communication, but maybe that is not the right approach. What might happen if we all decided to press F5 on our civic engagement instead?
There is only one way to find out.