The biggest problem in American politics is not the Republicans. It’s not the Democrats, either. It’s not even Donald Trump, the man who broke and domesticated the former in order to run roughshod over the latter.
No, all these things are mere symptoms of the disease. But what is the disease? We have to understand the affliction before we can cure the body politic.
The disease is nothing less than a fundamental breakdown in human communication itself. It takes time to analyze something and appreciate all the nuances of a given issue. And people don’t have time for that. They would rather pass judgment immediately than take the time to think things through.
Indeed, people who even attempt to think about things in-depth are automatically condemned as traitors by their own side. Pointing out nuances or subtleties is never something zealots are interested in, and in today’s climate, you’re either a zealot or you’re intimidated into silence by the zealots. “The best lack all conviction,” etc.
Back in the ’90s, there was an extremely popular business book by Stephen Covey called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Like all self-help books for business types, it contained its share of platitudes and buzzwords, but there was also some very sound advice. The part I remember most was habit number 5: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
This is extremely good advice, and it’s something that seems to be rarely heeded these days. Certainly not in the world of online political debate, where humanity seems to have regressed to its most primitive societal constructs: small villages of like-minded individuals who venture out only to engage in raids against rival tribes.
There is some historical precedent that we can use to guide us in understanding how social media has changed communication. In the late 1500s, the spread of the printing press made it easier for people to create and distribute pamphlets. These were used to attack or defend certain people, ideas, nations, religions etc., much as social media is today. As Wikipedia helpfully summarizes: “In addition, pamphlets were also used for romantic fiction, autobiography, scurrilous personal abuse, and social criticism.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The most famous pamphlet in history is probably Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which advocated for the independence of the American colonies and attacked the British monarchy. This was pretty late in the pamphlet game, though. The real high point of pamphlets-as-propaganda seems to have been in the 1600s, when they played a major role in fomenting and prolonging the English Civil War.
Governments gradually adapted and shut down such publications, mostly by use of copyright and libel laws. It’s possible that down the road, the same thing will happen with social media. However, this is not a great solution, since it could very easily turn into a totalitarian dystopia where all speech is controlled. Paradoxically, history suggests that nothing clears the path for rigid totalitarian control so smoothly as anarchic mob rule. I suspect the internet is no exception to this pattern.
Besides the role of laws and censors in reducing the relevance of pamphlets, there was also a change in social norms. Now they are ignored or seen as the hallmark of political fringe elements. If somebody gives you a printed pamphlet about their cause, it makes them seem slightly kooky. These days, if you want to be seen as legitimate, you have to have a website and a Twitter account, or at least a blog.
It’s possible that with time, social media as we currently know it will fall out of favor, and be replaced with something else. It’s already skewing away from the written word and towards pictures: in 2004, blogs were all the rage. By 2010, it was Twitter. Now it’s moving towards things like Instagram, which by design is meant for pictures, not words.
In a way, I think this is a good thing. People who like fashion (and by fashion, I don’t just mean clothes, but everything, from movies to political views, that is seen as fashionable) can have their site, and people who don’t care about fashion—that is, people who do care about substance—can stay on their stodgy old blogs and have real discussions.
The internet isn’t the only issue, though. The rise of mass-media, which acts as a force-multiplier for charismatic leaders, has been gradually paving the way for this for decades.
I’ve talked about this at length in other posts, but I want to briefly make some points about the role of charisma, because it’s the single most important force there is in modern politics. Televised political events, debates, ads, and so on were the equivalent of atomic energy as far as revolutionizing politics, and charisma is the reason why.
The average person does not have the time to understand all the issues they are voting on. It’s hard enough to hold a job, raise a family, take vacations and live a normal, healthy life without having to also be an expert on the multiple dimensions of policy that they are electing officials to manage.
A person naturally looks for shortcuts to make the decision easier. This has been true certainly throughout U.S. history, and probably the history of all democracies. Once mass communication technology became widespread, politicians were quick to leverage it to their advantage, just as those in an earlier era used bribes and grift.
It will always be easier to vote for the candidate who “seems like a better person” than it is to study and fully understand all the potential policy implications of a candidate’s platform. I would say that no one person can fully understand all the different spheres of policy that the president, for example, can affect. People dedicate their entire careers to understanding just one of them.
People vote for the person they like better. And what determines whether you like someone or not has very little to do with a rational weighing and measuring of objective facts, and a great deal to do with hardwired human instincts combined with subconscious associations based on your past experiences.
Thus, politicians try all kinds of tricks to associate themselves with things that people like–they seek the endorsements of movie stars, championship-winning athletes, other popular politicians, etc. They try to prove that they are “just regular folks” like the voters. But that only helps with the subconscious association part of the equation. The instinct part was decided centuries before, as people developed their instincts to survive in a very different world than the one we live in now.
Here’s an example: the fundamental thought-process underlying sexism is that, in our primitive mind, we think of men as stronger than women because men, on average, have greater upper-body strength, and in ancient times, that was important because you wanted your leader to be able to climb, or carry heavy animal carcasses, or win a physical fight.
Of course, that’s irrelevant to the present day for two reasons: first, the strength gap between men and women is narrowing, and second, because the modern day leader doesn’t need to do any of that–but the hardwired instincts in the average human brain don’t know that.
Charisma is about appealing to our instincts; our so-called “lizard brains“. And we voters are all too happy to let them appeal to us this way; because it’s much easier than the fundamentally impossible task of learning about all the issues.
The way mass media has changed politics has been a gradual shift. It started with small things, like Kennedy beating Nixon by knowing he needed to use makeup in televised debates. A half-century later, a reality TV star won the Presidency.
I’ve tried to avoid talking about Trump too much on this blog, partially because it’s nearly impossible to get away from news about him as it is, and partially because the mere mention of his name tends to bring out strong negative emotions in people–both his detractors, who become enraged, and his supporters, who viciously attack his detractors. It’s unproductive.
But there is no way of writing about this subject without discussing him. Trump’s entire PR strategy depends on appeals to deep, instinctual feelings. Tribalism, nostalgia, fear of the unknown, etc.–Trump taps into all of these things in order to galvanize his supporters. And he largely relies on TV and social media to do it.
Of course, he isn’t the first politician to do this. All of them try, to some extent. Trump is just better at it. His competitors in 2016 felt like they had to keep at least one foot planted in the world of policy. But they were living in the past. In the new system of politics, being a reality TV host is far better training than service in government or the military.
This is where the charisma-infused cult-style politics, with mass media acting as a catalyst, combine to create an extremely potent brew that tells voters to revert to their most basic urges, and do what is easy and comes naturally.
Taking the time to understand others does not fit into that equation. Nor does analyzing policies and examining complicated issues with ambiguities and shades of grey. Ironically, in this regard as well, modern technology has once again just made it easier for people to revert to the ancient practice of following the tribal chieftain.
The human tendency to fall in line behind a charismatic leader and the acceleration of technologies that gratify our desire for easy answers and acceptance by our tribe have combined to make politics poisonous.
Is there a way out?
For a lot of people, I think the answer is no. Many people have no interest in thoughtful debates or analysis; they just want to say their piece and have instant agreement. Trying to debate such people is a waste of time for everyone. It just makes both sides mad.
One of the most common pieces of advice for dealing with a toxic relationship is simply to leave it. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the hardest pieces of advice to follow, because usually people feel some strong urge, be it guilt, money, fear, or something else, that tells them to stay in the relationship.
The same dynamic is at work most political arguments. In the majority of debates, no minds will be changed, and all that will happen is that people will get angry. That’s practically the definition of toxic. And yet, to just quit arguing altogether seems wrong. It feels like giving up on your own beliefs. After all, if you don’t argue for your own beliefs, who will?
You should stand up for your beliefs, absolutely. In that regard, it’s actually OK to follow the crowd and just put your opinion out there. Say what you think and why you think it’s true. Instead of reacting to someone who you think is wrong, just say what you think is right. That’s what’s really important anyway. After all, there are a theoretically infinite number of wrong ideas in the world; right ideas are a far more limited and therefore valuable commodity.
“But won’t that in itself lead to group think and insularity?” you ask. “Isn’t this how the dreaded ‘epistemic closure’ begins?”
I agree that it certainly sounds like it could, but it’s going to take a lot to prevent like-minded people from flocking together. As we’ve seen, technology and human nature are both pushing us strongly towards doing that. We can’t fight that trend; nor would we even necessarily want to, as like-minded people grouping together can produce great things. But we can and do want to mitigate the trend of different groups getting into protracted and pointless fights with each other.
The key part is that when people try to argue with you—and inevitably, they will–you will have to use your judgment as to how best to handle them. I don’t want to offer too much advice on this, as there are lots of possible angles from which they might attack, from the most childish insults to actual threats to strong, well-reasoned arguments. Each one requires a specific response.
That said, here are two key things to keep in mind: first, every argument feels like a personal attack, whether it is or not. And in fact, almost none of them are; even the ones that are designed to seem like it. The natural instinct is to strike back immediately (I’ve been guilty of this) but it’s better to take a little time to ask yourself “Is this worth responding to?” Often, it isn’t. If it is, it probably means that somewhere, it contains a nugget of useful or interesting information. Address that, and disregard the chaff.
The second thing is that the vast majority of arguments online are all formulaic lines that the arguers themselves didn’t originate. They just got them from some source of pre-made arguments for their side. If you read an online political debate as a neutral observer, you’ll realize that it’s not organic—it’s a choreographed dance where each side unwittingly follows the pattern their party has set down for them. It’s an understatement to say both sides do this—all sides do this. Most people don’t know how to argue, so they look to others (often charismatic leaders) to show them how.
Don’t be like most people. Focus on having something new to say, both in your original statement and your counter-arguments. You can quote others as supporting evidence, but your central point should be your own. After all, if somebody else already said it, why should you say it again?
This method has two good results, which act as antibodies to the disease that’s killing communication. One is that if you strive to create something original, whatever ideas you come up with are likely to be well-thought-out and robust, because you’ll have to work hard to think of them. And the second benefit is that to a degree it protects you against the charismatic leaders who are trying to cajole you into echoing them.
Ultimately, political debates will be settled by the test of which ones have the most success in the real world. So don’t worry about trying to correct people who are wrong, unless they signal that they’re open to correction. Wrongness is its own punishment, in the end. Focus on getting your own ideas right, engage with the people who have something useful to contribute, and ignore the others.
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