One of the consistent claims that seems to unite everyone across the political spectrum is that current politics is highly partisan and increasingly uncivil. The conservative National Review has published numerous articles on the “ugly theater” and on how American politics had become “contentious and angry.” The democratic socialist magazine Current Affairs has discussed “hatred” in contemporary politics. And a plethora of liberal and neoliberal pundits and outlets have generated a small industry of articles calling for “civility” and “decency” in public debate. Of course, these different outlets have varied perspectives on who or what is responsible for the decline in civility. Sadly, they usually simply blame their ideological opponents, conceding—at best—that any incivility on their own team’s part is little more than a reaction to attacks by the other. Some outlets even embrace the decline of civility—claiming that a more antagonistic politics leads to the rejection of false compromises and prevents people from papering over significant differences out of politeness.
I have mixed feelings about whether politeness in politics is to be welcomed or not. As a Canadian, I naturally find various forms of rudeness taboo and often unhelpful. Also, speaking more broadly, incivility can lead to the breakdown of conditions necessary for dialogue between different factions in a democratic society. Many liberal philosophers have argued that some form of civic friendship is necessary in a democratic state, to maintain bonds of union and unite disparate groups. Civic friendship and dialogue can also be important during transitional periods when power is transferred from one political party or movement to another, an inevitable feature of any long running representative democracy. Without these values, parties may regard their opponents as inherently illegitimate and contest their right to govern even when elected in a procedurally fair manner. On the other hand, civility in the public sphere can serve to conceal deeper social antagonisms under the veneer of politeness. This was a prominent accusation directed against well-off liberals by Civil Rights advocates: liberals claimed to be sympathetic to the plight of African Americans, but tempered their empathy with calls for restraint and moderation. These days, such a disposition in the face of stark injustice looks at best like quietism. Another plausible accusation is that calls for politeness are often directed by the well off and insulated towards those who are actually impacted by serious problems. For example, genteel and aristocratic calls for civility may distract from the reality of serious injustices about which victims are rightly angry. As Current Affairs’ Nathan Robinson puts it:
Sometimes anger is not only acceptable, but it is compelled. Injustices persist without those who are passionate about them opposing them, and I worry that without those who have some hate in their heart, nobody will be concerned enough to take radical action.
While civility is necessary when democratically deliberating on issues, it may be inappropriate and even dangerous in situations in which serious injustices require dramatic resolution. Much depends on social and historical context. Nevertheless, there are profound reasons why a certain kind of hyper-partisanship has emerged in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and understanding them can help us better navigate an increasingly contentious terrain.
Neil Postman and the Politics of Spectacle
In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium—that is, of any extension of ourselves—result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.
—Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
It is always tempting to see the past through rose colored glasses, forgetting that earlier epochs had their own fierce antagonisms. We may nostalgically lionize the days when Joseph Welch called out Senator McCarthy for having “no decency,” a remark that helped end the virulent anti-Communist’s career; or praise Mahatma Gandhi’s fundamental dignity in opposing the British Empire. We forget the paranoid hysteria of the red scare and the vicious and conspiratorial attacks to which Gandhi was subjected by senior British officials, furious that he dared to challenge them. Nonetheless, twenty-first century politics can be an extremely nasty business, and even sixteen-year-old girls are apparently not insulated from its banalities. Accusations that opponents are enemies of the people and the continuous interrogation of individuals’ personal lives render political engagement impossible for the faint of heart. For some, the internet is primarily to blame for the nastiness. Contrary to the utopian aspirations of early digital theorists, most people do not use the internet to broaden their intellectual and ideological horizons. Instead, they go online to network with like-minded individuals, creating insular communities, where the same partisan narratives are endlessly recycled and redistributed. Such insularity also protects the group against having its mind changed: its members are unlikely to engage opposing ideas except in caricatured form, and, in the event they do, group pressures will swiftly compel a return to ideological conformity. There are also growing concerns that the internet is being used to propagate misleading or completely false information, particularly among older users.
I agree with many of these analyses. But we need to situate these developments within the broader cultural shift charted by Neil Postman in his prophetic work Amusing Ourselves to Death. Drawing heavily on communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, Postman argues that we often fail to recognize that the media through which we disseminate and consume information can often matter as much as the content presented. In McLuhan’s famous phrase, “the medium is the message.” Postman argues that the decay in political discourse has been underway for many decades, driven by changing forms of communication media. He points out that, in the late nineteenth century, following the advent of universal education and comparatively high literacy rates, most people learnt about politics from print media: newspapers, longform magazines and books. These media were highly inadequate in many ways—not least because, to read, you needed access to an actual physical copy. But print media also encouraged individuals to reflect upon a topic at length. Someone who reads an entire newspaper cover to cover—let alone a book—is often led to consider an issue from a more holistic and complex perspective. Newspapers even feature columnists who analyze an issue from various sides, just as books will often present detailed counterarguments to their author’s position. Postman claims that this produced political citizens who were more willing to deal with complexity and nuance than we are today. He points out that Lincoln and his opponents would sometimes debate slavery for almost an entire day, in front of a live audience. These audience members were willing to engage at such length because they had been primed to anticipate that level of detail from their regular diets of political information.
But, starting in the twentieth century, Postman argues, print media has gradually ceased to be most people’s primary source of political information. New ways of communicating—the radio, movies, television and finally the internet—emerged at a frenetic pace. Many of these are focused less on disseminating information through language, and more on audiovisual presentations, which appeal to a broader array of senses. This makes the new media far more entertaining and spectacular than the printed word. But, Postman observes, it has also created a problem. As these new media became increasingly dominant, they began to compete with one another by simplifying information into streamlined narratives, presented in as speedy and entertaining a fashion as possible, to generate attention, and, by proxy, revenue. The consequence was a gradual drive to replace complexity with entertainment. Politics became increasingly commercialized, and even assumed the quality of a sport, with competing teams, each struggling for victory. Openly ideological media would even cheer on a side, presenting their preferred party or movement as engaged in a heroic struggle with an opposing team that was, at best, woefully misguided and, at worst, transparently malicious. Greater focus was also paid to the leaders of parties, rather than their ideologies, since support for a sympathetic or charismatic figure was easier to generate than agreement with a complex set of ideas and policy suggestions. The result of these developments was that politics increasingly came to resemble a television commercial:
Because the television commercial is the single most voluminous form of public communication in our society, it was inevitable that Americans would accommodate themselves to the philosophy of television commercials. By “accommodate,” I mean that we accept them as a normal and plausible form of discourse. By “philosophy,” I mean that the television commercial has embedded in it certain assumptions about the nature of communication that run counter to those of other media, especially the printed word. For one thing, the commercial insists on unprecedented brevity of expression. One may even say, instancy …. This is a brash and startling structure for communication since, as I remarked earlier, the commercial always addresses itself to the psychological needs of the viewer … The commercial asks us to believe that all problems are solvable, that they are solvable fast, and that they are solvable through the interventions of technology, techniques and chemistry … The commercial disdains exposition, for that takes time and invites argument. It is a very bad commercial indeed that engages the viewer in wondering about the validity of the point being made. That is why most commercials use the literary device of the pseudo-parable as a means of doing their work … Moreover, commercials have the advantage of vivid visual symbols through which we may easily learn the lessons being taught. Among those lessons are that short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones, that drama is to be preferred over exposition, that being sold solutions is better than being confronted with questions about problems. Such beliefs would naturally have implications for our orientation to political discourse. For example, a person who has seen one million television commercials might well believe that all political problems have fast solutions though simple measures—or ought to. Or that complex language is not to be trusted, and that all problems lend themselves to theatrical expression. Or that argument is in bad taste, and leads only to an intolerable uncertainty. Such a person may also come to believe that it is not necessary to draw a line between politics and other forms of social life … [Political figures] have become assimilated into the general television culture as celebrities.
In such a media environment, Postman claims that it should come as no surprise if politics is increasingly reductionist and partisan. We have gradually eroded our capacity to present information that takes the multifaceted ideological and empirical complexities of the world into account, preferring instead simple narratives of good versus bad, champions and villains. These narratives are sometimes literally presented in the form of comics, as when Donald Trump is depicted as a knight in shining armor slaying the dragon of political correctness and cultural Marxism. More worryingly, Jean Baudrillard may be right: the distinction between substantial politics and its hyperreal presentation in new media may have now become entirely blurred. The hyperreal fantasies of twenty-first century politics are characterized by the shrill but empty denunciations and scandals one would expect from an entertainment industry.
Postman is not advocating a return to earlier media, to restore dignity to contemporary politics. Not only would that be impractical, it would also mean denying the benefits we enjoy from new media. I will name just two. First, new media tend to disseminate information more democratically. Those without considerable leisure—for instance, the working poor—might not have time for the extensive engagement required by print media. New digital and audiovisual technologies enable them to access information more readily and efficiently. Second, Postman himself occasionally underestimates the creativity and innovation that occur within these new media, including in the sphere of political commentary. We have recently witnessed an explosion of new outlets and aesthetic forms to express political opinions—many of them interesting and informative. This could not have occurred without the advent of new media.
Postman’s point is that we should always be attentive to the dark side of any new media. His point about the flattening of complex political discourse into polarized entertainment is timely. Indeed, it partly explains both the emergence of partisanship and the rampant cynicism in discourse today. In his lectures on Marcuse, philosopher Rick Roderick points out that, while cynical nihilism and dogmatic partisanship may seem like opposites, they reflect the same disposition: a refusal to deal with complexity. The advent of these new media tend to provoke both such reactions. Either individuals become enamored with the spectacle of partisan jousting and try to find meaning in polarized political identities, or they retreat into a cynical indifference that regards everyone as duplicitous and human problems as irresolvable. To untangle the political binds in which we find ourselves, we desperately need to move away from such one-dimensional thinking. We need to rethink how reason can be conceived and deployed to address major social problems, while finding ways to spread ideas that will be palatable to citizens in infotainment cultures. That is a very difficult thing to do, but we must do it.