Many people who might once have been activists now engage in political life only passively, by watching videos and reading news and commentary. Moreover, so much political commentary is produced and disseminated that engaging with it even passively has become emotionally draining. I have called the malaise and paralysis brought on by this deluge of troubling information vigilance fatigue.
During the Trump years, liberal commentators were faced with the difficulty of covering the president’s constant excesses and almost daily norm violations without rendering their audiences numb to them—an effect to which they did not give enough thought. What were these commentators suggesting their readers do about any of it? The predominant feeling was one of utter helplessness. Debates raged in the New York Times about whether Trump was a fascist. His similarities with fascist leaders were clear enough, particularly in his tough-man talk. Trump’s refusal to accept the election result was planned months in advance—albeit, fortunately, with his usual incompetency—and his rhetoric fomented a chaotic attempt by some of his supporters to occupy the US Capitol building on 6 January 2021. But, having established that Trump had fascistic traits, what was the commentators’ endgame? The wiser among them learned to choose their battles—especially after Trump was impeached but efforts to remove him from office failed.
Vigilance fatigue was actively exploited by Trump’s advisor Stephen Bannon, who had previously edited Breitbart News. Taking a leaf from Vladimir Putin’s playbook, Bannon aimed to “flood the media zone with shit.” Journalist Sean Illing claims that this strategy was effective because it exhausted Trump’s liberal opponents to the point of submission. Trump dominated the news by making outrageous comments in press conferences and on his Twitter feed. The liberal media took those comments seriously, fact-checking each one; but, again and again, by the time they had finished, the media’s attention had already moved on to the next outrageous comment. Illing claims that we should think of this strategy as part of a technological phase transition in how politics is conducted—one that has outlived Trump’s presidency. It is a strategy that would not have been possible before the advent of the twenty-four-hour news cycle.
The emergence of the term doomscrolling, which refers to the act of consuming an endless procession of negative online news items, is a symptom of this technological stage. The term first appeared in October 2019, and its use became widespread during the Covid-19 pandemic. Doomscrolling late at night is bad for your mental health. There is a particular brand of misery wrought by helplessness in the face of terrible news: lies exposed to no avail; climate thresholds exceeded with no action taken; the pandemic response bungled with no accountability. It is little wonder that people might want to disengage from all this frightening information: responsibility without control leads to anxiety and burnout.
One obvious antidote to vigilance fatigue is to reconnect with local politics—with what we can control—and worry a little less about what is happening at the national level in the United States, even if you are American.
Because clicktivism—online activism—largely involves preaching to the choir, it inevitably leads to frustration. Internet activists tend to rage against their own impotence and become hypervigilant towards information within their limited sphere of influence. They typically believe that political shaming is the best strategy, and that engaging in open disagreement only gives legitimacy to bad actors and wrong ideas. Most of their rage is unleashed on minor transgressors, many of them political liberals. For example, data analyst David Shor was fired for tweeting that race rioting around election time has historically been bad for Democrats; meanwhile, conservative commentators who made truly vitriolic comments about those same riots have kept their jobs. Liberals and internet activists on the left currently have little to gain from engaging in good-faith disagreements with each other, and this is another driver of liberal disengagement from politics. As a result of these dynamics, the liberals and the Marxist left are split about how to respond to the populism that is currently sweeping the western world.
Nineteenth-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass was among the first to apply to the cause of universal civil rights the insight that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” This idea that the defence of civil rights requires vigilance was equally resonant in the twentieth century, in the wake of the Holocaust and the gulag. Their mechanized approach to mass murder was novel and called for a new type of vigilance. By Hannah Arendt’s reckoning, it was the blind obedience of the masses to political gangsters that allowed these disasters to unfold. After post-World War II reconstruction, the thesis of totalitarianism (that the extremes of left and right have obvious similarities) became welded into the liberal consciousness. But as the living memory of these horrors has faded, so too has their grip on our political sensibilities.
The two morally questionable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, waged partly in the name of vigilance in defence of liberty, shook at least some people’s faith in the liberal project. This trend will only be sharpened by the humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan. The emergence of Trumpism shattered the illusion that the western world had a healthy political immune system. Most liberals, committed as they are to constitutionalism, could only look on in horror as liberal norms were trampled one after another. Many who organized popular resistance to Trumpism were influenced by critical theory. This body of thought was developed at the end of World War II by members of the Frankfurt School. Two of its leading figures, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, took an explicitly Marxist approach in their Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947). Adorno’s idea of the culture industry held that the public were being indoctrinated into becoming obedient workers and consumers. Horkheimer and Adorno both argued that the Holocaust, far from being a deviation from Enlightenment goals, was an inevitable consequence of the technological advances produced by the scientific, rational approaches of Enlightenment thinkers themselves.
It was the ideas of the Frankfurt School—not those of Hannah Arendt—that provided the intellectual impetus for the street protests that erupted in 2020 around the Western world. Many members of the Black Lives Matter movement view Arendt’s anti-totalitarianism as antiquated and inimical to their goals. For liberals, this is profoundly troubling. While some aspects of their critique have merit, the followers of the Frankfurt School are largely mistaken about the origins of totalitarianism. What they see as the political lobotomization of the masses is in fact nothing other than vigilance fatigue.
Adorno was right, even prescient, about one thing: modern forms of communication have habituated us to passive political participation. It is so much easier to update a social media status than attend a march or a town hall meeting. Town hall meetings, petitions and marches, meanwhile, have become less politically influential than they were a hundred years ago. It is easier to organize politically in the internet era—but it remains easy for the powers that be to ignore expressions of online protest on the grounds that they do not represent the views of the silent majority. Political parties are election-winning marketing machines rather than faithful interpreters of the general will and seekers of the common good.
This situation is not a necessary feature of late capitalism. Capitalism has proved much more adaptable than the Frankfurt School thinkers predicted, partly because—in liberal democracies at least—it has never achieved cultural hegemony. Although citizens are often passive consumers, there is a limit to what they will swallow. Movies, books and music are not the mere tools of capitalism that Adorno thought they were. For example, in many news outlets, criticism of neoliberal political models is the norm, not the exception. Criticism and political commentary have not been sidelined in our culture; on the contrary, we are inundated by them. What is lacking is a clear pathway to turn the concerns they express into constructive political action.
The advantage that Arendt’s views have over Adorno’s is her moral realism. For example, her notion of radical evil lets no one off the hook for Nazi crimes: those who thought their position in the Nazi regime was purely technocratic were in fact its enablers, and therefore morally culpable. This emphasis on moral agency contrasts with Adorno’s focus on cultural hegemony, which suggests that one’s moral responsibility is not to act differently, but merely to voice support for the idea of complete structural overhaul.
The Trump years were a close shave for American democratic institutions. The best path forward is to find a synthesis of the two divergent approaches to politics currently pursued on the left: acknowledge structural inadequacies, but also value individual civic virtue and responsibility. We need a new anti-totalitarian political approach that combines some of Adorno’s ideas and some of Arendt’s—a means of pursuing structural reform without succumbing to demagoguery. Liberals need to be less afraid of structural changes, while critical theorists need to assimilate both Arendt’s appreciation for individual responsibility and her scepticism about claims of collective responsibility, which she saw as a way of ducking the former. In order to pursue individual actions that will help return our beleaguered body politic to a state of resilience and health, we must find a way to conquer vigilance fatigue.