American politics is no stranger to tough rhetoric, smearing opponents or ideologically-driven media outlets dueling one another in public forums. Back to the founding of the Republic, nascent factions vigorously and viciously debated the merits and motivations of one another’s vision for building the United States. President Andrew Jackson’s supporters and detractors never missed an opportunity to employ coarse language, rumor, and innuendo for their own purposes.
All of that seems somehow quaint and old-fashioned compared to how we see political debates play out today. Twenty years ago, 24-hour cable news channels and the Drudge Report were foisted upon us as the Monica Lewinsky scandal washed across the country. Collectively, they began shaving away the last vestiges of seasoned civility in our political discourse; leaving us with the unvarnished and unalloyed ugliness of today.
As the internet has matured and social media blossomed, the once-cloistered voices of liberal and conservative intelligentsia were shoved aside by troll armies of every political stripe; never letting a juicy conspiracy theory or example of “whataboutism” fade into the ether, squeezing every last drop of rhetorical juice from them before moving on to the next outrage -- and everything is an outrage -- to be debated.
Combining access to the public debate with anonymity meant that many of us who held unpopular or odious opinions were now free to spread them across the online diaspora, the only goal fomenting further outrage and the short-lived digital dopamine rush of accompanying likes, shares, and retweets. The high is short-lived though; encouraging those at the fringes of our political debate to dig deeper into the rabbit hole.
Our Troll-in-Chief, President Donald Trump, not only encourages (tacitly and explicitly) such behavior, he himself employs it. As we march down the road to a post-truth epoch in American discourse, the president and his West Wing communications cadre have shown that lies and exaggeration in the face of empirical and verifiable facts no longer matters.
We’re already seeing the short and long-term effects. If Fox News runs a story, Democrats will assuredly disbelieve it, seeing them as State-Run media. Conversely, if MSNBC files a report, Republicans will see it as one more example of the media trying to take down President Trump. Collectively, Americans believe little of anything they see, hear or read. Coupled with our innate desire to look for opinions which promote our own beliefs, these ugly echo chambers propagate and metastasize across the country, down into our communities and into our personal relationships. And, yes, in the wake of the 2016 election, several personal “friendships” died just by virtue of where others wrongly assumed I was politically. It’s absurd and infuriating.
We’re all to blame. American politicians, now driven by nothing more than success is next election cycle, will say and do whatever is necessary to drive their narrative to voters; the more vicious or outlandish the better: after all, crazy talk drives donations.
Our political media hold themselves up as keeper of the public interest. But more often, they are driven by their bottom line. The press needs to decide what it’s about: they can be the protectors of democracy or they can max out advertising rates, they can’t do both.
Fox, CNN and MSNBC don’t run hours of salacious content because they believe it’s good for the country. How many hours of Stormy Daniels coverage is necessary to convince viewers that the president is the person we’ve always known him to be? And, why, please tell me why we are still talking about Hillary Clinton?
We the people are most to blame, though. We know that engaging in the immaturity of today’s politics is like eating ice cream sundaes three meals a day. It might make us feel good but we know it’s not good for us, whether or not we’re willing to admit.
We also spend too much time absorbing the superficial contentment of small screens and the pale blue light and brain candy they emit. Let’s be honest, spending time worrying about our communities, our families, and the issues that confront each of us individually is not nearly as fun as getting lost in your Instagram feed looking at that happy couple, that cute baby or that over-posted political meme… In fact, confronting problems that aren’t easily or obviously resolved is just hard and it takes real work that most of us are too bothered or busy to take on.
However, without a return to each of us believing -- really believing -- that we are key parts of something larger than ourselves, our journey down this newly formed jungle path will only lead us further into the darkest corners of our collective American psyche.
Now is the time to stop, look around and agree it is time to forge a new way forward. What this means for each of us individually may look very different -- and that’s okay -- but it’s time to think about it and dig deep. Without this, the trolls win. We’re better than that, or at least we need to be.