Searching for Consensus
The divide between conservative and progressive thought is often framed as one of class, pitting rural communities with industrial and agrarian notions of work, gender and race against urban technocracies intent on dismantling the economic and demographic barriers that seem intrinsic to conservative identity. The insertion of new voices into mainstream dialogue has diluted previously clustered ideological positions so profoundly that old media notions of authority feel dated and inadequate. Journalism’s fealty to advertising and corporate interests leaves the entire industry open accusations of bias, but the erosion of barriers between reporting, activism and entertainment makes critique difficult. The best media organizations use this to their advantage, boasting diversity and creativity not seen in the newsroom of old while working to maintain financial transparency, but those without substantial corporate backing often fall into sensationalism to survive in a click-based economy.
The relationship between professional and social media is both cyclical and intertwined, as media members frequently use social outlets as an annex of their published work. Online publications, long a haven for informal, opinion driven writing, adopted social media quickly and naturally. Twitter, initially an information goldmine filled with on-the-record quotes from athletes and celebrities, grew into a community with a unique language and etiquette that mimicked a face-to-face public forum. Twitter’s failure to adequately moderate this forum is well documented, but its influence on modern communication is undeniable. The much lambasted character limit elevated concise, witty aphorisms that laid the groundwork for our current headline driven media climate. Access journalism lost much of its luster as public figures began to use the site as a personal megaphone, bypassing media gatekeepers in the process. Internet writers, once second class citizens in the media landscape, gained exposure and clout as print subscriptions dwindled. These writers thrived by abandoning the tonal constraints of print, venturing into more taboo subject matter, and flaunting their cultural literacy.
Despite the public debate surrounding fake news and media credibility, we still turn to journalistic templates when waging our own arguments. As publishing standards continue to mutate to fit partisan audiences, these templates will polarize in step with national ideological fault lines. Bias has always been a part of the American media climate, but the current divide is marked by a chasm of tone. This is not new: political journalism in the United States predates its status as a sovereign nation. Editorial pamphlets like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense helped kickstart the American revolution, and much of the debate for the ratification of the constitution took place in warring Federalist and Anti-Federalist essays and speeches.
ABC provided a template for modern cable tv panels when the network pitted extreme leftist provocateur Gore Vidal against the acerbic conservative intellectual William F. Buckley in a televised debate of political issues leading up to the 1968 election. While it’s simplistic to trace any direct modern ideological lines to this debate, both men had an enormous influence on the tone and format of future public discourse in the United States. Their scathing brand of performative debate (itself a callback to the barely constrained hostility of British Parliamentary sessions) proved to be excellent television. Geoffrey Kabaservice, an author and Assistant Professor of History at Yale University who’s written extensively on the history of conservatism in the United States, notes in an essay for The American Conservative:
In choosing Buckley and Vidal, ABC was aiming for maximal controversy. For one thing, the ideological distance between the two men was considerably greater than the distance between the two parties in those days. Buckley was the founder of the modern conservative movement, which regarded the Republican Party much as pirates would regard a merchant ship to be boarded, while the bestselling novelist Vidal by 1968 had come to identify with the radical left that viewed the Democratic Party as one more establishment to be overthrown.
This public display of personal animosity may have exaggerated the polarization of the left and right in the eyes of viewing public. The genuine drama created by their willingness (eagerness?) to breach the norms of polite debate demonstrated the commercial viability of live, unscripted television and created a market for opinions in a media landscape dominated by the staid objectivity of Walter Cronkite.
The 2017 U.S. presidential election was an emphatic rejection of the language of progressivism. Donald Trump’s clumsy podium ad-lib was an unexpected counterpoint to a number of issues on the list of grievances that ultimately united his voting block. Voters who found Trump’s views ‘distasteful’ still appreciated his refusal to yield to what they consider the oppression of politically correct culture. The aggressive, bombastic, and frequently racist nature of his speeches felt to some like an anecdote to tone policing, particularly in contrast to Hillary Clinton’s corporate, reserved public demeanor. The results of this election (and every election) are too complex to hinge on a factor as subjective as candidate demeanor, but Trump’s success is a notable (if anecdotal) indicator that a poorly articulated ideology can be powerful if it hits the right emotional beats.
Trump’s administration continues to deal with heavy media opposition in part because he’s done so much to discredit the industry in the eyes of his already skeptical constituency. His previously laughable attacks on the success and credibility of publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post are now backed by authority of the presidency, and represent a real threat to efficacy of journalism in this country. Press secretary Sean Spicer has continued this confrontational relationship with the press by avoiding questions from established journalists during his briefings, lying from the podium, and launching into a now infamous series of tirades when faced with scrutiny. This hostility has effectively eliminated any non-partisan pretense from political coverage.
It can be difficult to find the clarity that hindsight is supposed to offer when contemplating Trump and the implications of his success on the country’s political future. His rise to power was predicated on myriad factors, including his unique brand of celebrity. There are clues that, within a broader narrative, point to his rise as a logical endpoint to an ideological rift that goes much deeper than the voting record. Cultural and dialectic fragmentation has made it increasingly difficult for warring political factions to find common ground outside of the voting booth. Culture, like news and politics, doesn’t have many universal offerings. This may seem a trite observation in the context of political polarization, but I think our lack of shared reference points calls into question the viability of a political future that includes any kind of consensus. Many on the left, myself included, have lambasted empty patriotism as a breeding ground for hatred and an excuse for war, but infighting within the national dynamic can be equally destructive. My inability to make a political appeal that resonates on Facebook may represent a small sample size, but it’s a telling anecdote of division at a very basic, human level of interaction. I’ve always believed that properly deploying language is an important step in resolving differences, but many of the conversations I witness and participate in indicate a loss of shared ideals too pronounced to be solved with advanced logic or sentence structure. It may be that our only remaining consensus is the need to talk about Trump.