Nobody in professional politics and media really knows what they’re doing right now. And it shows.
The “24-hour news cycle” was already upending established truths about how politics and journalism worked when we entered the era of social media. Politicians and political movements are now under a “little brother” surveillance state that would have been inconceivable just 20 years ago, and individual actors and small groups have never been more empowered to challenge and change the national conversation — especially anonymously. As anonymous meme makers have risen up, our agreed upon fact checkers have fallen down. That changes everything.
Diverse representation in politics is at an all time high: Never have so many different groups in America, representing different races, religious, sexual orientations, had a reasonable expectation of seeing people like themselves in politics. This also means they have a reasonable expectation of not just seeing themselves but being heard. People who live in this country would like their views to be represented in government. Of course they would: That’s called “democracy.” But for so long, government was a club limited to a very exclusive group of people, and their concerns always took precedence. That is no longer true — and it changes everything.
At the same time, the two major political parties are weaker in this country than they have been since the Civil War. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it means that a fundamental change has happened: The whole point of Donald Trump was that he was not the choice of the Republican establishment. They couldn’t stop him, and now they can’t resist him. People who have spent their lives working in politics are seeing their field taken over by people who think like entertainers.
Everything is different. And neither politicians nor the media can keep up.
The failure of the media was depressingly on display at the second CNN Democratic primary debate, where the moderators had no idea how to (or even whether to) engage people who would be president in a substantive debate, instead encouraging them to fight like children on a playground. But then these are the same people who never thought Donald Trump could rally the Republican base, or win the Republican nomination, or win the election. Who, seeing an unprecedented wave of new activism that propels the most diverse congress in history to power in the House of Representatives, can only keep reporting as though these are still just crazy kids with wild dreams rather than elected representatives with a significant constituency.
We are not likely to get real clarity about how politics really works until this new era is already solidified, or even already over. But, acknowledging my own fallibility, here is my best guess about a few things we seem to be able to say are true right now.
First — that no matter what they say, most voters simply don’t care about policy.
If voters cared about policy, Donald Trump’s base would have turned on him. He promised to raise taxes on the wealthy — instead he slashed them to ribbons. He promised to improve health insurance — instead he’s trying to throw millions of Americans off their insurance. He promised to address the opioid crisis; he promised to stop the flow of jobs overseas; he promised his trade wars would be short and easy to win; he promised to invest in infrastructure. His failure on all of these points has not alienated his supporters, because they don’t actually care about policies. If they cared, they’d want to know “wait, what’s the plan for the wall that you’re building with money you’ve re-appropriated from the military? What kind of wall is it? How much will it cost?” No one is asking these questions.
Democrats like to say they’re better, but I increasingly doubt them. American politics is becoming tribal, and the debates about which plan to support never actually seem to get down to policy details, but instead focus on whether or not it’s effective team building.
Which leads us to the second point. Passion matters. Voters are responding to people who display the kind of authentic passion that they, in turn, can feel and partake in. If you want to be hopeful, this is idealism; if you want to be cynical, it’s a virus. Either way, big ideas and big passions are what motivate people right now. The power of the vision, and the seeming authenticity with which it’s held, matter most to motivating voters and activists.
Third, and finally: Expertise may not matter to voters, but it is actually more important than ever. Our world is extraordinarily interdependent, our systems more complicated, our lives more vulnerable. It is very easy, Donald Trump is demonstrating every day, to break things that we had though were firm. We have never needed experienced technocrats more than we do now — even as we have discovered that letting technocrats set priorities is a terrible idea.
I don’t know how to fix this contradiction, I don’t know how to square this circle, but either our politicians will figure it out, or they’ll kill us through ineptitude. And the purpose of the media in this new era, I suspect, is not to offer color commentary on how they’re doing, but to provide opportunities and support for the effort to get this right.
Benjamin Wachs archives his work at www.FascinatingStranger.com. com. Email him at Benjamin@FascinatingStranger.com.