2017: don’t take it personally

For the first 11 months of 2017 it looked like the Trump presidency might be the perfect advert for why people like Trump shouldn’t be in office. Not only because he had stupid and malicious ideas, but also because he just wasn’t any good at making his ideas into reality. No health care reform, no tax reform, no leverage over North Korea. Mike Pence jostling for position, polls edging down, staff appointed and sacked like reality show contestants while Republican senators disavowed Trump and Trumpism.

Then presidential approval polls stopped getting worse, staffers stopped getting sacked, and in December Trump managed to pass tax legislation. In December Trump moved from cautionary flash-in-the-pan to long-term reality.

Brexit played out in almost perfect synchrony. We knew that Brexit was very likely but, against the odds, I hoped for some outcome better than full-blown Leave—a government meltdown in the face of No Deal and recession, or some kind of luxuriantly soft Brexit.

For the first 11 months Brexit policy was chaos, the election went badly for the Tories and May’s conference speech made even her enemies feel sorry for her. Then, at the very last minute, again in December, Ireland agreed on Brexit border arrangements. EU negotiations moved onto phase two and hard Brexit began looked set in stone.

Across the year I swung from reading every legalistic nuance of Mueller’s Russia investigation on the Lawfare blog to avoiding news from the US altogether. I likewise oscillated between personally taking on every Brexity Andrew Lillico tweet and going out of my way to avoid even the word ‘Brexit’.

Moving into and out of the fray gave me this impression: public debate is utterly unmoored from reality of any kind. It’s rap-battle tag-team wrestling, a Twitterised lynch mob competing to find the verbal jab that needles the other side into stupefied rage. The whole thing is for entertainment purposes only. It’s not that society has never been divided and angry before, but that it’s never been so divided and angry over more irrelevant issues. Can you think of a more divisive leader than Thatcher? But Thatcher’s policies, right or wrong, directly connected with the actual issues that Britain faced. Obama divided America, but his policy agenda, right or wrong, connected with issues like healthcare that Americans actually faced. Brexiters rarely pause to explain how Brexit will solve any actual problems. The Muslim ban and ‘Build a wall!’ address almost exclusively imaginary concerns.

If you are looking around for what’s new that might cause politics to change in this way, it’s impossible not to notice the growing influence of social media — especially given Trump’s relationship with Twitter. Around September I had a chance to look into the research on social media and its impact on politics. I wrote a 2000 word post on it and then canned it. TL;DR: it’s complicated. There’s no knock-out evidence that political discourse has suddenly broken because of Facebook. Survey data shows society is more politically polarised than it used to be, but there are two caveats: firstly, polarisation started long before social media; secondly, for the most part polarisation manifests itself not as more extreme views, but as more tribalised views. Where once most people had a mixture of leftwing and rightwing opinions, now they have a much greater degree of ideological ‘purity’: all right wing, or all left wing. Authors like Cass Sunstein (Republic 2.0) and Eli Pariser (The Filter Bubble) have argued that social media will drive extremist views, so this second caveat also undermines the case that social media is to blame. The final piece of evidence that social media is not to blame is that most people still say they get their news from the TV.

Is there a way to reconcile the subjective observation that social media has changed politics with the empirical evidence that polarisation was already increasing, that extremism hasn’t increased, and that TV still dominates?

It may not be the case that social media is the only cause of polarisation, as the evidence shows, other factors drove polarisation before social media existed — but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t contribute.

My suggestion is that social media hasn’t moved people’s views, but instead made their commitment to them into a personal rivalry, a rivalry that is quite separate from the desire to see an improvement in anyone’s day to day life. That personal rivalry drove the pantomime politics that characterised 2017. It’s one thing to passively buy a newspaper that fulminates about a particular issue, it’s another to post a link to an article on your Facebook or get into an argument in the comments section. Then you have a publicly stated position that you have to defend at all costs. The goal shifts: you stop caring about healthcare or crime, you start caring about winning the argument by any means. Newspapers have been filter bubbles since they existed, and they’ve had stupid and inflammatory headlines for exactly as long. What’s new about social media is the way it makes more of us publicly and actively commit to political positions.

What about the apparent dominance of TV news? Who is going to answer a survey saying that their political opinions come from Facebook? Saying that makes you look stupid – so that might explain the discrepancy. Also, social media’s impact mostly comes from a small number of opinion formers. The once obscure discourse between academics, think-tankers, journalists and activists now plays out as a furious Twitter feud. Even if social media has only locked a relatively small number of people into bitter personal acrimony, they are exactly the people who shape public debate. Anyway, how often is TV news reporting something that Trump said on Twitter?

2017 wasn’t the year of Brexit or Trump’s victory, neither of which we can meaningfully attribute to social media, but it was the year where we saw how the public sphere has failed to provide a means of rationalising those stories.

Toby Young’s appointment as an official by the education department is the perfect bookend to the year. Toby Young is a provocateur and entertainer. His cursory experience of education policy, on which he has predictably contrarian views, is the pretext for his appointment. His skill at inflaming public opinion is the real reason. His appointment transforms the debate about schools from a discussion of what policies promote improved educational attainment into a factionalised, ad hominem farce. If 2017 was a wrestling match, Toby Young is a masked man in lurid spandex leaping into the ring at the final moment with balsa wood furniture to smash over the heads of left-wing commentators. By stumbling about in a hammed-up daze of contrived apoplexy the lefty commentariat have played their part perfectly.

That’s the weird thing about this situation. It is a symbiotic arrangement: The Guardian benefits from partisan outrage exactly as much as the Daily Mail; Info Wars and the New York Times can both drive traffic by mutually denigrating each other. Newspapers that have been careening into irrelevance are suddenly recruiting sergeants in a holy war. The economic incentives for news institutions are terrifying.

Why doesn’t Trump tweet more responsibly, even though his tweets have several times caused actual legal jeopardy for him? The answer is that for the Trump presidency, social media isn’t a way of achieving policy goals, policy is a way of achieving social media goals. Outrage is Trump’s mission, he can’t give it up any more than Obama could give up health reform.

I don’t want to force every twist in current affairs into a neat story, I’ve read enough (mutually contradictory) articles using social media to join the dots between the Arab spring, Russia, Trump, Macron, Brexit and decreased attention spans. But there is one aspect of 2017 that we haven’t talked about yet that deserves a mention: revelations about Kevin Spacey’s proclivity for sexual violence and the resulting avalanche of accusations. Just as legislative politics has broken strongly to the right, cultural politics moved left. No matter your political allegiance, you have a licence to feel disenfranchised and furious.

Having spent half of the year screaming from the sidelines, and the other half doing my best to ignore the spectacle, I can say with confidence that checking out worked best for me, and it’s what I’ll be doing for 2018. When Theresa May claimed (in October of 2016), that a citizen of the world was a citizen of nowhere, it seemed like nativist bombast. Now I think she was really begging us not to disengage from the national discourse. The rhetorical force of Brexit evaporates as soon as it’s uncoupled from the tabloid rage of Britain’s newspapers. As Habermas tells us, the modern nation-state was created by media institutions. Reading the same news is the shared experience that makes patriotism possible.

The most radical thing you can do in 2018 is stop lending your credence to media institutions, even the ones that play on your sympathies. If you wanted Trump or Brexit, you got what you wanted. If you hated those events, you should realise their whole animating logic is for you to hate them, and perhaps look placidly past them until the other side consumes itself with rage.

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