Politics

The Anger Games of American Politics


Maggie Astor at The New York Times devotes an article to the egregious lies US politicians share with their constituents, not through social media, but through massive email campaigns. They escape notice in the public debate about fake news because they are private communications. But they achieve levels of fakeness often never seen in social media.


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In her article titled, “Now in Your Inbox: Political Misinformation,” Astor delves into the electoral logic behind such abuse. She cites celebrated Republican pollster Frank Lutz. “The more that it elicits red-hot anger,” Astor writes, “the more likely people donate. And it just contributes to the perversion of our democratic process. It contributes to the incivility and indecency of political behavior.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Red-hot anger:

The scientifically studied emotion that effectively replaces uselessly time-consuming reflection on actual issues and proves particularly effective for a candidate’s fund-raising with enthusiastic individual voters, considered a useful complement to the massive injections of corporate cash habitually funneled through PACs and Super PACs.

Contextual Note

Fake news has been a featured topic in every news cycle since Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US presidential election. Articles have proliferated concerning what might be done to counter the phenomenon. But fake news has always been a staple of US political culture. Technology and the success of social media have simply magnified the effect and the visibility of fake news to the point that traditional media have been pulling the alarm in the hope that they will be seen as bastions of truth and objectivity.

Astor highlights the difficulty that “fact checkers and other watchdogs” face in trying to deal with a particular form of fake news that is conveyed through the privacy of email. She quotes Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a professor in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University, who worries that “it’s hard to know what it is that politicians are saying directly to individual supporters in their inboxes.” This assumes that the central problem of democracy can be reduced to the need for some authority to exist that can “know” everything being said during an election campaign. It assumes that filling the environment with watchdogs focused on fact-checking will cure all the ills.

Stromer-Galley adds the reflection that political professionals, including the handsomely remunerated consulting firms that manage politicians’ campaigns, “know that this kind of messaging is not monitored to the same extent, so they can be more carefree with what they’re saying.” Clearly, Astor and Stromer-Galley believe that effective and presumably pervasive monitoring will be the solution. Some might call this the temptation to put in place the equivalent of an electoral inquisition. Just as President Joe Biden sees policing as the response to pervasive corruption, The Times sees police state measures as the response to political lies.

Astor identifies two sides to the problem: “the private nature of the medium” and the fact that “its targets are predisposed to believe it.” But those are only the superficial effects of something that goes beyond politics and exists at the core of US culture. It has two components: the belief in free enterprise and the reality of consumerist individualism. Exaggerating the merits of a product or service and creating an emotional connection with it define the basis of all economic activity. Does this involve lying? Of course. The key is finding a credible borderline between exaggeration (good) and lying (evil).

The acceptance of consumerist individualism as the model that determines how an entire society interacts turns out to be the more serious culprit. Politicians in the US are entrepreneurs selling a product to consumers who want to have positive feelings about their purchase. The product is the politicians’ largely unmonitored future work in government, which will be conducted essentially in consultation with donors and lobbyists. Every political professional understands that. And they know what has to be done to make it work. Telling the truth will never be the consideration uppermost in their minds.

Political discourse long ago stopped being what a lot of idealists would like it to be: about the issues. US culture is simply not designed to encourage a rational presentation of ideas, plans and projects serving to improve the environment and lives of its citizens. Like everything else in US culture, politics is about buying and selling, not about debating and governing. And buying and selling are about optimizing the circulation of money, not for society as a whole, but for those who can secure control over money and the resources that produce it.

Anger itself is a product, and one that consumers are hankering for.

Historical Note

The art of spreading misinformation is hardly a modern phenomenon. Some people imagine it could not have existed before the advent of social media. In reality, it has existed for as long as modern electoral democracy itself. Ancient Athenian democracy was direct. Every (male) citizen was called upon to participate at some point in government.

Modern electoral democracy was built on a very different founding principle: the notion that a small number of people with the ambition of exercising political power need to persuade as many people as possible who do not seek political power to vote for them.

Astor’s findings confirm what has long been the fundamental reality that guides every citizen’s behavior in the US. The First Amendment allows everyone to engage in persuasion in preference to reflection. The competitive system encourages them to do what’s required to sell their wares. No amount of monitoring or fact-checking will change that basic fact. 

Maggie Astor’s article, consistent with The New York Times ideology, seeks to achieve two goals. The first is to comfort the idea that rationality and facts, the earmarks of The Times’ style, are the ideal everyone should aspire to in a democracy. They develop this message even while refusing to analyze the systemic reasons why that will never become the basis of actual politics. The second is to skewer Republicans and leave the impression that Democrats are more honest.

It’s true that Republicans have traditionally excelled at cultivating the art of using emotion — and especially anger — to achieve electoral success. They have consistently deployed more talent and fewer scruples than Democrats in accomplishing the task. That may even be the principal reason voters see Republicans as better capable of managing the economy. A vibrant capitalist economy thrives through the ability of clever and ambitious people to pull the wool over consumers’ eyes. Within those strands of that wool are the emotions associated with anger and hatred.

Even Richard Nixon (“Tricky Dick”), the champion of disingenuity before he was dethroned by Donald Trump, couldn’t do it alone. He needed the help of a true political professional, Murray Chotiner, who stated simply: “The purpose of an election is not to defeat your opponent, but to destroy him.” In the 1950 Senate race against the Democrat and former Hollywood actress Helen Gahagan Douglas, Nixon brought out a raft of dirty tricks that included innuendos of anti-Semitism (Douglas’ husband was Jewish) but also more specific acts such as calling people in the middle of the night and announcing to the groggy voter: “This is the communist party. We urge you to vote for Helen Gahagan Douglas on election day.” Douglas recounted that her worst memory of that campaign “was when children picked up rocks and threw them at my car, at me.”

Nixon, the future senator, vice-president and president, established the ground rules many Republicans and quite a few Democrats have not forgotten. Whatever the tactics — whether dirty and directly mendacious or sophisticated and infused with the nuance of innuendo — they aim at triggering the strong emotion that drives voters to the polls. 

Today, that emotion spills over into social media. After decades of anti-democratic practices, the visibility of hatred and lies on social media has finally made people aware of what has been there all this time. But instead of addressing the real issue — the toxic culture of electoral logic most often bankrolled by unseen corporate interests — the brave politicians and the legacy media attack social media itself and the citizens whose anger they have provoked. They want more monitoring, policing and fact-checking. As so often when things become dysfunctional, whether in the economy or politics, the media doctors focus on the symptoms rather than the disease.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.



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