(Editor’s note: This is a first in a four-part series).
People often ask, “Why are today’s politics so awful?” There are several reasons, many of which will be explored in this four-part series. In a nutshell (pun intended), the Communications Revolution has enormously contributed to the belief that politics is more awful than ever due to its impact upon the public, the media, the politicians, and the country.
Yet, before considering these reasons, one must avoid the temptation to romanticize the political past as a time of eminently genteel debate in a country where that civility led to a destructive civil war. Even during the period of our nation’s founding, American politics has been contentious as evinced by the political battles between the Royalists and the Revolutionaries. Later, one need only look at how Federalist political pamphleteers attacked President Thomas Jefferson (with the truth, by the way); or how President Andrew Jackson was decried as a “tyrant” and “would-be king” by his political opponents, obloquies later echoed in attacks upon Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and, most recently, Donald Trump.
Nevertheless, while the intensity and invective of political battle has not waned, its visibility has exponentially increased. Due to the Communications Revolution, on a subway or runway, at home or abroad, 24 hours every single day, people possess the ability to casually survey and/or directly engage in politics. No longer does one have to hope the local newspaper publishes their letter to the editor or hope someone in Washington reads their constituent letter. The expression of one’s political opinion and/or agenda can be voiced to the political class and one’s fellow citizens instantaneously and – especially, when in concert with like-minded individuals – effectively.
The consequence of the Communication Revolution’s empowerment of the public it to make politics appear more prevalent and contentious than in the past. While true that more people are publicly expressing their political views, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are new to their opinions or that the intensity of these opinions has increased. What has undoubtedly happened, though, is that technology has facilitated the public’s ability to express their views.
This results in the sense that Americans are more political and, generally, politics more prevalent and awful than ever. True, it can be a bit unsettling to see a friend or neighbor’s political post, more so when one never thought that friend or neighbor shared your views or party affiliation. (They feel the same when they see your post).
Still, that doesn’t mean the intensity of political activity has increased, only its frequency in being publicly expressed. While there have been mild historical variations, today there remains about the same percentage of the populace who are hardcore political activists. In earlier times, these hardcore activists would have trekked to local party meetings to lick stamps or attend town halls to challenge local officials; today, they chain themselves to trees to end oil or epoxy a red hat to their head and take in a Trump rally.
Again, it is the visibility that has increased: the ability of the casual political actor to be heard and, perhaps more accurately, be seen. It is this visibility that results in more people engaging and arguing with their friends and family and even anonymous strangers on line. In an instance of squeal sharpening squeal, such political tussles harden one’s views and, in many cases, coarsens the contours of acceptable political debate, ultimately eroding them even as one’s obstinance solidifies.
We Americans have been here before. Citizens would argue with family, friends, and strangers on the street during times of both national turmoil and relative tranquility. Political opponents have always sought ways to persuade others to their cause, often going to the extremes of trying to silence opposing views (the First Amendment notwithstanding). The rise of new communications technologies, newspapers, radio, and television have all impacted the populace and increased the visibility of its political life. (In the late 1960s, the revolution was televised).
In this historical context, what is today’s cancel culture but a cyber-tarring and feathering? Once more, the difference is we can more readily witness American politics play out in real time. This is, in large part, due to the machinations of another political actor impacted by the Communications Revolution –
An American Greatness contributor, the Hon. Thaddeus G. McCotter (M.C., Ret.) represented Michigan’s 11th Congressional district from 2003-2012, and served as Chair of the Republican House Policy Committee. Not a lobbyist, he is a frequent public speaker and moderator for public policy seminars; and a Monday co-host of the “John Batchelor Radio Show,” among sundry media appearances.