Mario Tama, Getty Images

“Climate skepticism has become a tenet of populism — a revolt against elitist scientists and liberal politicians seeking excuses for social and economic control. The denial of climate change has become a cultural signifier, the policy equivalent of a gun rack in a truck.”

-Washington Post opinion columnist

“When [Trump] makes claims . . . the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”

The Atlantic, September, 2016

“I think a lot of voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally, so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment, their question is not, ‘Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?’ . . . What they hear is we’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.”

-Paypal co-founder and Trump supporter, Peter Thiel

Political polarization has shifted how Americans self-identify, and much of this recent transformation stems from symbolic forms of civic engagement. The political animosity that has a stranglehold on politics – harbingers of civil war for a worried few – suggests Americans are increasingly reliant on politics of symbols to frame our personal identities and interpret power in 21st century American life.

This is frustrating for journalists who wring their hands over “fact-free” discourse and the new media misinformation. And it’s understandable given journalism is ostensibly a fact-based profession. But the American press may have a problem of being naively literal in a symbolic political world.

Much of the journalistic marveling, some quite condescending, is in response to Trump’s voter base. To understand the disconnect between professional journalists and Trump’s base, we should recognize how a marriage of entertainment and political culture fueled his political rise. Television fandoms from the entertainment culture -The Apprentice, World Wrestling Entertainment- took the small step into the public sphere. As Trump’s familiar face from entertainment media moved into political media, the 2016 campaign drew on that television audience.

But it did more than draw voters. It also imported the logics of reality TV. Ratings took on heightened importance. Crowd size became worthy of debate. The political theater took on the carnival atmosphere of a wrestling arena in which voters could organize around the symbols of heroism and villainy. Entertainment culture colonized the political realm and imported the energy and emotion of reality TV.

Part of the entertainment-politics melding is a fuller shift of political reasoning from a messy world of policy details to a clean and easily understood world of symbolic narratives in which moral assertion displaces analytic nuance. The preference for the digestible world of symbols over factual debate precedes Trump but reached new proportions with his presidency and will likely continue beyond it.

It might be wise to more fully recognize how American politics has become a game of cultural signifiers. And yet, elite newsrooms are unable to recognize the symbolic language of American citizenry. For many, American politics is a game of bipolar brinkmanship dealing in mythic symbols that funnel debate into an either/or dynamic of the two-party system. 

We can hear it in casual conversations among the politically like-minded: “I could never date a Republican.” Or in how we regard politically mixed marriage: “I wonder what it is like at THAT dinner table!” In modern America, fathers are more likely to object to daughters bringing home the political opposition than a love interest of a different race. As Iyengar and Westwood put it, “party cues exert powerful effects on nonpolitical judgments and behaviors.” A politics-first identity has subsumed other social roles, and we can see it in reports of estranged family members and politically severed friendships.

Viewing political orientation as a deal-breaker in our romantic lives and wondering at “political miscegenation” underscore how partisan identities have taken a more central role in our broader social lives. Though the democratic ideal says we “should” vote according to tangible identities of self-interest (a small business owner or cancer survivor or blue-collar worker) we increasingly rely on artificially binary identities crafted by a symbol systems of commercial media and political elites. 

Today, we are less likely to participate in politics as ourselves. Instead, we participate as “real Republicans” or “true progressives.” We act as representatives of packaged ideologies rather than individuals directly voting for a better life through self-governance. I suspect the “symbolification” of political culture is both a symptom and a cause in this process.

Qanon: A symbolic politics

Q symbol with glitch effect illustration.

What are the consequences when American politics, already prone to partisan theater, embraces an affective world of symbolism? To what degree do polarized cultural identities in the political realm necessitate the conversion of policy battles into symbols or battles over mere symbols?

These are ponderous questions, but I can map out some potential fallout.

First, the increasing power of symbolic communication in high politics has consequences for traditional understandings of democratic politics that are built into professional news frames.  

Symbolification distances public debate from the actual machinery of government. Instead of addressing the confusing details of healthcare or the tax system, symbols stand in with broad caricatures of the issue and the political agents that represent them. Symbolic politics offers a cast of evil-doers and heroic figures fighting for politically vague but symbolically meaningful goals. 

The degree to which policy debates devolve into symbolic representation is a fair approximation of the degree to which citizens directly control their government. A shallow symbolic system can replace details of party platforms or voting records. As a result, citizen judgement is one step removed.

Second, importing the symbols of entertainment culture may exacerbate partisan divisions. As differing symbolic systems ensconce American subcultures, unifying themes of nationality weaken. Participation in politics through symbolic representations allows the public to address very different worlds with little hope of solving the very real social problems facing the nation. A common creed that has historically shored up American identity fragments.

Finally, the reliance on symbols to navigate American politics plays into the vagaries and smoky mysticism of conspiracy mongers. Why would an American raise doubts about the American moon landing? Taken literally, the claim is absurd. Taken symbolically, it captures a broad suspicion that government is deceitful and so power-hungry that it would orchestrate a grand public deception to achieve “its” goals. The specific theory that the moon landing was faked does not itself need to be true as a symbolic representation of a calloused, elite government manipulating the public. The conspiracy is “true” even if Lance and Buzz actually took that one small step.

This is why literary semiotics may be a better tool for understanding American politics than political science or a burst of polls calculated, correlated, crunched and recrunched. 

QAnon: reading conspiracies as semiotic politics

“. . . conspiracy theory [is[ an entertaining narrative form, a populist expression of a democratic culture, that circulates deep skepticism about the truth of the current political order throughout contemporary culture.” (Fenster 1999, pg. xiii).

Fenster 1999, pg. xiii

Politics is rather boring in the details. That’s why C-Span is not a ratings hit. Watching senators argue policy in front of an empty chamber is mind-numbing and, frankly, uninformative for anyone but DC insiders or beat reporters. 

By contrast, online corners of conspiratorial thought like Qanon give gripping narrative structure to the sense of powerlessness in modern America. From the electoral college to tax policy, American democracy has features that are glaringly elite. Qanon merely gives a narrative to a fundamental truth felt by many Americans: powerlessness.

What is Qanon? The group is known for its wildest assertion that a cabal of Satan-worshipping elites control key government and media operations. This secret organization is engaged in child sex crimes at a massive scale. In some versions, these elites consume children’s blood to extend life or otherwise sustain themselves.

Qanon researchers have found no coherent, single narrative that defines the movement. Under the umbrella of Qanon, there are factions who have “different ideas about who the cabal is and what their ultimate goals are . . . but they are united in the belief that everything is a lie and the order needs to be destroyed.” It is more a patchwork of unorthodox explanations of power in America.

Taken literally, Qanon fails tests of evidence required by professional journalists, classrooms and the courts. If we de-emphasize the narrative specifics and read these beliefs as metaphor (don’t take it literally but take it seriously), the basic structure of the theory is true. As metaphor, the narrative is a archetypal story of the powerful preying on the weak. 

In fact, wealth gaps and power divisions do define modern America. Two-thirds of U.S. senators’ net worth exceeds $1 million. As Pew researchers note, income growth in recent decades has tilted to upper-income households and the middle class has shrunk. Nearly three-quarters of all employees live paycheck-to-paycheck in 2020. The popular vote often fails to elect presidents, defying the public will for arcane legalistic reasons. Given these conditions, the myth created by “Q” can make sense emotionally even if it fails intellectually.

We can understand the more outrageous conspiracy theories as a consequence of America’s crippled ability to recognize class conflict. If a group of people don’t have a language of class-based oppression -e.g. “haves and have nots”- they turn to alternative explanations for the inequality they feel. Pedophilia stands in as a morally charged symbol for victimization. 

On the other side of this growing economic disparity, the investor class buys and sells holdings according to the logic of financial capital. If their children don’t earn admission to prestigious schools, the elite bribe their way into East and West coast schools. 

This is why Qanon functions a redemption narrative comparable to Christian religious movements. It involves faith in something deeper than facts show us, belief without clear evidence. However far-fetched, conspiracy paints a symbolic picture that explains the sense of powerlessness felt by many.

At once, it offers a way to resist that oppressive force. It provides comfort by painting a world of stark good and evil in which clear heroes work to save the faithful and punish the villainous. Adherents decode and scrutinize the meaning of Q’s pronouncements like ecclesiastical priests engaged in Biblical hermeneutics. Retweeting Q or interpreting Q’s “drops” becomes an act of defiance by speaking truth to nefarious but poorly understood power in America. The congregants evangelistically hope to reveal the truth to nonbelievers and instigate a “great awakening.” 

A symbolic analysis of culture might produce more useful maps for navigating this strain of American politics, and it certainly reveals more than the quantitative approach taken by poll-obsessed news networks that treat elections like horse-races. As symbolism displaces more direct citizen interactions with matters of government, the assumptions of political journalism become less reflective of actual political processes and opinion formation in American life. 

The growing wedge between mainstream news and parts of the American public stems from these divergent epistemologies. Journalists function as gatekeepers, filtering the non-factual out of public discourse. The growing part of the American public who engage with politics though symbolic narratives see this realist epistemology as censorship and oppression. News perpetuates a fiction that numbers are an accurate representation of reality. Journalists, true to their professional training, dismiss counterfactual political thoughts with a myopic literalism.

But the political class only shoots itself in the foot when it dismisses symbolic discourse. New York Times columnist, David Brooks, argues that “personal contact” is the way to “[reduce] the social chasm between the members of the epistemic regime and those who feel so alienated from it.” Journalists may not be able to personally reach out to the alientated, but newsrooms can certainly pay greater attention to the symbolic dimensions of political culture and better understand the reality reflected in the myths that shape the “paranoid style” of American politics. 

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