The symbolification of American politics, or the triumph of “symbolitics”

FeaturedThe symbolification of American politics, or the triumph of “symbolitics”
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 a source of frustration for journalists who condescendingly marvel at “fact-free” discourse and the modern state of misinformation. But the American press may have a problem of being naively literal in a symbolic political world.

Much of this marveling is in response to Trump’s voter base. This group represents the activation of millions in the public sphere who might not have been organized politically until the familiar face from entertainment media moved into political media. This overlay of entertainment culture onto the political realm imported the energy and logic of reality television into politics in startling ways.

Part of the entertainment-politics melding is a 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 political symbols over factual debate precedes Trump but reached new proportions with his presidency and will likely continue beyond it.

So, it might be wise to more fully recognize how American politics has become a game of cultural signifiers. Yet, the values and procedures of elite newsrooms refuse to recognize the lived reality of American politics: a bipolar brinkmanship of cultural symbols funneled 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 subsumes all other considerations.

Viewing political orientation as a deal-breaker in our romantic lives and marveling 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 mainstream media and the messaging of 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.

A symbolic politics

Q symbol with glitch effect illustration.

What are the consequences when 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?

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.  

The primacy of symbolism in hyperpartisan identities 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.

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

Second, 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 way to understand American politics than political science or a barrel of polls calculated, correlated, crunched and recrunched. 

QAnon: reading conspiracies as semiotic politics

“. . . conspiracy theory seems 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. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death: the Mueller report, TV hearings and Neil Postman

Amusing Ourselves to Death: the Mueller report, TV hearings and Neil Postman

Image result for Mueller hearing
Former special counsel Robert Mueller reviews the report before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday, July 24, 2019 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“It’s the Superbowl of things on C-SPAN at Eight-thirty in the morning.”

-Stephen Colbert

 

Robert Mueller and media critic Neil Postman have something in common. They are skeptical of television. Truth, for Postman, was fundamentally shaped by the medium of expression. In the old-timey age of print (i.e., Lincoln-Douglas debates), Americans thought in longer, more contemplative ways. How a society debates what is true and right, Postman claimed, is fundamentally shaped by the dominant medium of the time.

Under TV, our access to truth passes through a technicolored prism. Postman was concerned that we would lose the kind of thinking that made democracy work. TV’s flurry of sound bites and images threatened to shallow the American mind. Mueller’s testimony shows the special counsel’s own Postmanesque preference for the printed word as a means to determining truth.

What we call “watching television” is supposedly on the way out. TV viewing has declined by 3 to 4% per year since 2012, according to the Reuters Institute at Oxford. At once, our use of online video has increased dramatically. This begs the question: Have we stopped watching or do we simply access TV in different ways?

Of course, how we watch TV has changed considerably since Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death in the 1980s. TV beams from smaller screens. It’s more individual. We watch it in office jobs, on the train and on demand. But the basic practice of “watching TV” remains unchanged.  We still rely on sound bites, rapid images and visual narratives to understand the world. In many ways, TV just got small enough to come with us when we left the house.

TV in the 1980s shares at least one feature of its more mobile version today. TV always prefers to trade in spectacle. A medium focused on satisfying visual needs of passive audiences relies on spectacle. The problem for Postman and his bookish devotees is that spectacle only gets at certain truths: those that can be abbreviated and visually dramatized. Postman feared that the transition to a televisual society meant making everything “silly.” The loss of print culture, he reasoned, meant losing access to the forms of truth only available through the deliberation of reading and writing.

Which brings us back to Mueller.

The Special Cousel’s testimony revealed more about his faith in reading than the misdeeds of the president. Channeling the grumpy spirit of Postman, the Special Counsel refused to even read aloud from his own report as if the truth of the report could only reside in the printed word. Mueller referred committee members to the written work of the Special Council’s office at least 20 times. He welcomes the public to read the report, but he would not willingly act it out for television audiences.

Mueller’s stonewalling was frustratingly beautiful. He knew he was being displayed to an American audience. Predictably, partisans would try to coax out a visually anchored statement about Trump’s guilt or innocence.

mueller-hearings-july-24 2
Mueller testifying before the House hearing on the Special Counsel’s report, July 24, 2019

He was painfully aware that his questioners, particularly Democrats, wanted to move the information in the 400+ page print report to modern American television, from inert and colorless words on a page to more vivid descriptions directly from the investigators face.

 

Clearly the former FBI head is trained to avoid partisan warfare and would not “perform” the report for a 24-Hour news channel industry. But, Mueller’s preference for the written version of his report ran counter to the hope members of the House had for his appearance.

These attempts to spread the Mueller Report from print-based audience to television-based audience indicate how much influence the political class believes TV to possess. The plan seemed to be to televise the report targeted a non-reading public with the hope that reproducing the same information in a visual format would reanimate public discourse and foster public discussions that undermine Trump’s support among swing voters.

Camera ready Republicans and Democrats were trying to enlist television’s storytelling power. They wanted something concisely stated before a camera. They want punch.  They want the six-second sound bite. Mueller knows this, and you can hear it in every reluctant stutter of his testimony. The printed word should speak for itself.

Democrats needed to sway non-reading, politically active swing voters that have a reasonable likelihood of either voting Democrat or staying at home on election day. But the strategy also relied on a camera-friendly hearing that animated the sins of the presidency. For better or worse, Mueller’s print bias did not allow politicians to use the abbreviating power of TV.

It remains to be seen if print can still capture the American imagination or if Postman was right and the American public, atrophied by decades of spectacle politics, believes only what it sees.