An American politics of symbols, or the triumph of “symbolitics”

FeaturedAn American politics of symbols, 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 frustrating for journalists who wring their hands over “fact-free” discourse or new media misinformation. And it’s understandable given journalism is ostensibly a fact-based profession. But the mainstream press may have a problem of being naively literal in an increasingly 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.

Reporting 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 and separate 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 along the fault lines of confirmation biases. The symbolic center cannot hold.

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. The role of symbols in movements inspired by QAnon illustrates how current tools of of professional journalism produce blindspots in political analysis.

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).

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, the conspiracy movement fails tests of evidence required by professional journalists as well as 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 and belief without clear evidence. However far-fetched, conspiracy paints a symbolic picture that explains the sense of powerlessness felt by many.

At once, “Q” 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 engagement 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. Traditional journalism functions as a gatekeeper, 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 alienated, but newsrooms can certainly pay greater attention to the symbolic dimensions of political culture and better understand the reality buried in the myths that shape the “paranoid style” of American politics. 

Symbols have and will always play a role in political movements. Just look at the flags arrayed during the Capitol riots. It is uncertain, however, if 21st century journalism can develop analysis that both maintains fact-based discourse and productively accounts for the emerging centrality of symbols in political life. But a wholesale shift to symbolic public discourse threatens to unmoor democratic participation from meaningful self-governance.


TV makes you vapid. Don’t be vapid.

TV makes you vapid. Don’t be vapid.

A simple request: stop watching TV news.

This is the simplified argument of Neil Postman, the quasi-famous cultural critic of the 1980s. Postman looked at television and saw a medium of great potential. The entertainment tv offered its audience was unparalleled. TV gave us live images from around the world. The spectacle was amazing. TV took families from their daily lives and transported us to 1000s of imaginary worlds. We escape the grind of paying bills, family squabbles and workdays through TV. But, Postman argued, TV is also supremely ill-suited for the “serious stuff” of news and public affairs.

Many are concerned about fake news on Facebook, but what is the alternative? A return to CBS network news? Should we look to cable’s CNN? Reanimate Walter Cronkite?

Sad news, folks. If Facebook hurts an informed electorate, network and cable news are handmaidens in the erosion of American political intelligence. Let’s look at CBS and CNN for evidence.

Three Pieces of Evidence Commercial News Will Fail Us

Evidence 1: Media executive values; the Moonves Doctrine

CBS chairman, Les Moonves, commented on the relationship between commercial media and Trump’s campaign. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” he said, candidly. He continued, “[m]an, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? . . . The money’s rolling in and this is fun.” Speaking to CBS stockholders, Moonves was pleased with the “circus.” “I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

If a skeptical reader thinks one statement from a media executive is not enough, here is some evidence that Moonves’s reckless commercialism is the operational logic for the American commercial news.

Evidence 2: News coverage: a Trump Narrative

Trump received excessive coverage from news organizations. These breathless and bemused reports function as free publicity (“Earned Media”), keeping the Trump campaign in control of the news narrative. Researchers estimate commercial news offered what amounted to $2-3 billion in free advertising for Trump. Who says you are wasting time with those 2AM tweets? It worked for the president.


The “Moonves doctrine” is quite influential. So much so that news directors preferred no news over actual news. During the 2016 campaign, CNN, Fox and MSNBC broadcast an empty Trump podium while Mrs. Clinton was actually speaking to unions in Las Vegas.

Evidence 3: CNN Boss’s relationship with Trump reality TV.

What incentives do media executives have for creating a candied reality instead of offering unvarnished news of the day? Well, if news is to serve corporate profits, its job is to attract eyeballs rather than inform. Take current CNN chief, Jeff Zucker. Formerly the head of NBC Entertainment, Zucker played a major role in creating NBC’s The Apprentice, coordinating with Trump to create a show “built as a virtual nonstop advertisement for the Trump empire and lifestyle.”  Zucker rode Trump’s celebrity up through the ranks at NBC. At the helm of CNN, he continued to profit from Trump and, by extension, helped create a media landscape in which Trumpist falsehoods could prevail.

News and Reality

News was the original “reality TV.” Now American media have corrupted the very idea of the real. Kim Kardashian is now “truer” than Wolf Blitzer. The New York Times (formerly “real”) describes reality as much as (formerly “fake”). Gary Busey’s apprenticeship on Trump’s TV show is as real as Mitt Romney slavishly interviewing for Secretary of State.

The point? We should stop watching TV news. Just stop. Not because “reporters are biased.” Not because media owners have political agendas. We should because they do not offer news. They offer shiny packages to us and then sell our views and clicks. The shine matters more than truth. Anger and laughs over thought and insight. Profits matter more than an informed electorate. Ratings fuel Jeff Zucker’s shameless direction of CNN content. If we pay our attention, they will feed us more to get paid. Stop paying.

Postman said TV was dangerous nonsense in the 1980s. Turns out he was right about 2020. The good news? We don’t have to put up with it or deal with the messy business of resurrecting dead news icons. America may have voted, but we can still take action . . . or inaction.

Stop paying TV news attention. Starve the beast that is sustained by enslaving your mind. Demand better. You’ll be better for it; America might, too.

Ted Cruz, critic of commercial media?

Trump Cruz Fox
Trump and Cruz during the 2016 Republican primary debate on Fox Business Channel

“There is a broader dynamic at work, which is network executives have made a decision to get behind Donald Trump. Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes at Fox News have turned Fox News into the Donald Trump network.”

 -Ted Cruz, two months after suspending his campaign to be the Republican nominee

I’m not used to agreeing with Ted Cruz.

But I might have to when it comes to his post-nomination view of Fox News. Did Trump (almost literally) steal the spotlight on cable news? If so, how?

The how is important. Cruz is content to paint Ailes, Murdoch and company at Fox News as overly powerful Republican kingmakers, but it is important not to be reductive about so-called media bias. Fox is equal parts commercial organization and deep-throated political beast. We need to properly understand bias to get at the how of Trump’s surprising rise in American politics.

Discussions of bias usually stall on the political question. Americans are often content to yell “conservative” or “liberal” bias and leave it at that. And it makes sense. Those of us in the US have been trained to expect balance and objectivity from their news. It is only natural that the public perception of Fox News emphasizes the right-leaning commentary on the channel.

Still, I believe this is short-sighted. Yes, Fox News is politically motivated. Yes, Fox News provides a platform for conservative voices . . . but these are surface observations of bias and fail to appreciate a core insight about media companies. Fox is also former subsidiary and (now) a profitable partner with News Corp. with holdings around the world and across media platforms. It is a company, like all companies, with the sole aim of generating revenue for shareholders. We should not forget this form of bias when we speculate on the rise of the Donald.

The 2013 company break up of News Corp. can tell us something about the role of the profit motive in corporate decision-making. When Murdoch insisted on buying up flagship newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, major investors in the conglomerate balked. Everyone in that corporate boardroom understood newspapers were dying a slow death by a thousand bytes. No profit-minded, voting board member saw the paper as a worthy investment, particularly compared to the revenues generated by non-publishing enterprises. Perhaps it was his father’s beginnings in publishing that made the media tycoon need more newspapers in his portfolio. Whatever the case, investors demanded a business break-up. Print would be financially quarantined under News Corp. while more lucrative holdings in film and television go to the newly created Fox Group. We see a sort of corporate philosophy at play: Murdoch’s “vanity” publishing properties should not undermine returns from TV and film. Other corporations, like the Tribune Company, followed suit.

The point is this. Media literacy demands we be wary of political motivations in our news. They abound. But we cannot let this obscure the business motivations that aim cameras in certain directions and send reporters to events. Commercial needs direct our media and, thus, our national conversation. With this in mind, we might better understand why Fox, MSNBC and CNN all mysteriously ignored other candidate speeches to broadcast, live, an empty Trump podium. What journalistic principles tell us that an empty Trump podium is more newsworthy than an actual Sanders speech after a rough primary? Other programming principles are influencing the decision, of course.

Cruz’s criticism is sound (even if surprising given how out of character it is for Republicans to accuse media of much more than the “liberal agenda”). The target of Cruz’s attacks, however, is Fox News. We assume there is no surplus of liberal agenda there. So how do we understand the preference for one kind of Republican over another? Though Cruz points to TV executives as handmaidens to Trump’s victory, we need to also ask about the larger structure of media. How we think about media power matters. Something bigger than political bias refines the selection process: the commercial bias.

If we extend Cruz’s criticism a bit, we see what worked against him. Trump has media power. This goes beyond his media savvy, his charisma and his experience in front of a camera on The Apprentice. Trump has something more. Media power is also  “the economic, political and cultural impact of organisations that deal in information, symbols and narratives,” as Des Freedman puts it. When we marvel at Trump, we are also marveling at our media system.

Many Republicans are dismayed by American news in light of Trump’s primary rampage. “Look at what the media did to the Republican party,” they implore. Establishment candidates appeared to sag into lumps of poorly refrigerated meat as they sought to stay above the rhetoric and refused to engage Trump in the very familiar language of 140-characters-or-less. The Cruzes and Jeb!s tried to use the private media as a forum to persuade voters their policies were best; they were bested by a policy-light entertainer with his tiny, tweeting hands on the levers of private media.

Trump twee at Jeb

So when mainstream Republicans lambaste the role of Fox News in propelling this reality television figure into frontrunner status or acerbically note Trump’s bumper-sticker policies in contrast to other candidates’ plans, every time they paint Trump as the clown at the “media circus,” there is a glimmer of recognition that commercial news is not responsible news.

If we look long enough (a kind of thousand yard stare of the shell-shocked) we can see a logical syllogism about media policy in Ted Cruz’s anger toward Fox News. One I don’t think the Texas senator would speak aloud, but one I wouldn’t mind hearing from campaigns more often: commercial media put Trump where he is today.

Premise 1: Commercial media’s primary function is to draw large audiences with disposable income for advertisers. NBC sells our eyes and ears to them. Ratings, therefore, are the prime metric guiding the behavior of corporate media enterprises.

Premise 2: Donald Trump draws public attention (i.e. eyes and ears as measured by ratings agencies) and “media power,” the social connections to key media figures that provide access to audiences and add to his personal publicity.


Trump’s media advantage goes beyond having a knack for statements that draw media attention like a fly to human waste. He has functional and productive relationships with those that craft both American reality TV and American news. When Buzzfeed reporters went through Trump’s various biographies, they found CNN’s Jeff Zucker lovingly featured several times, once in typical Trump fashion as a “total dynamo”.

Trump Zucker Partnership
From one of Trump’s several books on Trump’s love of dynamos.

Trump’s relationships with people like CNN president Jeff Zucker matter. A lot. It translates into what Politico has liken to “an experiment in free media.” Normally, candidates pay to communicate with audiences . . . like advertisers. Not Trump. The NYT estimated Trump had attracted $2 billion in free media coverage as his campaign and corporate media managers feed off of one another. In short, help weak cable ratings and get airtime for publicity.

We saw the commercial bias in action with the debates. Fox News’ debate in Detroit on March 3 drew an amazing 17 million viewers. Compare that to 5.5 million drawn by the Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan. Or compare 2016 to the 2012 Republican primary debates’ largest audience that year at 7.1 million. Trump has a magnetism that ratings-minded programmers cannot deny.

The Zucker-Trump alliance is long-standing . . . but more unnerving is what these two worked on: the creation of audience-attracting spectacles and catch phrases. As the success of Trump’s reality show carried NBC through a financially perilous time, Zucker learned how Trump was valuable to him as an NBC chief. Now that Zucker is leading CNN, what kind of value does Zucker see in brand Trump? CNN’s ratings jump with Trump on tap is telling if a bit disconcerting for those that favor deeper political conversations.

Trump’s unorthodox public relations style, honed in the ratings-focused cauldron of NBC’s sitcom lineup, pushes media manager to shift the editorial focus to Trump’s slightest move. The coverage? Trump unwittingly makes racist comment. Trump wittingly makes racist comments. Trump defends additional racist remarks. The most telling moment came with the “feud” instigated when Trump attacked Fox host Megyn Kelly. Not only did Fox News carry the Trump-Kelly drama to a ratings crescendo with Kelly’s awkwardly personal follow-up interview but other media outlets covered the tense public exchange as if an offended news personality were actual news the public needed. It had begun as a question about Trump’s regard for women and ended as a mildly flirtatious break-up/make-up worthy of any episode of The Bachelor. 

So, we come to a testable hypothesis:

Conclusion 1: Figures who create public events which score better audience measurements will be preferred by commercial news’ editorial policies. Therefore, Trump will receive more coverage given the overlapping interests of the Trump campaign and commercial news producers.

Evidence? Sure thing. The left-leaning media criticism group, Media Matters, crunched the numbers. Trump received nearly double the coverage of the candidate with the second-most airtime (Cruz). Said another way: Trump was considered two times more “newsworthy” than Sen. Cruz (see graphic).

source: Media Matters for America, 2016

Cruz’s assertion that Fox News had “taken sides” in the primary process may make media critics out of some Republicans, but it also points up the need to weigh the virtues and vices of a public culture driven by private companies. The “side” the news networks took was the one that grew viewership by any means possible. Donald was a means to that end. Trump seeks publicity. Commercial news is a means to that end.

Much of this will play out again during the Republican National Convention. What is a convention other than a publicity event? Both Trump and media executives, dynamos or otherwise, will use the event to achieve their goals.

But what effect will the hypercommercial nature of the American press have on the democratic process? Will disenfranchised  Republicans pull the curtain back on Zucker, Ailes and the long list of media execs whose livelihood depends on courting the outrageous? Not likely. Republicans are loath to restrict the prerogatives of private corporations. But Cruz’s demise and the rise of Trump politics might awaken those on the right that a free market does not necessarily produce the best journalism for democracy. The irony of Cruz’s comment is that the Republican pro-business orthodoxy shaped the media system that helped defeat his White House bid. It also means the corporate media status quo will continue, despite having bitten one Republican hand that fed them.