Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Political Junkies Are Killing Our Democracy

How the #CovingtonBoys helped me understand where digital media went wrong.
August 2, 2020
Political Junkies Are Killing Our Democracy

On the evening of January 20, 2019, as I scrolled aimlessly through Twitter, a short video shot that day in Washington, D.C. grabbed my attention. “This MAGA loser gleefully bothering a Native American protester at the Indigenous People’s March,” the caption read. A young, white man we now know as Covington Catholic high school student Nick Sandmann stood, smiling. Facing him was 64-year-old Nathan Phillips, an Omaha Nation elder and military veteran, beating a drum rhythmically, inches from Sandmann’s face.

Traveling through social media rapidly under the hashtag #CovingtonBoys, I could see this video going viral. In this first wave of coverage, some outlets, and my own progressive social media feeds, reported the confrontation as it was framed by the video’s producers: it was a typical instance of Trumpian racism performed by a teenager.

Many conservatives readers told a different story: They believed that the liberal media was accusing these boys of racism, when it was just as possible that the Native-American elder was really a political activist trying to provoke them.

The second wave of coverage framed the incident as a Rohrschach test. “Tell me how you voted and I’ll tell you what you think you saw,” wrote Jack Shafer in Politico, who warned of “our newly discovered infinite capacity for dispute.”

Worse, from the moment the video began to populate social media feeds, Sandmann and his family were showered with abuse and violent threats—even as new, unedited videos showed that he and the Covington students had done nothing wrong. The school closed temporarily because of bomb threats. Subsequently, the Sandmann family sued several mainstream outlets. Eighteen months and much unwanted notoriety later, they have won retractions, apologies, and two settlements.

The #CovingtonBoys video was, in a way, synecdoche for the fun-house world that the 2016 election created.

Because one of the under-appreciated aspects of Trumpism is that since the president has now made himself not just the head of government, but the center of American public life, we’re all political junkies now. Which means that we all want the political narratives that feel true to be true.

I became interested in the #CovingtonBoys story because I was working on a book about the rise of alternative media. As I worked on verifying the story, I realized that Nick Sandmann had been framed.

Progressive friends were angry and disappointed with me when I urged them to stop sharing the video because it felt true to them. Many went on at length about how Sandmann reminded them of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh, another Catholic school alumnus who had recently been confirmed amidst allegations of sexual assault.

As it turns out, I was right, and a good many people (or many good people, depending on how you want to think about it) were wrong about what happened in Washington that day, which is why this episode seems worth reflecting on as we come ever closer to another presidential election.

Why? Because today, digital media outlets are still shaping stories to create conflict, and mainstream media outlets still lean on social media feeds as tip lines.

These practices hurt all of us. And they will continue to hurt all of us until we grapple with what digital media has become, what role it plays in our political imagination, and why we are so unwilling to put our responsibility to be informed citizens ahead of the pleasure and excitement of being political junkies.

Political junkies used to be the most informed people. They were the ones who read two or three newspapers a day and subscribed to National Review or the New Republic (or both).

But the combination of extreme polarization and the rise of digital media has turned the political junkie into a person who reads more—much more—about political life. And actually knows less. Political junkies now persistently search for “scoops” that reaffirm their views—even if it means willfully misunderstanding reality.

The old media ecosystem produced and distributed the news, critical forms of truth-seeking—fact, expert opinion, and principled disagreement—which were necessary to maintaining democracy. But thanks to the economics of the digital world, that ecosystem is in the process of collapse.

In its place has grown an alternative digital media ecosystem, a forest of so-called “political news” sites and social media apps that bends reality to its will and serves as a perfect platform for political lies posing as news. In many cases, actual fake news doesn’t just reflect partisan divides, it creates them, bringing speculation, gossip, alternative realities, and conspiracy theories into the mainstream. By 2012, Donald Trump’s signature phrase—“a lot of people are saying”—was enough to launch crackpot theories from the alt-web into Twitter, and from there, to major newspapers and cable news programs.

As citizens, we should be outraged, not entertained, by fake news. We should be even more outraged when real news is said to be fake, as Donald Trump and his enablers do on a regular basis. And we don’t need to romanticize the public square, or the good old days of nightly news broadcasts on only three channels, to imagine that a country that could agree on basic facts would be on a path to a more democratic future.

It wasn’t always this way. From the political newsletters of the 1950s, to public television, to blogging, alternative media once promised Americans better reporting and deeper political knowledge. But when politics discovered the internet, a new and disturbing reality emerged: that alternative media channels could find a mass audience without having to clear any of the gatekeeping hurdles that professional journalists had built to keep themselves honest. And after them came the real fake news: The Facebook content mills run by Macedonian teenagers and husband and wife teams of grifters.

We cannot know how early alternative journalists with strong ideological perspectives, like I.F. Stone or William F. Buckley, would have responded to this torrent of sludge. But I think they would have been astonished by how freely we speak and write online, and, at the same time, how little of what we say contributes to the project of knowledge and human freedom.

Alternative new outlets like I.F. Stone’s Weekly and Buckley’s National Review helped readers think through the issues of the day because they took pains to tell the truth as they understood it. Each story was selected by a trusted friend, produced with care, packed with facts and well-considered opinions, and curated for an audience that valued information over sensation.

It was this same impulse to improve on the mainstream news that motivated the first generation of political bloggers—Mickey Kaus, Jonah Goldberg, Heather “Digby” Parton, and Andrew Sullivan. Whether on the left or the right, these political junkies believed in well-researched facts.

In addition, they trusted their readers to do their own research, to inspire conversation, and to lead the entire demos to consensus based on what was true and what was false. As economics blogger Tyler Cowan reflected in 2011, the best blogs were “self-critical and self-reflective”; a blogger needed to cultivate a sense of “your own weaknesses, where you were wrong last time, and where you can do better.”

But the blogosphere was killed by social media, aspirational corporate behemoths which ushered in a number of changes:

  • It reduced the barrier to entry for publishing to simple possession of an iPhone.
  • It made public comments so voluminous and ephemeral that crowd-sourced fact checking became much less frequent.
  • It helped magnify and accelerate the existing trends toward polarization by allowing everyone to create remarkably sturdy information bubbles.

The end result was that Americans fled to their ideological corners, consuming news that was curated for “them” but contributed little to the informed democracy that twentieth century alternative media pioneers had imagined.

How can democratic conversation function when it seems like all we do is reassure each other, within our partisan bubbles, that “we” are right and “they” are fatally wrong?

The answer is: It doesn’t.

The new digital alternative media has fueled a crisis of political civility and distrust, as well as contempt for traditional forms of cultural and social authority, while giving up its valuable historic role of holding mainstream media accountable.

It also forfeited the special role alternative media had played in telling truth to power. I.F. Stone revealed the truth about the Vietnam war, and Matt Drudge the truth about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. At the turn of the twentieth century, bloggers confronted mainstream media’s relationship to the political establishment and not only won, but made new grassroots political movements, and outsider candidacies, possible.

Alternative digital media can also play a particularly destructive role in choosing surrogates for political conflict. This is why the #CovingtonBoys video and its aftermath was always a bigger story than Donald Trump and his MAGA followers.

It was a story about us: About how badly we want access to truth,but how little we are willing to work to get it. About how eager we are to engage in politics, but how much more energized we are by conflict, rather than reasoned debate. And about how eagerly we accept any story that confirms our priors and reject any caution that challenges them.

But that isn’t how it has to be.

We don’t have to get up off the porch and chase every stick that Twitter throws. Yes, we now live in an illiberal political culture that snuck up on us while we were tweeting, Facebooking, watching YouTube videos, and scrolling through partisan sites whose main purpose is to capture and sell our data. We can’t change the past.

But the great thing about alternative media is how responsive it can be to failure, and how swiftly it can adapt to what its audience demands.

On the brink of a historic election, we might remember a moment, almost 250 years ago, when all American media that didn’t belong to the king of England was alternative media and, to paraphrase historian Bernard Bailyn, “the sheer explosiveness of the controversies” catapulted Americans’ minds “toward a mode of understanding altogether new, altogether modern.”

Those early Americans reflected before they reacted. They fought a war, but they also wrote pamphlets. They clamored in coffeehouses, and they dueled. They settled, often grudgingly, for compromises and imperfect solutions, acted on them, and then started writing, reading, and listening some more. And their descendants kept doing it, generation after generation, creating new, alternative media in which they upbraided each other, resolved their differences, and gathered like-minded folks together to imagine new futures.

So can we.

Claire Potter

Claire Potter is professor of History at the New School for Social Research, co-executive editor of Public Seminar, and the author of Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020) which this essay is adapted from. You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical.