Why has America gone crazy?
It’s a question that many of you have doubtless asked over the past couple of years and it’s one that I’ve struggled to come up with a good answer for. Why, in the space of the past couple of years, has America come fundamentally unglued? Why have otherwise rational people began to act irrationally? Why have your Facebook and Twitter feeds turned into political battlegrounds? Why have many of you even ended relationships or friendships over political disagreements? How did everything turn so upside down in a time of relative peace and prosperity in America?
For a country that has been through a Revolution, the Constitutional Convention, the Civil War and two World Wars, through slavery and internment camps, through the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, presidential assassinations, 9/11, women’s suffrage, prohibition, the abortion controversy, gay marriage, guns rights and countless other major political conflicts, how in the world are people now losing their minds over transgender bathroom rights and immigration policy?
In the grand scheme of things, there have rarely been less significant issues at stake in the history of our republic. Republicans haven’t elected a more moderate president since Teddy Roosevelt and we’ve come a long way as a country when our national debate over equality has boiled down to which bathroom people who are changing their genders use.
Yet many of you feel like you’re living in the end times.
How did this all happen so quickly?
This is my attempt to make sense of our country’s present status and ground it in historical reality. But before we get there, let’s take a short history lesson in American media. Because ultimately everything in this country — and all countries — pretty much always boil down to money and how it’s made.
For most of American media history there was no concept of unbiased, neutral journalism. Newspapers endorsed political candidates and savaged their opponents in print. If you think politics is rough now, go read what was written about Andrew Jackson’s wife when he ran for president or what was said about Abraham Lincoln during his 1860 and 1864 presidential campaigns. Newspapers, which in their most basic business models are aggregations of advertisements surrounded by articles of interest designed to get people to buy the paper, were the first mass distributed method of political discourse in this country. (Leaving aside pamphlets like Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” newspapers were our first mass distributed pop culture.) And newspapers began as ribald, rollicking, bitterly partisan broadsides for or against particular candidates and policies.
It wasn’t until near the beginning of the 20th century that any notion of “unbiased” news took root in the popular conception. And what did “unbiased” news offer from a business perspective? Something for everyone. Instead of only selling newspapers to Republicans or Democrats or Whigs or Tories, you could appeal to every single person in an entire community. The notion of “unbiased” news wasn’t a creation demanded by journalistic ethics, it was a newspaper business model that led to better profits.
That “unbiased” newspaper business model carried through into the 20th century with the two major media innovations adopted by households — radio and television — which were designed to appeal to the largest possible audiences. And, due to the fact that they were public licenses, were required to give equal weight to both political parties. Radio and television shows were created with mass appeal prioritized over individual appeal. “I Love Lucy,” and “Andy Griffith” gave way to “MASH” and “The Cosby Show,” but the goal remained the same — creating a type of entertainment that appealed to everyone, from eight to eighty.
The 20th century was the golden age of pop culture centrism, you didn’t get exactly what you loved the most, but you got what everyone could love at least a little bit, grandma and grandson were both entertained.
Now let’s pause for a moment and think about how astoundingly different the rise modern American pop culture was. Think about what the average American’s life would have been like in 1900 and 1965.
In 1900 what pop culture was there? If you found yourself in California and you were from New York, what shared interests might you have to discuss with someone from the opposite coast? Food, alcohol, relationships, children, travel, maybe politics if you read a regular newspaper, which most didn’t, but there would have been no shared national discourse in 1900 on television or movies or sports or music. If you were really well read maybe you could talk about a popular book, but odds are that other than reading Shakespeare in school you wouldn’t have read that much in common either.
And that experience in 1900 wasn’t that much different than what might have happened throughout human history. Up until the advent of the printing press the only way people could easily share stories was orally and those stories were, as a result, relatively few and didn’t translate across all cultures. And even with the advent of the printing press literacy was incredibly rare for most of human history. So for most of human history, popular culture didn’t exist. (And if it did exist at all, religion was pretty much the only popular culture.)
But by 1965 just about every kid in America had been exposed to “I Love Lucy” and “Bonanza.”
Suddenly, with the advent of the radio and later television, the most remote hollow in West Virginia could be as aware of what was going on in the country as the most urbane New Yorker. And, significantly, the entertainment that both consumed would have been very similar. With a relative paucity of entertainment options available, everyone watched or listened to the same things. Our national discourse became united around first the radio and then the television dial.
All of our media was designed to appeal to the largest possible audiences.
Cable started to change that in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, but those of you who are my age will remember that most of the early popular cable channels weren’t in the business of creating original content, they just took older popular content and reaired it. So if you’re around my age you could come home and watch TBS after school, but TBS after school was really just repurposed original pop culture for mass audiences from earlier decades. As a result you could watch “The Brady Bunch,” or “The Jetsons” or the “Beverly Hillbillies” or some other show that used to air on broadcast television for massive audiences for older generations.
The 20th century, in retrospect, was about making us all very similar in our interests. More so than any other century it ended our national balkanization. Television, radio and newspapers were about connecting massive audiences with shared experiences via limited viewing and reading options. When the television set came on in the 20th century the entire family watched together.
The result of that media environment was a national discourse that even when surrounded by incredibly complex and difficult national issues — Vietnam, the civil rights movement, abortion decisions by the Supreme Court, assassinations of presidents and political leaders like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy — our politics remained fairly middle of the road in nature. Radio, TV and the newspapers, the three primary means of the media making money in this country in the 20th century, relied upon not antagonizing or alienating large segments of the population. The national discourse in media was sober and and without flair.
Then came the Internet.
And everything changed.
Because while 20th century media was about uniting a balkanized country under a national popular culture, 21st century media is about rebalkanizing our country. And the reason for that is simple — massive audiences are gone and now there is money to be made off appealing to smaller but more passionate audiences. Major sporting events — and to a certain extent awards shows — are the only national apolitical connective tissue we have left now. (And even that is fraying. How many of you don’t want to watch the Oscars tonight because you already are troubled by what an actor or actress will say in his or her acceptance speach?)
Think about it, the Cosby Show had a 41.3 rating at its apex and brought in tens of millions of viewers for every episode, “Modern Family”, the 2016 version of the Cosby Show, averaged a 2.3 rating with seven million viewers last season.
We all have so many entertainment options now that our interests are spread across the entertainment spectrum. “Mad Men” received tens of thousands of words in media coverage in the New York Times during its run on AMC, yet the show averaged only a couple of million viewers. Depth of passion replaced depth of viewership as the coin of the media realm. The more passionate your audience, even if it was tiny, the more money you could make off of it.
The new Internet media environment, aided by the rise of social media through Twitter and Facebook, wasn’t about having to satisfy every single person, it was only about having to satisfy a small segment of the overall population. You could get rich off appealing to a sliver of the population. That’s because the Internet let loose a new business dynamic when it came to media, giving you exactly what you want at the moment that you want it. The benefits have been incredible for the average media consumer, unleashing a tidal wave of pop culture creativity the likes of which we have never seen before in the history of the world. (Interestingly, that same TV creativity has made our movies pale in comparison. Ask your average person who leaves a two hour movie whether they would rather have seen the movie they just watched or watched two episodes of their favorite TV show. Chances are most people would pick their favorite TV show.) These shows have even become so popular that many of you reading this right now would probably agree that which shows you favor tells us something about you; that is, we all feel so deeply connected to our favorite TV shows that they reveal something about ourselves to others.
Okay, so if the Internet and social media has all been incredibly beneficial to popular culture when it comes to entertainment — that is, the wealth of options have never been better for viewers and the quality of shows has never been greater — why has our national discourse on politics collapsed at the same time? Especially when you consider, again, that the divisive issues we’re debating right now in this country — transgender bathroom rights and immigration policy — pale in comparison to the issues that have divided us throughout or national history.
I’d argue it’s the same reason — because there’s a business in balkanizing political media now.
Think back to my review of American media history, newspapers, radio and TV all relied upon massive audiences throughout the 20th century. Their business model was based upon appealing to everyone. Everyone had to like what you made — or at least not hate it — and the result was a very middle of the road, generally inoffensive, set of articles, broadcasts, and shows. The same was true of our political coverage.
But while the Internet, social media and the proliferation of options has been great for entertainment, it’s simultaneously destroyed the fabric of our national political discourse. There are now many people in the political arena who make a living talking to tiny segments of the population and fomenting anger there. What’s more, these individuals aren’t even politicians. They aren’t actually running for anything, they’re just making money off the angst they create.
Let’s think about a guy like Shaun King on the left wing. His entire method of making a living is off creating anger among his followers. He isn’t trying to actually make things better by running for political office and he isn’t trying to cover stories objectively. If things were perfect in this country he wouldn’t be able to make a living.
He’s a self proclaimed “social justice warrior,” and he has an audience of angry followers that’s he’s constantly convincing, for instance, that white police have a war on black men. Of course, King could just as easily be sharing stories about people being killed by bees, wasps or hornets, since that happens much more frequently in this country than unarmed black men being shot by police, but there’s not a market in bee killings. But the black man being held down by the racist white man? That’s a story that has been selling in this country for a half century.
And right now Shaun King is selling that story to his followers.
Of course the right wing has their own angry leaders and angry followers and you can argue that began more with talk radio in the 1990’s than the Internet. Rush Limbaugh, for instance, makes tens of millions of dollars a year making right wingers angry without really changing anything. Indeed, just like Shaun King, the angrier Rush’s audience gets the more money he makes. These left and right wing political audiences have become so popular that they now dominate our national discourse. And both of these groups owe their audiences to nothing actually changing, which leads to polarized politics which then leads to a disagreement over basic facts. And if you can’t agree on basic facts how can you ever hope to resolve any national issues?
What’s worse, these groups become echo chambers, filling their audiences, which never seek out opposing viewpoints, with the idea that they and they alone are correct. Compromise becomes impossible when you convince yourself that your side is correct and the other side is the devil. It’s not a coincidence that both the Democrats and the Republicans nominated their most hated candidate ever to run against each other in these environments.
Never has less been at stake in our country’s history and more left and right wingers believed that everything is at stake.
Think about this, in the entire history of our nation, we have never nominated two people more hated than our options were this year. And regardless of whether you preferred Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, these two candidates weren’t the cause of our national insanity, their selection was merely a symptom of it.
The reason for their selection is simple — there’s a business now in serving up political red meat to the hardest core of the liberal and the conservative audiences. The 21st century isn’t about making America great again, it’s about making America angrier.
It used to be that Walter Cronkite was our nation’s foremost political leader on TV, now it’s Don Lemon, Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly on TV and much, much more polarizing individuals on social media and radio. We’ve replaced political journalists who speak to the nation with individuals who speak to a tiny faction of the population; we’ve made balkanized media stars. And these media stars, increasingly, have come to believe so much in their own world view that they don’t even interact with other views. Why would they when their entire business model and ability to make a living is predicated on never changing their opinions?
If Shaun King or Rush Limbaugh ever decided they might be wrong, they wouldn’t have jobs.
How can we have successful political leaders when so much of our politics is now dominated by extremists on the left and right wing who refuse to compromise on anything because they believe their opponents are the pure evil? I don’t blame these individuals for existing, after all the market has created the business opportunity they’re now serving, but I do think it’s worth asking why we’ve allowed American popular culture to flourish via balkanization in TV programs and die via balkanization in political discourse?
How is it that the Internet and social media can create such great options in popular culture and such awful ones in politics? And, more alarmingly, what will happen when we leave behind transgender bathroom laws and national immigration policy and actually confront a real challenge? Could America mobilize to fight a real evil in World War II today? Or is national unity gone forever? Most alarmingly of all, was the 20th century’s media environment the exception to the general rule and is our present day perspective actually our new national reality?
Right now our politics is defined as a zero sum game on the Internet and social media. For many people on the left and right, in order for you to win the other side has to lose and vice versa. People are so consumed with being right that they don’t spend any time trying to be decent. Or, even more alarmingly, trying to be rational.
Maybe the difference in television and politics in the 21st century is just a function of winning and losing. After all, if I tell you that “Breaking Bad” is amazing, but that “The Walking Dead” sucks, you don’t spend any time worried about my opinion if you love “The Walking Dead” and hate “Breaking Bad.” That’s because my opinion doesn’t impact your ability to watch your show, one show isn’t winning and the other show isn’t losing.
But imagine what social media would look like if two of the most popular television shows went head-to-head in a winner take all challenge and the loser got canceled and everyone had to watch the winner. How quickly would television’s popularity unravel on the Internet and on social media? How long would it take for top television show fans to be at each other’s throats all day long every day? And how many people out there who kind of like both shows would stand in the middle and look at everyone attacking each other and wonder how TV ever ended up like this?
How long would it take until television’s golden age collapsed in a sea of recriminations and antipathies? Because that’s what has happened with our politics.
It’s easy to blame the media for our present insanity, but I think that’s misguided. Yes, the media foments conflict and angst and anger and fear because that’s what makes the media money. But the reason why our political media is broken isn’t because the political media is broken, it’s because we’re broken. Every time that Donald Trump gets attacked, his base likes him more and every time the left wing base attacks Donald Trump, the left wing’s base likes it more. The problem with this is self-evident, we’ve got two diffferent media universes that don’t overlap.
And, significantly, both of these media bases are incredibly lucrative businesses. Why would the left wing and the right wing change its media direction when both sides are making so much money and the audiences keep consuming what’s being created so rapaciously? Abraham Lincoln famously said a house divided against itself cannot stand.
But what if a media house divided against itself can stand up perfectly, even as the country falls apart around it?
Because the scary thing is this, at some point real, substantive issues will confront this country again. We won’t be debating transgender bathroom laws or how aggressively to enforce our nation’s existing immigration laws. A terror attack, another country invading an innocent one, a global pandemic that leads to the death of tens of millions, our history teaches us that real issues will emerge to confront our country again. And the scariest ultimate question is this, could our nation still confront and defeat actual evil? Or have we spent so much time demonizing each other in the 21st century that if real evil actually emerged, no one would even recognize it until it was too late?