Americans have never been particularly adept at discussing public policy, but whatever skill they possessed has been wiped clean by social media. The disintegration of public discourse has been happening for a while. Long gone, for instance, are the days of open-air debates where political candidates would exchange ideas for hours. The U.S. senatorial debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858 immediately come to mind.
“In each debate either Douglas or Lincoln would open with an hour address,” explains an article on the National Park Service website. “The other would then speak for an hour and a half. The first then had 30 minutes of rebuttal.”
Today? Good luck getting an American audience to listen to a rebuttal for 30 seconds, let alone 30 minutes.
The emergence of radio, and then television, began the slide into rhetorical inanity. Media theorist Neil Postman described TV’s influence adeptly in his 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”
“Americans no longer talk to each other; they entertain each other,” wrote Postman. “They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities, and commercials.”
As if that weren’t bad enough, social media entered the scene in the 21st century. As with all new technologies, social media “alter[ed] the structure of our interests: the things we think about,” explained Postman in “Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology,” another book he wrote eight years later. “They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop.”
New York Times opinion columnist Ezra Klein referenced Postman in an illuminating piece this summer that underscored social media’s influence on our lives: “As a medium, Twitter nudges its users toward ideas that can survive without context, that can travel legibly in under 280 characters. It encourages a constant awareness of what everyone else is discussing. It makes the measure of conversational success not just how others react and respond but how much response there is.”
Put another way, anyone on social media today can become a “shock jock” of the internet in the same way Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh stirred up controversy on the radio airwaves beginning in the 1980s. When social-media posts address political issues, for example, they’re often emotive, accusatory, and devoid of meaningful substance.
Elected officials now engage in this vacuous activity. Call it “Mudslinging 2.0.” What used to be reserved for political advertisements and isolated jabs during formal political debates – remember them? – has morphed into online threads of finger-pointing and insults that totally ignore the policy details of any issue.
Take the recent Project Veritas “gotcha” video in which Greenwich school administrator Jeremy Boland “allegedly admit[s] to discriminating against Catholics, conservatives, and older teachers.” Republican Senate candidate Leora Levy posted a link to the video, introducing it as “Indoctrination & discrimination” and stating that “Our kids deserve to be educated & taught to think critically, not indoctrinated into Leftist ideology.”
What follows her post is a litany of responses, some of which disparage Levy, some of which criticize educators, some of which make legitimate points, but all of which – taken together – amount to absolutely zero rational discussion of the issue at hand. And that’s because Levy’s original decontextualized post was intentionally inflammatory. Mission accomplished.
Leora Levy is hardly the only politician who stirs up controversy on social media for the sole purpose of grabbing attention. Politicians of all stripes do it. But we must give credit where credit is due: Former president Donald Trump was the master, ceaselessly sending out bombastic and truth-challenged tweets to the tune of 35 times a day during his final six months in office.
Don’t bother looking for anything resembling policy in those tweets. In fact, you’d be wasting your time searching for any specific policy statements at all in the official 2020 platform of Trump’s GOP; it included no changes whatsoever from the official platform in 2016. Such is the state of “policy” in 2022.
In similar fashion, it’s no surprise that Levy’s website contains statements under “Policies” that smack of fearmongering. In a subsection titled “America Is Under Attack,” for instance, we find this diatribe: “In what parallel universe are we living today? When did it become a norm for worried parents to be deemed domestic terrorists, yet criminals are treated like victims, despite wreaking havoc on cities across the nation?”
Good luck finding any actual policies that might address the “havoc” – they’re nowhere to be found on the website. It’s not surprising, considering how much public discourse has deteriorated in the age of social media.
Twitter, Facebook, Truth Social. How far we have fallen since the Lincoln-Douglas debates.