Politics for the last 40 years or so, at least prior to 2012ish, has been dominated by the visual medium of television. Prior to that, it was radio. And before that, it was newspapers and print. And before that, it was live speeches and debates. As our technological culture progresses and advances, the mediums through which we consume change along with it. And of course, the old mediums have to keep up to stay relevant. They have to morph to reflect the new technological realities of consumption, and often times that is an awkward jump to make.
Similarly, the nature of campaigning and the means through which candidates try to reach voters changes along with it. Simply put campaigns have to meet the voters where they are at, and that means finding new ways to fit politics and messaging into these new mediums. However that has not come without a cost.
Debates used to be all-day affairs, where two candidates would go back and forth for hours and hours. In a famous series of debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas for an Illinois Senate seat in 1858, the candidates at one point stopped a marathon debate to send the crowd home to eat dinner and come back with full stomachs. Folks had an appetite for these all-day events because they were just as much entertainment as they were political events. Most of these debates were actually help at carnivals and county fairs. It’s not like they had anything else to entertain themselves, after all. TV and radio were still a hundred years away. And candidates had voters rapt attention for hours on end, able to expand and expound upon their platform, ideas, plans, and values.
With the advent of radio, this kind of political discourse had to morph to the prevailing medium. Radio broadcasters couldn’t afford to let candidates debate for hours on end; the audience would eventually grow bored and simply change the channel. Debates and political shows and the like had to compete with content that was explicitly entertainment, rather than politics being repackaged as entertainment. So debates went from all-day marathon events to an hour or two simply because that’s all the attention that audiences could afford to give.
The proliferation of television created an entirely new dimension to political content; the visual component. Now, it wasn’t so much about what candidates were saying, but how they looked when they said it. A famous study from the 1960 presidential debate between JFK and Richard Nixon exemplifies this shift. Researchers asked voters who listened to their debate on the radio who they thought won the debate, and most of them agreed that Nixon had won. However the researchers asked voters who watched the debate on television who won, and they agreed that JFK won. This makes sense considering JFK was a handsome, charismatic speaker and Nixon was, well, he was Nixon. He looks like the Baby Grinch.
In a lot of ways, the factors determining the popularity and excitement around political candidates shifted away from the quality and content of their words and ideas, and shifted towards their overall image and look. And that is a direct result of the increasingly visual culture that television helped create. The strongest candidate became less about how they would ultimately govern or about their intellectual prowess or the content of their characters, and became more about whether or not they looked and acted the part on television because that is the primary medium through which voters are interacting with them.
Fast forward to 2016, the first year that social media became a significant medium in politics and elections. Donald Trump was able to pull off an improbable victory mostly because of the effectiveness of his targeted ads on platforms like Facebook and his prowess on Twitter. The Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed that his campaign used less than ethical means of targeting these ads by incorporating illicitly harvested data points to drive ad microtargeting, but the fact remains that his 2016 campaign was a masterclass in running a social media driven political campaign. In short he was able to reach precisely the right voters that he needed to win the election without winning the popular vote.
But 2020 is a huge turning point in that social media is now the most dominant medium that candidates use to reach potential voters and constituents because social media is by far the most dominant medium, period. No new medium has forced legacy mediums to evolve and morph quite like social media has, and no medium has ever dominated the content landscape like social media has. Social media in 2020 is now virtually synonymous with media at large.
The vast majority of the political content, and content in general, we consume in 2020 is tailor-made and created specifically for social media. Bite sized, 140 character summaries and 30 second vignettes of content that is meant to spread fast. Whereas in the 2016 cycle and in prior cycles, political social media content was mostly content from television or newspapers retrofitted for social media. It was television segments cut down, or deep investigative journalism reporting pared down to a single headline or snippet. Legacy media companies like newspapers and television broadcasters hadn’t yet seen the writing on the wall that social media was a force to be reckoned with.
We now live in an era where political content is native to social media, rather than retrofitted for it. Political campaigns have vast social media operations that create and target this content to reach the precise voters it needs to win. News and television organizations are creating content specifically to be shown on social media. And we, the consumers, are all online almost without exception. Candidates who are most successful in the social media era of politics have two things in common; they themselves are savvy social media users with large followings, and they have sophisticated and agile social media teams creating content for them that proliferates quickly and reaches far.
However social media as a medium is inherently ill-fitted for nuanced, detailed, and deep discussion about anything, let alone politics. Its for getting jokes off and memes and looking at pictures of cats. Its why Trump has been so successful. The platforms themselves have shaped content in such a way that the only content and ideas getting any sort of reach or scale (aka “going viral”) are short, to the point, easily digestible, and has a certain entertainment quality in them. It’s why Trump has been so successful on social media. His entire brand is “owning the libs” and while on Twitter even I can admit it’s pretty entertaining, but that is certainly no way to run a country.
Furthermore the qualities that make content on social media popular and go viral are not conducive to meaningful political discourse. Politics and ideas are inherently messy and difficult and nuanced, too complicated to be summarized in a single tweet or instagram post. They are serious business because they deal with matters of life and death and people’s livelihoods, certainly no joking matter. Trying to encapsulate complicated and multifaceted ideas into catchy social media slogans and sayings is reductive and only serves to confuse. For example, “defund the police” has become social media shorthand for a whole suite of ideas and policy suggestions on how to demilitarize the police, make police interactions safer for black and brown folks, and shift towards community policing practices, among many other things. But it would take a 50 tweet thread to properly flesh out all these ideas and why they would work.
The dominance of social media has essentially reduced our entire political process, and by extension the way that our government operates, to who can own whom on Twitter. Politicians are reduced to glorified social media influencers chasing clout not by desperate pranks and cringe videos, but through supporting and enacting policy that plays well to the mosquito-sized attention spans of their social media constituency. It is a sad state of affairs.
However, there is hope. A new medium has emerged that offers the opportunity for ideas to be properly fleshed out and given the discussion and time and attention they deserve. A throwback to when we could judge ideas by their actual content and quality, not by how who is proposing them looks or how popular it is among other people online. I am talking, of course, about podcasts.
I don’t think I need to explain what a podcast is here, because at this point almost everyone with an internet connection has a podcast of their own. A podcast is the perfect arena to debate and discuss ideas, particularly political ideas, because it cuts out all the window dressing and baggage and bullshit that comes with television and social media. You can be as ugly as Richard Nixon, but as long as what you are saying connects with people then it doesn’t really matter what you look like. It allows for nuance and exposition and evidence in a way that social media content never will.
Politics, in its purest and most distilled form, should be a battle of ideas and who’s ideas are best for the future of the people of this country. But right now, our priorities are out of whack. We as a society, because of the mediums through which we consume content, have a distorted perception of what a good idea is. Until we can peel back all the bullshit and take ideas at face value, we aren’t going to get anywhere as a country.