Obligate mutualisms

Modern media systems are reinforcing the Left and Right's co-dependence.


This article is part of a series of thinking examining modern media and our civic life including my new book For ALL the People coming Feb 23, 2021.


Watching Senators Schumer and McConnell jockey over the organizing resolution to move the new Senate session forward feels like an eerie echo of 2009. Both the Left and Right in American politics seem intent on destroying each other, animated by some fantastical future where their enemies are vanquished and they get to live in a world with no difference of opinion. The reality is that the hyperpolarized politics that have become our norm have created political parties defined primarily by difference that are entirely dependent on each other for survival.

Obligate mutualism (n): a type of mutualism in which the species involved are interdependent with one another in such a way that one cannot survive without the other.

One of the most painful consequences of the evolution of modern media is how the tools we rely on to tell the stories that define community have become tools to exploit us and profit from our outrage. When it is more profitable to encourage and reinforce our angriest, most extreme reactions, stories that create positive community tend to get lost in the haze of rage-clicking and doom-scrolling platforms rely on to maximize and monetize our “engagement”. This focus on extreme reactivity also encourages defining our worldview in extreme comparison to our opponents, ultimately reinforces the pendulum swing of tit-for-tat driving us further from each other, and discourages finding new paths. Along with a deeply corrupt campaign finance system and political redistricting processes, modern media is designed—intentionally or not—to exploit difference and comparison and to encourage extremism.

In my new book For ALL the People coming out in February, I try to explain why this all feels so painfully broken — but the reality is that these systems aren’t broken. They are working as they were designed for the commercial benefit of their designers. And our uninspiring political parties have become casualties of the incentives that make being in community harder and harder.

Increasingly, both Democrats and Republicans have little certainty about their worldviews other than that they are 100% sure the other is 100% wrong 100% of the time about 100% of the things. In a world where we are only defined by opposition, we are dependent on that opposition and our political parties that ought to provide clarity and stability to our civic life end up doing the opposite. The echo of 2009 is of a time when Senator McConnell openly stated that opposition to President Obama was his number one priority. As a nation, we need to begin going in a clear and specific direction together, not just running away from our political opposition. On the Left, we need to craft a genuinely inclusive worldview that provides a direction and a path to a future that includes all Americans, that provides a sense of safety, meaning, and belonging, that reveals a new path guided by moral leadership. (I shared some my perspective on this path in the aftermath of the Capitol riots.)

America is desperate for somewhere to go, not just somewhere not to go. And with clear direction, perhaps we can break our co-dependent extremism—both our own and theirs, but we’re going to need some help from our platforms. We need them to embrace optimization for discourse not just engagement, or our best instincts will continue to drown, swimming against their multi-billion-dollar revenue stream.

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