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Weekend Edition (on Monday): Populism, disinformation, and the Democrats
We're missing something (and an opportunity) at the heart of current populist rumblings on both sides of the aisle -- and it isn't disinformation.
Last week, I wrote briefly on the current conversation about disinformation and democracy increasingly prevalent in Democratic circles. But I did so narrowly and specifically with regard to the Democratic Party and our seemingly effortless ability to misinterpret election cycles. The broad connection between the deeper cultural and political impacts of media on civic life clearly still demands more exploration (perhaps a book-length examination — see one here). But there is a specific connection between the Democratic response to disinformation and the rise of Populism on both the left and right over the past decade that I think deserves specific attention.
DISINFORMATION AND THE LEFT
Opinions we don't like are not necessarily disinformation, and our opinions are neither facts, nor self-evident. In many cases we are attempting to persuade people of the validity of our moral worldview by claiming it as self-evident fact, as inevitable rational conclusion. We undermine other worldviews that we see as immoral but without offering anything in their place. Our ethics may feel obvious to us but articulating them with clarity and conviction is, in fact, at the heart of how we need to transform cultures that have been oppressing us and making us (meaning humanity) sick for generations. It is an exercise in persuasion and cultural transformation. But it is an argument, not an education exercise. It is not simply the obvious conclusion of rational assumptions. These are not awareness problems or a failure to “get through.” These moral arguments are a clash of visions and refusal to see them as they are is part of why we tend to lose them. And blaming disinformation after losing (failing to engage in) such an argument is like blaming the referee.
BASIC ROOTS OF POPULISM
Historically, populism is inherently reactionary. Complex and culturally distinct in each era, community, and country in which it has arisen, fundamentally, populism represents an expression of opposition to unfairness, inequality, structural oppression that is commonly characterized by broad grassroots frustration and a need for retribution if not outright revolution. Whose oppression and who is the target of that retribution depends on who is doing the oppressing, who is being oppressed, and who is controlling the narrative — or more accurately (often) who is pointing the finger at whom. (For more background, you might start with this piece from Henry Olsen on recent American populism from The Tea Party to today, and this one from Yasmeen Serhan on the definition of populism in America.)
Its roots are about collective repression of the people by a minority — whether a landed colonial aristocracy, corporate monopoly power, or neoliberal globalist elites. But too often much of the rewarding feeling of self-righteousness that comes from populist anger and rhetoric is individual: collective pain, individual relief. And because our media systems are oriented and optimized for individual engagement, not the collective health of a vibrant public sphere, they drive us toward self-satisfaction and judgment and make us sensitive to disinformation that feeds those instincts alongside our desire for someone to blame for the unfairness we see and feel. When politicians spurring populist rage for political gain begin to traffic in disinformation (even occasionally), our inability to engage in real debate and effectively discern truth leaves us at their mercy — and our communities suffer.
For our part, we can take steps to listen with better ears and engage differently even in media systems not designed to inform or make it easy to discover, to be curious, or to be wrong while we learn.
Slow down — information overload is a feature of our media systems and leads us to make snap, emotional judgments. Good for rapid, instinctive ecommerce, bad for nuanced, complex civic conversation. And slowing down is about our internal processes too, about having patience with ourselves despite our desperation for answers.
Break patterns — we get into information ruts that are encouraged and dug by algorithms feeding us “more of what we like” but also by our own habits. Actively seek out new voices within comfortable spaces. Be curious about new spaces where and when we can.
Listen first — we often begin our rebuttal before we really engage with what others are saying or trying to say. If we listen carefully to whole conversations, we may find our perspectives already well-represented; we may not have more that needs to be added. In this listening, assuming good intent helps hear what people are trying to express rather than seeking to punish people for incomplete thoughts.
We are still going to debate, and we should. We need to: we have fundamental disagreements about the nature of society, systems in America and beyond, and the basic building blocks of American culture. And debate is a distinct and productive function of a healthy public sphere. Taking active steps to engage differently where we can isn’t going to instantly fix our nasty political dysfunction, but it is a beginning that will help us feel like civic engagement is worthy and valuable rather than something to be avoided. And it is also the beginning to making actual disinformation less effective.
CONNECTING DISINFORMATION TO POPULISM
If our sense of self-satisfied relief is at least in large part individual, then as a cultural reaction to systemic unfairness, populism is not inherently going to drive any kind of movement without the organizing work to transform individual reactions into collective action. And depending on how that movement emerges or the leadership that rises in a community, it is most often animated by a need for retribution. It is rarely (if ever) a positive governing philosophy (although the policies demanded by these movements often share some common themes), solutions oriented, or future oriented. It ends up focused on wresting control of a cruel system largely without a plan for anything but vengeance, rather than a vision to transform that system into (or build a new) one not predicated on exploitation or cruelty. For Democrats wrestling with disinformation on one hand and with a rank ethnocentric populism from the right and a messy, vague populism from the left, our misinterpretation (and the missed opportunity of leadership in a moment of global transformation) of both disinformation and populism are connected.
Yes, opportunistic, ethnocentric, conservative populism benefits more from the collapse of social and institutional trust engendered and accelerated by disinformation since a conservative return to or maintenance of long-held status quo will be the default response to the collapse of or the failure to continuously improve and evolve culture and systems. While this populism is still a moral condemnation of oppression — misguided or misattributed as it may be, it is not a governing philosophy. And it does not require reason or solutions to shape anxiety into fear into anger into sustained minority political control. But the underlying anxiety, frustration, and uncertainty are not disinformation to be dismissed. They are shared cues across disparate, diverse communities that our current systems are not serving all of us.
The anxiety and desperation of the populism on the left, shaped by cultural evolution and the demand for justice shares similar cues. Liberalism must engage in a moral argument for a future that imbues people with meaningful power and that helps them see their possibilities as greater than what their narrow identities might offer or may have condemned them to in the past. This future must be just and must be more creative and more free than the narrow bounds of current expectations and a backward-looking misconception of mythical glory days that were neither glorious nor free for most.
Underneath these rising populist frustrations is a deep-seeded anxiety about an uncertain future coming on the heels of a recent history of profound inequalities of wealth, opportunity, and justice. We are faced with evidence of seeming and actual corruption, civic corporate capture, and systems designed for fracture, inequality, alienation, and injustice, and we are expected to smile, vote, and hope that the next chapter of the same story will be different than the last. That expectation is beyond reason without new promise and new demonstration of ethics and systems that are right to be believed.
CONNECTING POPULISM TO THE FUTURE
Our future will be more creative, more abundant because our world is more expansive and inclusive and because power is shared in balance with the communities around us — political, cultural, and natural. We can be small and angry and feel safe in the familiar constraints of our zero-sum death match race to the bottom, leaving claw marks on everything we can reach, OR we can be safe, creative, and free with faith in the abundance we see all around us. We aren't meant to be alone; we are meant to thrive together. We must embrace our interdependence. And the more broadly we define the “we” the more we thrive and the more of us thrive.
What connects this vision of the future to the anxiety of the present is a clear, positive moral governing philosophy shaped by real, sustainable equality by design, not just rhetoric. Democrats must build trust and confidence in this exercise of moral leadership by beginning to demonstrate our commitment to these fundamental principles by organizing differently:
Encourage full participation by everyone, not just our voters
Be clear and confident about moral leadership, not just policy preference
Listen more actively, more regularly to more people in more communities
Build the expectation that civic life is a constant activity, not just about elections
Without an alternative, this populist anxiety will continue to be stirred to anger, toward dissolution, and against “others.” The inspiration that animates populism must be heard and harnessed to a positive vision, a future-looking moral worldview that serves the possibility of a broad, diverse, multi-racial democracy Democrats so often hope for but seem to question. The questioning of its possibility and the focus on blame and retribution may serve the populist diagnosis but is rooted in looking back and seeing no evidence for a different future. Faith in possibility serves the solution and is rooted in looking forward and building bridges to the future we imagine. Far from perfect or easy, but we know where the current path leads.