The Politics of Apprehension
Politics shouldn't be just about what happens next
Social media promotes a mode of political engagement that’s simultaneously hyperaware and standoffish. During Twitter’s heyday (before the dark times, before the Empire), a well-curated timeline could at once present breaking news in granular detail unavailable anywhere else and also a stream of commentary and meta-commentary (in infinite recursions) about the news. Being engaged in the Discourse meant being able to navigate these layers of context, like a submarine captain navigates different thermoclines in the ocean.
Among the tropes of the meta-commentary that became prevalent circa 2016, the year we thought was a dumpster-fire-gif, was the idea that the hypercycle of news represented the cacophony of plot resolutions that television viewers would typically expect from the last few episodes of a show about to wrap up. (It’s interesting, by the way, that this took off so quickly as a meme, because it’s inextricably bound to the recent vogue for serialized television—Sopranos, Breaking Bad—rather than the episodic format that dominated primetime for decades beforehand.) Ah, you’d wittily observe when something spectacular and unsettling happened, like Donald Trump executing a giraffe as a birthday present for one of his failsons, looks like the writers are jumping the shark.
Over time, I noticed this framework becoming less jokey and more an unstated assumption about how people interpreted events—including myself. That’s not to say that people suddenly became gnostics confident that plotters were actually running the world. Rather, much as fansites and reddits are unable to interpret massive narrative universes like the Marvel Cinematic Universe as anything but a collection of plot points endlessly setting up the next revelation or guest star or cameo or heel turn, so too did the substrate of online discourse become obsessed with figuring out the implications of what just happened, rather than understanding what had just happened. Regardless of whether anyone believed there was a writer’s room, the interpretation and extrapolation of the narrative as-if there was one became the principal quest.
It’s easy to dismiss the importance of political commentary. None of this matters, it’s easy to say, it’s just the chatter of the pattering class. But this is the stuff that people who follow politics only a little bit are likeliest to follow—commentary is a cheat code for understanding, a rich source of shortcuts to knowing what you should say and do to fit in with your crowd. And if the reaction in the commentariat is never to explain what is actually going on but to hype up what this means for what comes next, then people who pick up on this stuff through these channels are naturally going to assume that whatever has happened now is only important because it’s a prelude to what’s going to happen then.
Two trends collided simultaneously with the discourse degenerating into fandom debates. First, there was the rise of the Context Knowers, and I was definitely a part of this. If you were a social scientist or historian who was moved to action, or spotted a trend on which you could capitalize, you could repackage your most recent publication (or your undergrad lecture notes), into Context that you could market.
As meta-commentary, for instance, you can subscribe to my newsletter, where I provide Context about events.
Not, to quote a bit of Seinfeld that has aged less well, that there’s anything wrong with that—or at least not with the first few generations of that cycle. When people suddenly get interested in A Thing, then it’s probably great that people who know about That Topic can provide context about it. Over time, though, the incentives shifted so that Context-Providing became viewed as its own goal. Jealousies developed among the providers-manque and the average value of explainers started to drop as more people rushed into the intellectual Yukon to stake their claims. The Explainer lane started to turn into the Expanded Universe lane, as people would take any tangential intersection between their expertise and an event to supply tedious commentaries about it. Eventually, as the value of the first generations of explainers was recognized, incentives changed to promote more explanation—but this led to a partial Gresham’s Law in which loosely linked context started to push out the immediately useful kind. In plainer English: academics suddenly got listened to, and then they wouldn’t stop talking.
You can drown in context. If the naive reaction to a bad thing happening is that it shouldn’t happen, the sophisticates’ reaction is all too often that “this bad thing happens all the time”—a maneuver that sucks the air out of moments that require a sudden surge of feeling to produce action. If you were going to write a Rules for Conservatives as a Machiavellian answer to Rules for Radicals, you’d probably want to constantly explain that broad, impersonal systemic forces were producing awful outcomes every day—that what you’d just noticed was the system working as intended, not an injustice crying out for repair.
The other trend was the similar cycle that afflicted political and nonprofit fundraising. Ten or fifteen years ago, email fundraising had immediate rewards—remember when the Obama campaign looked like geniuses for basically doing A/B tests on subject lines?—and so the market for electronic fundraising got flooded. As email returns started to dip, I presume, the tests showed that more emotive subject lines and emails got more engagement—and eventually they showed that fear and anger worked much better at driving dollars than did anything else. And so candidates and charities started to flood our inboxes (and, now, even more annoyingly, our text messages) with a constant stream of fear and anger.
Remember when the Obama campaign looked like geniuses for doing A/B tests on email subject lines?
How do these three trends mix together? I think they’ve produced a politics of apprehension that has started to move us away from any direct means of connecting with the present. Events have always been interpreted in light of some pre-existing filters or themes, but now events themselves have become almost incidental to the positions and relationships we have to the discourses and practices that allegedly are anchored in those events. You can see this happening in real time any time there’s a mass shooting; it used to take measurable time to have someone post The Onion article (you know the one I’m talking about), but now if I see a link to the article I just assumed four or five people got gunned down somewhere. Meanwhile, the mighty Wurlitzer of context-provision is ginning itself up to let academics show how their most recent study explains what’s going on, and pro- and anti-gun groups’ (presumably either zealous or cynical) comms staffers are flocking to their Constant Contact windows to dash off a fundraising message. Eventually, the discourse will freeze the event at the level of understanding people reached in the first forty-eight hours, which is why the Pulse nightclub shooting (a tragedy for the Orlando LGBT community) is, I’d wager, still broadly seen as a hate crime rather than an ISIS-inspired event.
The politics of apprehension distances us from the world as it is and directs our efforts toward the myriad worlds that could come to pass. De-linked from reality and enmeshed in ever less relevant silos of lore, however, these worlds do not offer a guide to action but rather toward in-group solidarity and out-group hostility. At times, this reinforces what’s justifiable, as when targeted groups process a traumatic event. At other times, it exaggerates or deforms what has happened, turning nonevents or local events into crises. And at still other times, the incentives to broadcast every tragedy, to always have the dial turned up to eleven, doesn’t lead to catharsis but rather to deafness.
As a social scientist, I’m keenly aware that many of the theories I use to try to understand the world don’t fit with this behavior. Shocks are supposed to reveal new information about the world and thus change how people relate to it. If a leader presides over a massive terrorist event, for example, that’s supposed to trigger some punishment by the public for that failure. And yet it seems much more likely that very little will happen. To stick with the gun violence theme, Uvalde and Sandy Hook have had real consequences, but far fewer than you would think based on naive or sophisticated extrapolation. And other events—Nashville, Las Vegas, Tree of Life—have faded from (most) communities’ views with much less policy impact.
The political scientists Matthew Baum and Philip Potter offer a sobering assessment of similar trends and what this means for foreign policy. In particular, they argue, the development of “information silos and misinformation make it ever harder for citizens to productively engage in democratic politics in general”, leading to “an overall decline in democratic constraint”.
Contrary views less frequently break through when media are fragmented and siloed, the little that does is easily dismissed as “fake news,” and polarization makes elite discord within these silos ever more rare.
If it seems like nothing happens after something happens, well, there’s a lot of reasons you can attribute that to—the crappy institutional design of the U.S. lawmaking system top of the list. But the ability of the public to judge and demand action, or at the very least to condemn deviance in something akin to one voice, is also an input to democratic processes. And that is something I’m afraid has been nibbled away—not by design but by the emergence of a new equilibrium.