My last book (well, let’s hope not, but), They Don’t Represent Us, obsessed about bubbles. The architecture of the media that we had evolved would sort us into bubbles. That’s its business model, and models build reality. It’s a point Eli Pariser had made years ago. It’s a point Zeynep Tufekci expanded to democratic culture generally. It’s a truth that Facebook itself recognized — and then ignored. It’s a reality of our current moment—which tests whether any democracy can survive blatantly profit driven reality.
No one believes s/he lives in a bubble. We all are Truman. This is, for all of us, the Truman Show. And I, in particular, was convinced that I didn’t live in a bubble. Though I joked in my book about hating the discipline of reading across perspectives, I believed I did. Until the beginning of March 2020, I would have insisted that though I had a view, I was pretty aware of the truth, independent of my view.
That confidence was shaken in the weeks after the South Carolina primary. Until that primary, I had become convinced of the Sanders’ sweep. Not willingly — my politics are progressive, but my aim is reform. I had been a Warren believer because corruption for her was clearly #1. Yet after Bernie so powerfully and effectively declared reform to be his priority, and just as important to me, made real funding reform (i.e., vouchers) his plan, I was sold. South Carolina was but a blip, I believed. The sentiment of the party was firmly to the left. Sanders had been beaten in South Carolina no doubt. But it was one round after the longest string of victories in any contested presidential primary ever.
Indeed, so convinced was I that I wrote an essay to declare it — It Won’t Be 1972; Don’t Make It 1968. The tl;dr was an ancient meme — “Stop trying to make moderate happen! It’s not going to happen.” The passion for Bernie, I argued, would not make this 1972 (when a competent if corrupt president defeated a liberal challenger in the middle of a still flourishing economy and a promise of peace); the real fear was that an establishment would make it 1968 (when the “leaders” resisted a reformer, and divided the party to its defeat).
And then, within a week, I realized I was trapped in a bubble. I had been convinced by a feed that fed me what I wanted to believe. Biden — in that feed—was less than he was; Bernie’s support—in that feed—was radically more than it was. Everything that had seemed obvious suddenly was not. And very quickly, a campaign that had offered the Democratic Party a world of new ideas (specifically—every major candidate (save one (Biden)) committing to fix democracy first (has a certain ring to it, that slogan)) seemed a complete waste. We were back to where we were before anyone had announced — the presumptive front runner (running from a career set firmly in the mistakes of the party before Barack Obama) would become the nominee. Every thought to the contrary was quickly forgotten.
I wish I could forget them. There’s no doubt about who we should support in this election. And thanks to the great work of Let America Vote and End Citizens United, Biden too has now committed to fundamental reform in the first days of his administration.
But even if he hadn’t, this is Rome, and we are burning, and as we burn, Nero tweets. Anyone would be better.
I do believe that Biden will be great. Not so much because of him personally—though his manner and calm and confidence and smile make him the perfect alternative to our #IdiotKing — but because of the world of competence that he will restore to government. I get excited, of course, imagining Biden replacing Trump. But it’s more the idea of Ron Klain returning to government that gets me really excited. Not him in particular (though him in particular), but a whole army of people who believe in government, and competence, and truth, and proper dissent. Obama made mistakes no doubt (forgetting reform was his first, the war on journalists was an important second). But that was an administration that lived up to the ideals of great government. And we desperately need to restore those ideals, now.
Yet even if we do, the bubbles will continue to haunt. There is no obvious cure to the disease of the current architecture for information. I am now an even stronger believer in the slow democracy movement than I was when I praised it in my book. But their (=cable and digital) business models ruin us. The way they profit makes us less. And as scary as it was to realize that reality was having no effect on the impeachment debate, it is freaking terrifying to realize how little an effect it is having even in the current crisis (which I don’t even know how to name anymore, except to agree with Cornel West, that it is a collapse of legitimacy).
For remember, here’s the picture of a democracy coming to understand a fundamental truth — that Nixon was a crook, and had to go. The relevant dynamic in this picture is the correlation in the change in attitudes between Republicans and Democrats: Both lost confidence at the same time.
Here’s the terrifying equivalent, today. Based on Gallup’s data on Presidential Job Approval:
They see one world, we see another. They see one President, we see another. They rally. We rally. And out of this division, what good can come? Out of this pluribus, is unum even possible?