Political Fundraising, Extremism, 1984, and Disconnection from Reality

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/02/25/there-are-six-kinds-of-twitter-political-twitter-is-the-worst-of-them/I’m not against political fundraisng. And I realize that the apparatus of modern fundraising calls for continual e-mails to anyone and everyone who accepts them, creating an atmosphere of crisis. That said, after a while it becomes surreal. Generally the level of spasticness follows the reporting deadlines. But it can vary wildly from one day to the next. Mostly it’s downbeat, promoting the air of “spend money or we’re doomed,” but there are strangely dissonant upbeat notes.Recent headers from the DCCC

– James: horrible loss
– we can’t get pummeled like this
– We can’t wait to deliver the news to President Obama
– how we’d lose
– Boehner’s HUGE Loss

Disconnected from Reality
The thing that is most clear is that it’s all completely disconnected from reality. And that’s a pervasive. I am not willing to subscribe to the fundraising mechanisms of the GOP to see their headers, but I can only imagine they are similar.As WaPo’s Chris Cillizza said in a recent column discussing Twitter A recent Pew survey said, “Political Twitter, which we define as the often-toxic mix of reporters, politicians, staffers and other interested parties, falls into the category of “Divided” and, surprise, surprise, tends to be the least productive of all types of conversation happening on the microblogging service….Here’s my shortened version of that analysis: We are talking past one another, not to one another. Political Twitter — like cable news, talk radio and even Waffle Houses — is simply another way in which people of different political persuasion exist in totally separate worlds from one another.”The sad thing is that I think over time this constant bombardment is wearing on us. We’re in a strange period right now, the birth of a new form of communication before the rise of agreed on standards and authorities. Something akin to the era when newspapers proliferated with cheap printing and near-universal literacy in the early and mid 19th century, when they stoked the flames of personal feuds, sometimes ending in duels, and ultimately were the conduits, more than any other agency, which enabled the magnification of extremism and incivility which led to the collapse of American political life into the chaos of the Civil War. (If you’re not clear on the proliferation, importance, or tone of Newspapers in that era, I recommend de Tocqueville https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/de-tocqueville/democracy-america/ch11.htm or simply suffice it to say that “the language of Jackson has been that of a heartless despot, solely occupied with the preservation of his own authority.  Ambition is his crime, and it will be his punishment too: intrigue is his native element” could pass for the tone of most social media today.

De Tocqueville was a support of the uncensored press and I am too…but as a historian I acknowledge that major changes in the economy and in social infrastructure often bring chaos. That’s not always bad. We can easily see the American Civil War as a *necessary* chaos that righted an old injustice, bursting forth due to the increase in communication that allowed people to care about it, and to care about events that happened further from them. Yet history often records the righting of any injustice as necessary or inevitable simply for lack of any basis for comparison.I am, for the most part disappointed with most of our political dialog. And I realize that the fundraising e-mails of a political organization are not supposed to exemplars of reasoned dialog. Yet they are good examples precisely because they are merely a dramatization of what is said on Fox, MSNBC, and repeated more calmly but no less misleadingly in a thousand other channels.Every time I receive one of these e-mails with a detailed list of numbers and fundraising commitments, shrieking alarm before…just after the deadline, crowing victory, I am put in mind of a passage that has always stuck in my mind from 1984. It is perhaps not one of the elements that is most memorable, but this passage has stuck with me for thirty five years, echoing in the back of my mind when partisan political concerns cite numbers and statistics.

“But actually, he thought as he re-adjusted the Ministry of Plenty’s figures, it was not even forgery. It was merely the substitution of one piece of nonsense for another. Most of the material that you were dealing with had no connexion with anything in the real world, not even the kind of connexion that is contained in a direct lie. Statistics were just as much a fantasy in their original version as in their rectified version. A great deal of the time you were expected to make them up out of your head. For example, the Ministry of Plenty’s forecast had estimated the output of boots for the quarter at 145 million pairs. The actual output was given as sixty-two millions. Winston, however, in rewriting the forecast, marked the figure down to fifty-seven millions, so as to allow for the usual claim that the quota had been overfulfilled. In any case, sixty-two millions was no nearer the truth than fiftyseven millions, or than 145 millions. Very likely no boots had been produced at all. Likelier still, nobody knew how many had been produced, much less cared. All one knew was that every quarter astronomical numbers of boots were produced on paper, while perhaps half the population of Oceania went barefoot. And so it was with every class of recorded fact, great or small. Everything faded away into a shadow-world in which, finally, even the date of the year had become uncertain.”

Obviously the fundraising figures of the DCCC have some objective existence. Yet, by the token that they exist in a complex landscape of relative value that objectivity is compromised.

There isn’t a single good solution. In the end, the ability of every person in the world to speak directly to every other will slowly break down these partisan cylinders. What I do know with a certainty is that extremism…the gravitation towards absolute points of view that preclude seeing and understanding the views of others does not facilitate this process.


There are six kinds of Twitter. Political Twitter is the worst of them.
Find people who agree with you. Attack those who don’t.