Presidential elections are at their root reflections of the state of democracy in the United States. This was certainly true in 2020. Some were shocked that 70 million people would vote for President Trump, given his statements and actions that have openly thrown into doubt US democratic institutions. However,in many ways he was speaking a truth we didn’t want seen. The Digital Age is characterized by the amplification of voices, all voices. However, our political system amplifies only certain kinds of minorities, based on where they live, not who they are. The jarring disconnect between narrative and political outcomes is perhaps the most significant outcome of this political season. The scary thing is that few people perceive what is happening and even fewer are reacting to it. Analog thinking has created some profound blind spots and discordances. We have a profound civic responsibility as digital educators to constantly analyze and provoke discussions as we struggle to reshape our societal narratives to meet the new realities.
Like previous waves in the expansion of mass communications, the Digital Age is profoundly reshaping our narrative flows. We have seen the impact of this as Trump supporters desperately seek narratives that show him winning the election. Narrative flows, however, behave very differently in digital information environments. While the traditional strategy of conservative minorities has been to limit information flows, dating back to the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798, their latest strategy has been to flood the zone. Instead of trying to hide the protestors being attacked by the police, as happened in the 60s, influencers try to provide an overwhelming number of alternative narratives to explain the same events. Claude Shannon would have instantly perceived this as noise overwhelming communication.
To cite just one example. look no further than the dueling narratives from this summer of racial equity protests. One side amplified the relatively rare outbreaks of violence and property damage and virtually ignored the vast numbers of peaceful protests. They did this by circulating a flood of anecdotal stories of property owners defending their property over the depredations of an angry mob. Stories were carefully segmented to overlook or focus on agitators depending on the narrative outcomes that were sought. Digital media and the vast flood of information it has released made this kind of segmentation possible.
The problem is one of seeing. If information consumers see information through a set of narrow prisms they begin to develop a conceptual narrative around seemingly disconnected bits of information. The sheer volume of information being fired around right now is unprecedented in human history. We simply don’t have the systemic and cognitive lenses with which to process it. While digital tools such as the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) can help us get some perspective on these events, the more traditional analog filters like television (which fewer and fewer use for their informational consumption needs) are ill-equipped to capture the cacophony that the Digital Age has revealed about our society. The problem is that a lot of older Americans still depend on analog media sources and/or treat digital information sources as if they were analog. Despite surges in younger voters, this group still represents a decisive element on the American political scene.
On the flip side, ease of access to the information ecosphere has generated an unprecedented level of societal transparency. The last several decades has seen an explosion of new groups emerging onto the political scene as the Internet has revealed the struggles of groups that society conveniently chose to ignore or that it had decided were “taken care of” but weren’t. Analog outlets like closed-loop narratives like “African-Americans won their rights in the 60s and are now happy Americans.” The events of this summer clearly put that to the lie. Other groups, particularly LGBTQ groups, have successfully leveraged digital technologies to tell their stories in opposition to analog narratives that previously ignored them altogether. There are many other groups, representing a vast diaspora of hidden narratives, who have done the same. I do not think we would be having those debates without digital narratives.
The Digital Age moves fast and there is no question that brakes need to be applied to political forces in any good system of government. Constant reflection is needed as we feel our way through this unfamiliar landscape. However, we continue to see the impact of analog thinking at all levels of our political structures. Observers were struck by the fact that both the Republicans and Democrats poured vast sums into state legislative races with almost zero effect. Money is often reflective of analog strategies and this failure is reflective of the reality that both parties, particularly at the local level, are pretty clueless about the kinds of efforts that establish narratives in the Digital Age. (Hint: It’s not TV).
Many in the political establishment do not have any clear idea how digital narrative works. They tend to look at campaigns as linear operations with a beginning, middle, and end. In between there are certain levers that are pushed and your success or failure is entirely tied up in what you are saying, not how you are presenting what you are saying. Post-election, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez criticized this approach by saying in a New York Times interview that, “if you’re not spending $200,000 on Facebook with fund-raising, persuasion, volunteer recruitment, get-out-the-vote the week before the election, you are not firing on all cylinders.”
In one of the local bright spots on the local level for the Democrats, Joe Biden squeaked out a narrow win in Georgia and both Democratic Senate candidates forced runoffs against their Republican opponents. These outcomes were not the result of singular efforts but rather a comprehensive 10-year strategy by Stacey Abrams that took a more holistic approach to winning strategies. In an interview with Politico she put it bluntly:
“When you’re trying to not only harness demographic changes but leverage low-propensity voters, you cannot simply hope that they’ll hear the message. You have to treat them as persuasion voters…. Only the message is not trying to persuade them to share Democratic values. Your message is to persuade them that voting can actually yield change.”
Both AOC and Abrams represent a more digital narrative kind of democratic narrative. As I argue in my forthcoming book, Discovering Digital Humanity, digital approaches are by their very nature holistic in nature. They are shaped, not directed, and are not bounded linearly into a beginning-middle-end structure. Digital narratives are more like a rainstorm than a river. The nature of information in a digital environment is one of free and fast flows that are largely uncontrollable by a traditional campaign. Voters (and potential voters) are the ground upon which this digital rain falls. The challenge of the campaign is to humanize the information and to make it relevant to the voter in question. In the words of Abrams they have to be convinced “voting can actually yield change” and if it doesn’t the results are hard to hide in a digital world of transparency.
In 2016 the lauded digital strategies that helped bring Donald Trump to office, and to a large extent buoyed his efforts in the face of incredible political headwinds this year, were based on the opposite approach. They were all about using digital channels to accelerate analog information flows. To audiences used to analog flows, anecdotal stories of voter fraud were amplified and divorced from context because they did not perceive the larger picture of what was perhaps the most transparent election in US history. That is because that audience is used to “channels” of information in the traditional sense of television and those channels carried with them the veneer of legitimacy either because they were endorsed by personalities or carried by trusted friends.
Abrams, in particular, recognizes that this political transition is a long game. We will be fighting false narratives for a long time to come. Culturally, however, those who have traditionally been disenfranchised by dominant industrial narratives are far more likely to accept digital counter-narratives. The danger for some more traditional politicians in both parties (and this is seen in some of the recriminations being thrown around the Democratic Party right now) is that they will continue to operate as if they control the narrative rather than shaping narratives organically grown by digital information flows and that these disconnects will become glaringly obvious. The consequences of these kinds of narrative disconnections may be seen in alternative expressions of political mobilization, such as the Black Lives Matter movement on the one side and the MAGA movement on the other. These kinds of movements, for better or worse, are already reshaping the political parties as establishments in both major parties resist the waves of narrative characterized by Trumpism on one side and Abramism on the other.
Where does this leave us? My good friend Bryan Alexander quoted Gramsci in a recent post that caused me to reflect deeply on our present moment: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Gramsci was referring to deeper societal forces but I think it’s also reflective of the impact that digital narratives are having on our systems of government. My hope is that this will lead to an evolution of our political systems into the digital age. However, we are running up against structural, countermajoritarian features of American democracy that are going to test the antifragility of American democracy (that is a topic for a future blog). Leadership that is reflective of this moment in history is desperately needed on both sides of the political divide. Let us hope we can find storytellers and translators capable of being midwives to the new realities the Digital Age is demanding of our polity. If we don’t, we risk succumbing to “morbid symptoms.”