WASHINGTON: This is the cycle: concern, discounting, hardening, attack. We’ve seen the cycle repeat all year, from Brexit in the UK, to the response to the EU migrant crisis, and especially during this US election campaign.
First, a concern, proven or not, is considered real and urgent by a large section of the population. It could be the perception that unplanned migration is disrupting social, school and health systems, or that trade liberalisation has led to the contraction of the middle class.
Dominant political and media voices discount that concern as unreal or unimportant, rarely bothering to examine facts on the ground. Those with concerns that aren’t being discussed by the mainstream media start to distrust those sources on other issues as well. They talk of CNN being the Clinton News Network. They point to the major media donors to the Clinton Foundation as a sign of bias. They wonder why they should trust coverage in newspapers like the New York Times that openly endorse Hillary Clinton. This isn’t a left/right issue. It can be as true for Trump supporters as it was for Bernie supporters.
Locked out of mainstream public debate and feeling disenfranchised, those with concerns look for like-minded people primarily online, where the tone and solutions offered can be extreme, and their positions harden.
The most extreme voices rise from this “alternative” world (which can consist of over half the population). The mainstream media fixes on those extreme voices. They are better TV, but, more important, it seemingly makes it easier for the dominant political and media voices to attack vast tracks of the population on moral grounds, effectively saying: “You aren’t just wrong—and no I don’t want to discuss why you are wrong with you—you are also a bad person.” Needless to say, there is a counter attack from the insulted “alt media”. And everything is taken up a notch. Repeat.
A rational discussion of the original concerns is often lost in the noise. For example, the mainstream media seems to avoid debating core issues like the effect of trade with China on manufacturing jobs in the US. Much appealing, it seems, to discuss the latest tweets. And so those with less extreme views, but who still have concerns, go quiet, not wanting to be dragged into the mud. They lie to pollsters. They don’t talk about their views with anyone except trusted friends. But then they vote.
This dynamic was on full show in response to Hillary Clinton’s now infamous “deplorables” speech in September. Clinton said: “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people, now have 11 million... Now some of those folks, they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.”
That quote, part discounting, part attack, confirmed what many felt Clinton and “the elite” think about them. They see themselves as “patriotic”; Clinton sees them as “xenophobic”. They see themselves as fighting for their country; Clinton sees them as “thankfully not America”. They see themselves as people of faith; Clinton sees them as “deplorable”. And then, to add another loaded word, the former Secretary of State who thinks jihadists can be rehabilitated, calls them “irredeemable”. It also showed Clinton, at some level, understands the heavy-handed mismanagement of the mainstream media has driven the discussion online, by the million, and out of her reach.
In that speech, there were also echoes of the sort of dynamics that were at play in India in the lead-up to the 2014 election. Sections of the Indian media seemed “tamed” by the previous administration. Distrust of those dominant voices led to enormous mobilisation for change online. While some of the world’s biggest newspapers and magazines were calling Narendra Modi supporters derogatory names, a large percentage of Indian voters rallied behind him for completely different reasons than the ones bandied about by the mainstream press. It taught them to distrust those sources. Also, not wanting to be called names, they were often quiet about their position, until they arrived in the voting booth. Then they shouted with their ballot.
Clinton apologised soon after for her speech, but many “deplorables” felt that her mask had slipped and she had shown her true face. And now there is a boom in people proudly wearing “I (heart) Deplorables” T-shirts and baseball caps. It will not be forgotten.
This disconnect, and even mutual distrust, between some political parties/establishment media and large sections of the populace is becoming a complicating, and sometimes decisive, factor in modern democracies. It will have widespread implications far beyond the November elections. And far beyond politics. More and more people don’t trust the “old faithful” sources anymore. They are more willing to believe what their friend posts on Facebook than something in the Times of India. And they may be right. Or not. And that’s the problem. It’s getting harder to tell anymore.
Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian’s North America Special Correspondent.