Mass ephemeral outrage and political cycles

I came to intellectual maturity during the Clinton presidency, so while I may not remember all of the details or interpret them how I would if I were living through them right now, I feel like I got a pretty good sense of the climate back then, at least of his second term. (I was unusually interested in the topic for a teenager.) And I recall that he got very little criticism from the left, who tended to find other targets.

I recall very well during the George W. Bush years when his critics from the broad American left* were fairly focused on him. Of course there were other things people worried about, there always are, but Bush seemed to take a plurality of the anger. [For many good reasons.] Fast forward to a Democratic administration. Ever since the 2008 election the American left no longer has such an identifiable, personal target for its outrage; Barack Obama is insignificantly different from Bush on a wide array of policies, but that’s how politics works. “He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard.” All the public outrage has to go somewhere.

What made me think of this was yet another article about outrage over something somebody wrote, or more correctly something somebody didn’t write, but was reputed to have written by sloppy, careless, uninformed, or intentionally misleading critics. And I’ve seen this movie before; this time next week hardly anybody will be talking about it. As it’s mainly folks on the left who are behind this phenomenon of mass ephemeral outrage, this got me wondering. I don’t recall this kind of mass ephemeral outrage targeted at a constantly changing cast of characters and situations that stand in for abstractions like reproductive rights, economic inequality, rape culture, or privilege. Back in the Bush years there was a constant and personal target for the ire, so there wasn’t as much need to have a new target every week.

Part of the reason, no doubt, is that so many people use Twitter now and read so many websites that are more immediate, interactive, and specialized than Time or the local newspaper were back in the Clinton years. Letters to the editor don’t really get the momentum going, and the state of internet media has matured enough that an industry of writers, editors, and websites can supply very focused content to specific, identifiable audiences. But since the left—with notable and honorable exceptions—isn’t taking out its anger on a steady target during this administration, it’s lurching around railing against one thing today, another thing Friday, another next week. It’s the combination of immediate technology and the lack of another reliable target that lead to mass ephemeral outrage; the technology enables the pre-existed impulses. And one of these impulses is the urge to both feel and be seen as part of a team, so there’s hardly any need to dig down into each issue as it comes up and see what the real facts, arguments, and implications are or to use good discussion technique and try to construct the best version of the opposing argument when the interpretation is not clear. The next episode will be up soon anyway. It’s not like the Bush years when the same sonofabitch would still be around next week and the week after and you could reliably earn team points by badmouthing him. [Which he thoroughly deserved.]

I don’t mean to suggest that people don’t really care about the abstractions I mentioned above—I can’t read minds—or that those abstractions aren’t worth concern. Of course, as somebody writing about mass ephemeral outrage I haven’t done myself any favors by focusing only on a narrow part of a broader phenomenon and putting this disclaimer so far down in the post. But it’s noteworthy that these episodes of outrage have such a short shelf life before the next one comes up.

It’s hard to quantify this, I know. I’ll also have to wait until the next Republican administration takes office to see if the left can coalesce around hating that sonofabitch and ease up on mass ephemeral outrage, and who knows how many things will have changed in the meantime in terms of how and what we communicate with each other, especially over the internet? But now I’m on the record so I’ll remember to keep an eye on it and others can judge if I was onto something or not.

* I have to put a note here explaining that I mean the left in its common political sense. Not the “true” left or the pure left or whatever definition nitpickers might prefer. Just how the average person understands the part of our society and culture that “the left” refers to. I don’t mean to implicitly smear any parts of the left that take issue with the characterization given in this post. Trust me, as a libertarian I know all about how other people who get grouped in with me are doing it wrong.


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