partisan politics and the rhetorical capacities of media ecologies

Here’s an idea I’m thinking about developing into something article-length if I can find the right angle. It’s certainly been on my mind a fair bit. Basically it’s about the role of emerging media in the articulation of political identities and communities. At that level, it’s a longstanding topic. I mean we regularly talk about the role of the printing press in the formation of democracies, mass media and fascist/nationalist identities, the “culture industry,” “manufacturing consent,” and so on. The Pew Research Center recently published a report on the increasingly divided, partisan views of Americans. As a CNN article about the report opines,

There are lots of reasons to explain this increased polarization in the country. Self-sorting means we tend to live around people who agree with us all the time. The fracturing of the mainstream media has allowed people to only consume news and information that comports with their pre-existing beliefs. There’s also been a rise in tribalism — using the party you belong to to define not only how you see yourself but also how you see every issue — in the last decade-plus.

The Pew Report happens to report data going back to 1994. While one wouldn’t want to mistake that fact as a suggestion that something actually starts in 1994 (besides the data gathering), the report does chart a slow movement toward increased partisanship that really takes off in 2004 (particularly in terms of how political party identification predicts political views). The CNN article suggests on possible cause. Another related cause might be the introduction of social media, which facilitates the kind of tribalism mentioned.  One might equally point to any number of historical events, starting with the war on terror and our invasion of Iraq, as topics that divided Americans along political lines.

It has to be said that it’s not atypical for Americans to be divided. It’s rare for a president to get 55% of the vote, and in a country where many voters don’t vote that means it’s probably hard to say that even the most popular of presidential candidates inspired more than one third of voters to vote for him/her. Beginning with the 1860s and the 1960s we can identify many decades when the country was more turbulent and indeed violent than now.  So I don’t think the point is that we are more divided now than ever but rather that our division operates in new ways.

Furthermore, it’s fairly obvious (to me anyway) that these partisan maps oversimplify the fractured nature of American politics. The Clinton campaign was unable to build/sustain a coalition of voters on the left. The Republicans don’t appear to be any better off in terms of coalition-building. As such, if one were to look at the role of social media in the formation of political identities, it couldn’t be that it serves simply to intensify Republican-Democrat divisions but also to intensify divisions within those populations. This Pew Report doesn’t seek to explore that. It asks peoples’ views on statements like “The government should do more to help the needy.” That’s fine as far as it goes, but we don’t really coalesce around our dis/agreement with that statement. Instead we fracture over our identification of the needy and what should be done so that some of the more intense disagreements are among people who would answer that question the same way.

To backtrack for a moment… if one wants to make the hypothesis/interpretive claim that social media facilitates the fragmentation of social identity, then presumably one would have to make the correlative claim that prior media forms served to homogenize  social identities. Here one might be verging on some classic Deleuzian business about the shift from macrosocial identities in a disciplinary society to micropolitical identities in a control society. This is evident in the Trump campaign strategy where analytics lead to the micro-targeting of political messages to social media users and groups. The Russians apparently pursued a similar strategy in their efforts to affect the election.

So, in broad strokes, that’s the situation that interests me. The next question is what part a new materialist digital rhetoric (NMDR, just for the sake of my fingers in this post) might play in investigating it. Or put in more pragmatic, personal terms, how might I put my expertise to work here? In brief terms, my NMDR (there could be/are other ones) describes how capacities for rhetorical action arise among humans and nonhumans. To a certain degree I actively and consciously self-select my political associations; e.g., I consciously friend, like, share, retweet, post, comment, etc. One might seek to account for the other actors in those decision-making processes, but at minimum they pass through my conscious awareness. Then there are the data gathering and algorithmic processes of those sites that analyze my participation and make guesses about me. They are performing their own rhetorical activities of audience analysis and persuasion (though they can be overtaken, tricked, or abused by other interests as we see with the Russians and the whole fake news business in general). And there is the entire network of human and nonhuman actors that produces social media as something with which I might engage. What would Fb have been without smartphones and 4G networks?

If rhetorical action (and agency and cognition in general) are emergent relational capacities, then one cannot understand political identity in America without examining the combined role of social media and mobile technology. I’m not saying that it’s more than just a part of the puzzle, but I think it’s a significant part. At the very least, it’s a part that I am prepared to study. At the very least, I think we can agree that digital media ecologies–human and nonhuman–participated in the outcome of our election and many other political conversations. Not determined but also not neutrally mediated or transmitted. A better understanding of their rhetorical operation would seem useful regardless of one’s politics.