Here’s my rough summary of what I’ve learned while reading Co-Producer Zee’s PhD. This is a very rough primer on some core concepts, reorganized into a sort of BHP style. But it’s just a very simplified version of a portion of Zee’s 250+ page book. We have also recorded a Shop Talk discussing some these topics. Members can hear it here.
The News and How Society Interacts With It
- The News Organizations have become a replacement for “Society” in how we determine our sense of where the “mainstream” is. This is why watching the news feels compulsive for many people and like a way to stay in touch.
- Watching the News alters our sense of what is mainstream and there’s a dosage response to it. This means that the more news you watch, the more you’re going to think that the news reflects mainstream society and thus the more similar your point of view is going to be to other news watchers of that same organization.
- Many times News Organizations don’t actually reflect society’s values. In America, they are for-profit organizations that need to generate revenue and increase market share. Consequently, they focus on issues that are cheap to produce and are likely to get viewers. That means that the focus of their attention and the views they provide won’t necessarily reflect the public’s perception, but instead they’ll be influenced by the Organization’s material interest. And because of the mainstreaming effect, those views slowly get absorbed as “common sense” for their viewers, regardless of whether or not those views were “common sense” before.
- Because the News doesn’t always represent mainstream culture, this means that by watching the news, you’re actually homogenizing with your fellow news watchers, rather than with actual society. And this effect is potentially radicalizing depending on the source. However, the viewer won’t see it and instead, everyone else will seem radical and out of the mainstream to the viewer, because their news source is now “mainstream” in their eyes.
Informational Environments (i.e., Why Your Uncle Has Such Crazy Views)
- A useful way to think about how we get information is as an informational environment. There are biomes of information, just like in nature, and therefore depending on your outlet some information is easy to get and other information is difficult. That’s why your crazy uncle is really worked up at Christmas dinner over something you’ve never even heard of. He is existing in a different environment than you.
- News Organizations play a large role in forming informational environments and the information that is available to you will vary wildly based upon which organization you regularly consume. Meaning that a viewer of one organization might have very similar opinions to fellow viewers, but wildly different opinions to someone who is consuming a different news organization. This explains why, when discussing climate change for example, Fox viewers and CNN viewers often seem like they come from different planets.
How The News Explains Crises, and How That Actually Makes Us Dumber
- The style of news that you are likely most familiar with is an “Episodic” story. An example of an episodic story is the heartbreaking tale of Jeremy, a person who lost their job because [insert crisis] and how he is worried about his future. You learn all about Jeremy’s life, and it’s really sad. It might even include a long shot of Jeremy tearing up as he looks off into the distance, completely silent, to really hammer home the tragedy that is Jeremy. But throughout that entire story, it’s unlikely that you will hear about any policies. Instead, you’ll just hear about his personal experience without a broader context, and this is replicated throughout virtually all crises (whether man-made or natural). The result is that many times the viewer is given a sense that all crises are an act of god. Policy doesn’t matter. Even worse, the viewer is generally ignorant to what policies could prevent or rectify the crisis. Instead, everything is just framed as “look at this sad thing that happened to this person. And now, lets check out how the Portland Timbers are doing.”
- Almost all News Organizations favor episodic stories over thematic or policy based stories that fully flesh out and discuss the underlying issues. And they choose the episodic method, ostensibly, because they are cheaper and easier to produce. You don’t need a panel of experts and research staff for an episodic segment.
- The episodic (sad-jeremy) nature of news is so powerful that, even when policies are presented within a story, the viewer is unlikely to absorb and retain those policies. Instead, most viewers focus like a laser on the individual’s life story to the exclusion of all else. This means that even if policy is included in a story of personal tragedy, you are unlikely to remember the policy because you’re being cued to disregard it as unimportant. What’s important is that Jeremy is on the verge of tears. This means that, even if a news organization presents a policy, you’re unlikely to have noticed or retained that information.
- Because policy is absent, and everything is broken down to political punditry, and it possible for people to live in very different informational environments, it has become increasingly difficult to talk to someone who watches a different cable news network, because the politics they are hearing about are very different from the politics you’re hearing about. And this is the kicker, the chances are very high that one or both of you will have no understanding of the actual policies, and thus there is no common factual basis. Just raw political punditry.
- This style of news is making us measurably more ignorant, even though we feel informed. Let me say that again, even though you might feel informed, because of how common this style of news is, you are actually measurably, frighteningly ignorant. And even worse, because the news has become a stand-in for “mainstream” it is hijacking our ability to actually form as a society and determine our own mainstream. We’ve essentially outsourced our cultural and political future.
Heroes and Villains: Episodic Stories In Action During the 2008 Financial Collapse
- While the media primarily focused on politics, which will be looked at below, episodic stories still played a large role in how it looked at the direct effects of the 2008 financial collapse. And in doing so, it broke it down into episodic stories that focused on three main stories: Survivors, Bootstraps, and Opportunities. Like with all episodic frames, these stories are largely devoid of facts and causation, and are completely lacking in policy discussion. They are, however, rife with moral judgments.
- The most notable and consistent feature in all of these stories is that the “everyday” American that we are asked to identify with is a) upper-middle class, b) was once financially secure but now isn’t, and c) they “did everything right” in their lives. These were people you’d expect to see in It’s A Wonderful Life or Leave It To Beaver, and that will play into the “Main Street” themes that will be discussed further down.
- Survivor stories
- These focus on the impact of the crisis upon an individual. Often we are told about how their life was good before, it is currently abject misery, and the future is looked upon with great fear. Survivor stories are the most pessimistic of the episodic frames and tend to highlight the sadness of the situation. The stories will also highlight the good moral character of the individuals, which implies that while /this/ person doesn’t deserve to suffer… others probably do. Though, the viewer can’t fully determine who does and doesn’t deserve to suffer because the stories don’t discuss the cause of the injustice. Instead, the crisis is discussed like it was an asteroid impact or some other natural disaster. The individuals discussed are often examples of American resilience in the face of hardship, but the cause of that hardship isn’t mentioned. In fact, these stories even ignore causes when they are involved in the same piece. For example, in one story NBC discussed how a bank was refusing to work with a homeowner and driving them into foreclosure through intra-bank bureaucracy. That is flatly illegal, and yet that was never mentioned in the story. Instead, NBC mentioned the foreclosure situation and immediately dropped it in favor of the /real/ story: that someone of good moral character was suffering. Suffering, and specifically suffering without context, is the sole aim of this frame.
- Often these segment are framed as “helpful tips.” For example, ABC’s response to credit card companies reducing credit ratings based on where someone shops was discussed as helpful tips for protecting your credit rating, rather than as a shocking over-reach of corporate power and an assault upon the credit worthiness of disenfranchised people on the basis of where they live. The “survivor” in that particular story was a “good” person who had excellent credit and just shopped at the wrong store. The unfairness of punishing customers based on their shopping habits, and how this was specifically targeting poor and minority communities, was left unexamined. Neither was a person who regularly shopped at one of these “bad” shops presented, instead we had another upper-middle class “good” person that we are asked to identify with. Furthermore, the behavior of the credit card company was treated as a new fact of life that people would have to just accept and they should strategize their shopping around it, with no discussion of what the company was actually doing to people and how it would affect many communities.
- This is a frame that is far more upbeat and saccharine. These are stories where one of our “good” people loses everything, but doesn’t lose hope, and now is happier because they built a new and better life thanks to the opportunity presented by the crisis. ABC loved this shit. Mortgage bankers who now own half a dozen shoe shine locations, couples that lost their McMansion but have learned to love the simple things in life, professionals who aren’t bound by non-compete clauses and take on clients in their off hours. You know, average Americans. We all know someone like this, right?
- ABC had a special degree of optimism with Bootstraps, going even so far as to suggest pet sitting as a career. Pet sitting. Something that’s a luxury, even in a good economy, was suggested as a potential job for people who had lost their jobs due to a crisis that shaved 40% off the Dow Jones in less than a year. But positive stories were relentlessly presented, with the subtext being that if you fail it is your fault. In fact, CBS stated it openly saying that “well qualified and tenacious businesses can find the money they need to flourish” despite the reality that small, medium, and large businesses were closing all over the country due to the credit system locking up. CBS reframed that reality into one where those businesses just weren’t tenacious enough. The victims were to blame for their own situation due to a lack of good old fashioned american grit.
- Bolstering the Bootstrap theme is the insistence that jobs are out there, and if you don’t have one it’s because you’re too snooty or too lazy to get them. The frame insists that the victim of the crisis holds the real power and that this is actually a good situation, but they need to embrace the opportunity that the loss has provided them. So hand in hand with these stories are comments about how the NYT still has some jobs in their classifieds, or that a stadium in Houston is looking for 500 people to work concessions at their rodeo, or that a there are some part time minimum wage jobs available in X city. And just to make sure the judgment is explicitly understood, people who don’t move cities to apply for those mimimum wage part time jobs are described as “too cool for school” among other things. Furthermore, minimum wage part time jobs were described as “fun,” and no mention was made about whether this would be a good economic decision. Instead, refusal to take one of these jobs was cast as a sign of moral failure, and as a sign that any suffering was that person’s fault. That’s because, despite it’s relentless optimism, Bootstraps is a frame that primarily is focused upon victim blaming. If you’re still suffering, it’s because you’re bad… unlike the good person the story focuses on.
- NBC took the victim blaming to a new level, when they highlighted a Portland Food Bank that refused to serve anyone unless they attended financial education classes. NBC loved this. And unsurprisingly, no mention was made in the story that personal finances weren’t the cause of the financial collapse of 2008. Instead, the (heavily) implied story was that poor people were at fault, either for losing their money during the collapse due to some sort of lack of financial education, or that poor people were at fault for failing to prepare for the largest financial collapse since the Great Depression. Personal responsibility and accountability is how it is often framed, but interestingly this accountability only applies to the poor who were impacted by the global financial meltdown, while the multinational corporations that actually caused the crisis are left blameless.
- Notably, in the focus groups that Zee conducted, there were a lot of personal stories that were offered by the participants. They shared real life things that happened to them and their families. However, unlike the media frames, there was no happy ending that was offered. Just continuing uncertainty and a sense that life was forever changed by this event. They were keen to point out, though, that they and their family members hadn’t done anything wrong. In the case of offering assistance to their kids who were rendered homeless by the collapse, they were quick to add that if this was their kid’s fault they wouldn’t have helped. This is an odd inclusion and could strike you as a strict judgmental parent, unless you look at the frames that they’d been absorbing and how they had been repeatedly told that there are “good” people who are hurt by this, which /must/ mean that there are also “bad” people who are poor because they deserve it. Though, as the discussion would reveal, the participants had a lot of ideas of what sort of things were “bad”… but absent from that judgment, just as it was absent from the media’s stories, were the banks who actually caused the 2008 crisis.
- Opportunity in Disaster
- This is another optimistic frame that encourages the viewer to look on the brightside and see all the financial opportunities that are available. Houses are cheap right now, did you know that rare stamps have a 9% return per year, and alpacas make great wool… have you thought about being an alpaca farmer? And of course, all of these stories fail to even acknowledge the fact that people lack jobs, are getting evicted, and probably don’t have the $75,000 necessary to start an Alpaca business. This is a frame of wishful thinking. It is like the evil twin of the American Dream, as it encourages the viewer to see the country as one of boundless opportunity and anyone who is struggling is doing so simply because they lack the ambition necessary to seize the Alpaca of opportunity.
- Here in these frames, we see the true wages of the American culture of rugged individualism, self-determination, and the American Dream. Failure is an indication of poor moral character and, more importantly, a failure to fully commit yourself to American business. The answer to ALL these frames is to dedicate yourself further to business. The system itself remains unexamined and is treated, instead, like a force of nature. In fact, our economic system (which is a human construct, and not a particularly old one) is treated as natural and timeless. This is just how it is, and the stories we are told of the crisis ignore any role that the system might have played, and instead casts hand picked individuals as either heroes or villains in this system who are succeeding or failing as a direct result of their devotion to the system.
Strategy Game Frame, and How Everything Is a Political Horse Race (even when it isn’t).
- While human misery tales are popular with the news, nothing can compete with politics.
- Journalism, as an industry, frames itself as the watchdog of politics and it serves its viewers in their capacity as voters. That’s it’s primary focus, but unfortunately that’s resulted in American Journalism being thoroughly unprepared for activities that are not political. Furthermore, because our news sources are capitalist ventures, rather than public entities, they aren’t suited to acting as watchdogs for economic/capitalist matters. In fact, they run into conflicts of interest in that regard. However, they cannot simply ignore massive economic crises, as those crises are the best time to acquire new viewers and get increased ratings. So in such situations, they often turn to a cheap, reflexive frame that fits within their understanding of the world and their responsibility: The Strategy-Game Frame.
- The Strategy Game Frame breaks down events into an analysis of how they will impact the political fortunes of a given politician or party. The consequence of this is that our news is overstuffed with minutiae of political campaign matters. However, because everything is framed as political, all other information is virtually non-existent. For example, watch the news on the Friday after Thanksgiving because I guarantee you’ll hear something like this: “Black Friday sales reports are in, and what does that say about how voters feel about the election? We have an expert with us who says…”
- The trouble is that, because it is so cheap to produce and doesn’t present an economic conflict of interest, this is the primary way that American News frames current events. Consequently, within the world of the American news landscape, all problems are political regardless of what they are. Sandy Hook, Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 financial collapse, Black Friday, you name it. Virtually anything is narrated as a political event. For example, the TARP was discussed in terms of how the President was aggressively pursuing his agenda, but as for what TARP was and what it was expected to do…. that was absent from the coverage. Thus, even the most engaged and information seeking citizen is bound to be ignorant about actual policy unless they search outside of the commonly available informational environments.
- Much like the episodic stories (sad-Jeremy), the popular strategy-game frame rarely includes policy and actually makes the viewer resistant to policy information. Meaning that if you watch the news and listen to them discuss a Hurricane as a political event, you are less likely to absorb anything about disaster relief policies even if they’re brought up. This sort of framing actually makes you dumber and out of touch, despite the feeling that you get of “staying in touch.” It also has the added effect of leading the viewer to believe that all crises, no matter the cause, are the result of politics. But you’ll probably know that Wolf Blitzer seemed really positive this would cause a dip in the approval ratings or something.
- Furthermore, this degree of ignorance even translates to political issues and elections. Despite being a political frame focused on politics, if you watch strategy-game frame stories on the news, you are unlikely to actually learn real detailed policy information. For example, Elections are generally covered like a game (who is winning and who is losing in the polls) and are focused on strategy (so-and-so is in Mississippi… what impact will that have on the polls?) instead of actual policies that are being proposed. Again, this focus is so intense and consuming that it often blocks out any discussion of policy. Furthermore, when policy is discussed journalists often fall into false equivalency and then turn to strategy rather than actively weighing those policies (“Candidate X says yes, Candidate Y says no… what impact will that have on white voters? Well, here’s what the polls say.”) This means that typically voters will focus on personal issues (this person is corrupt/a jerk/has pneumonia) or strategy issues (this person isn’t going to win, so better bandwagon with the person that the media says is going to win) instead of policy. Consequently, many people don’t vote for their self interests because they are unable to identify which candidate actually serves those interests. Instead, they are typically picking candidates based on irrelevant issues like tone of voice, or how they eat a pizza, or whether the news says that candidate is ahead in the polls.
- The irony of all of this is that, even though all things are political, discussing policy is considered unseemly. For example, it is completely newsworthy and appropriate to discuss the impact a mass shooting will have on a candidates chances of election… however, it’s considered “playing politics” to discuss policy issues that directly relate to that shooting. This isn’t mere laziness, it’s culturally enforced ignorance.
How the Media Created a Culture of False Equivalency With Its Focus on Policy Free “Bipartisan Solutions”
- As far as the news watching public (or as the news loves to call us: The American People) are concerned everything is political, but because they aren’t informed of policies they can’t identify possible solutions to vote for. As policy isn’t discussed, weighing the merits and flaws of a policy isn’t possible. In this information free environment the media has identified a solution that the public can understand and will fit within it’s strategy-game frame. Bipartisanship.
- For the media, everything hinges on whether or not a policy is bipartisan, regardless of whether or not it is a good policy (because how would anyone know?). If it is bipartisan, it is “what the American People deserve.” If it isn’t bipartisan, than it is seen as another example of politicians seeking their own self-interest. CNN is particularly bad for this behavior, with Anderson Cooper being basically the Avatar of the Golden Mean.
- Due to the way the news operates, the only thing the public knows about any particular bill is that it is either bipartisan or not, and they know that The American People deserve bipartisan bills. But they don’t really know why. … Fair play maybe? … They aren’t sure. No one has told The American People, but they have been repeatedly told they deserve it and they’re certain that somehow that’s the reason why things aren’t good right now.
- This is particularly problematic, since parties can refuse to sign a bill for self-interested political purposes (thus rendering it non-bipartisan) and if the bill is passed, the passing party will be tarred by the news as self-interested which the boycotting party can use to political advantage. Mitch McConnell knew this all too well when he ordered his fellow senators to deny President Obama any Republican votes no matter the issue. By doing that, he was able to cast President Obama as a self-interested greedy politician who wouldn’t play nice like the American People Deserve. And the news took the bait.
- And because the news, and thus the public, are focused like a laser upon policy-free demands of bipartisanship, the actual causes of a particular crisis goes unanswered and unblamed.
Who Is To Blame?
- By seeing the world as a series of political events, the public is primed to see the political institutions as fundamentally responsible for any crisis that they don’t understand. And because our news sources tend to be lacking facts and policy, people generally lack an understanding of most crises. That means that politicians are the defacto villains for virtually everything. Based upon focus groups, it’s remarkably consistent that people feel that the government is at least partially to blame for the financial crisis and that there is widespread dysfunction in the system. However, it is also consistent that people can’t identify what that dysfunction is, nor how it causes the crisis. Basically, most people know they don’t trust gov’t and don’t like candidate X, but generally they have a hard time stating specifics. This omnipresent sense of villany and narrative of self interest is leading to widespread cynicism and a generalized distrust of the government.
- In Zee’s focus groups the repondents placed the blame for the crisis on two things: moral decay, and a lack of personal responsibility. And once again, the banks are only partially touched by this. Instead, the bulk of blame lands on the victims of the collapse, and on Washington.
- The issue of Moral Decay came up, amazingly, in the context of children playing with iPhones. There was much discussion about how kids lack an attention span, how they like touch screen devices, and how they just aren’t good kids like they were back in the day. And at no point, did the respondents take note that children could not, and did not, cause the financial crisis. Instead, they merged the “kids these days” storyline into the broader discussion of greed and cultural ills. Similarly, when a participant mentioned that her son worked in the financial sector and was troubled by the loans he was asked to push on young couples, the narrative was quickly recast by other focus group members into one of how the young couple held personal responsibility for this. The theme that emerged from these discussions was that due to moral decay, everyone was equally responsible for the collapse, and thus a child playing with an iPhone is just as at fault for the 2008 collapse as the CEO of Washington Mutual because everyone is being equally irresponsible.
- Despite everyone being equally irresponsible, that doesn’t apply to the person speaking. Curiously, it would sometimes apply to their children and sometimes wouldn’t. The participants would wax and wane, seeing their children as both victims and also causes, due to iphones and other random things they connected with moral decay. But as for what the participants personally endured, that was undeserved. Everyone is the heroic capitalist everyman in their own estimation.
- The result of all of this is that villains are conflated, with the public being unable to actually identify who is responsible and who is to blame, and instead falling back on old tropes of criticizing the young and distrusting new technology. And this results in a public that is unable to band together and address the core problem, because it can’t identify it. Furthermore, the architects of the crisis are seen as just as responsible as the politicians, the young couple buying a house, octomom (yeah, she was brought up and blamed), and kids with iPhones. And when everyone is to blame, no one is to blame.
- The “everyone is equally irresponsible” judgment appears to be the result of an utter lack of facts. Participants couldn’t describe what caused the crisis, and in the absence of a clear narrative, they turned to a judgmental cultural critique. And one that is notably lacking in both facts and empathy.
- The additional result of these frames, and how they naturalize the event and leave it unexamined, is that at no point is the American economic system examined. Instead, it is beyond reproach. In fact, the American economic system is the one thing that is truly blameless. Even a 5 year old with an iPhone is more culpable then this economic construct made by human beings. And the lesson these stories teach is that the only solution, truly the ONLY thing that you can do, is to commit yourself more fervently to that system. No matter what happens.
Who Are the Elites?
- There were moments where the media talked about the financial crisis in a way that wasn’t focusing on optimistic stories of bootstraps, or recasting everything in terms of political points being scored in the Strategy Game Frame. During these times, quite often, the media would discuss the events of the financial crisis as an attack upon The American People, and the people carrying out this attack were the Elites.
- Who the elites were would often flow back and forth between Wall Street (the financial sector) and the Government depending on the topic, but regardless of who it was they were almost always described as corrupt.
- Wall Street was framed as greedy and reckless, and described as living luxurious and opulent lives. If you think back to coverage, you might remember that whenever the news would attack Wall Street it was generally through stories about golden parachutes, yachts, and superbowl tickets. Similarly, the financial bailout was taxpayer money being handed over to an unworthy group of financial elites (and yachts and mansions were used to communicate that unworthiness).
- This frame, like with most frames, was devoid of actual information. Learning about the personal finances of a few CEOs didn’t actually inform you of about caused the crisis, despite the fact that it felt like it did. In fact, like with many of these frames, it actually made you more ignorant. For example, given how obsessed the coverage was with “Wall Street” it would be forgivable if you think that the crisis was caused by the guys on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, rather than multinational financial conglomerates. (spoiler alert: it was the multinational financial conglomerates).
- The other group of elites, the Government, was framed as out of touch, ineffective, and in-bed with Wall Street.
- As a result of all of this focus on the elites, without any actual focus on the cause of the crisis or the real issues behind it, meant that the real villains of the crisis faded further and further into the background… now it was just the “elites” and of course that omnipresent enemy of the people: “the Government.” Who might be elites themselves.
Who Are We?
- The American People were discussed as Main Street, which conjures up images of Leave it to Beaver. White, middle class, semi-rural communities where the working class regularly gathered together and knew all their neighbors. Main Street is classic Americana, and it also excludes people of color, the poor, the urban, and a whole variety of other people. But for these stories, images brought up in The Andy Griffith Show were being signaled repeatedly to the public as who the “real” Americans were.
- The news, especially around the 2008 collapse, has become obsessed about how hard working the American People are. This came out in both episodic stories and also in general discussion. The Hard Working American. If you watched the news back then, you no doubt saw stories that talked about how some guy was really hard working and then he lost his job, and he can’t find work now even though he’s so hard working. The story then turns, and talks about CEO yachts or other luxuries, pointing out how the elite were lazy by contrast and yet they were doing well. The news was presenting us with a morality play, and it aired every night. The primary theme, though, was that if you are hard working then you are good, and if you aren’t then you are bad. And good American People are Hard Working American People.
- This hard working Main Street theme (which honestly belongs in a dickens novel) completely ignored the disabled, the long term poor, and anyone else who didn’t fit into the model. In fact, due to its connection with the Leave it to Beaver imagery, it even excluded minorities. We were being told that Real Americans were hard working semi rural white people who used to have good jobs and pensions, but have now lost them. That’s who the American People are.
- That characterization was problematic because, by creating an in-group the media also created an out-group. Sure, there were the elites, but people weren’t entirely sure who those elites were. But if the good people are hard working semi-rural white people, and we can’t really figure out who caused the crisis because no one is talking about that, then it must have been caused by the bad people. And if we know who is good, then the bad people must be everyone who isn’t a hard working semi-rural white person… and of course the government. Naturally, they would be at fault too. They’re omnipresent. Thus, in the face of an utter lack of knowledge, the outgroup becomes a scapegoat and the cause for things they didn’t have anything to do with (and were also the victims of). With a side of hate tossed at the government.
What Role Do We Play?
- By reframing things like the economic collapse into political issues, the news media has reduced the public (what they like to call The American People) into two broad and passive roles. That of taxpayers and voters. Both roles have remarkably little agency.
- “Taxpayers” are essentially passive ATMs that are often described as being financially abused, but at the same time there is little that they can do. A taxpayer is, by its nature, passive. So instead, the discussion revolves around what taxpayers /deserve/, which ultimately comes down to either spending “responsibly” which is a concept that’s opaque to the viewer because of the lack of policy information, or alternatively the narrative is that the government shouldn’t spend tax payer money at all. Further, when it comes to spending, the numbers aren’t put in context so as taxpayers the viewers don’t know how much money is being spent as it relates to the rest of the budget, nor do they know of the policies and expected return. Thus, as taxpayers, the viewers simply know that money is being taken, and it’s often framed as an unfair seizure of funds and something that they have no control over.
- Citizens as “voters” have a little more power, but only slightly. This essentially comes down to which politician they will elect, and who they will punish… which again reframes all things into a political horserace. Furthermore, the “voter” identity seems to have more to do with tribalism than actual agency with many people taking on political branding almost as fashion, rather than as a reflection of their policy beliefs (for obvious reasons, policy is difficult to discover in our information desert).
- Here are some examples of the fashion accessory nature of being a “voter.” Focus group respondents had incredibly creative descriptions of their political beliefs, including “Green Demosocialist” and “Teddy Roosevelt Republican.” Interestingly, the same people who put a lot of work into their names also had pretty much no understanding of current events, policy, or politics. Nor did they appear to have an understanding of the policy implications behind their chosen, and self-created, brands.
- Notably, political agency and political power is absent from the identity of “The American People.” Political power is the exclusive realm of the “elites” who are a group that are separate, and distinct, from the American People. (Jamie’s Note: While Americans are typically told about the Founding Fathers in glowing terms, the ability for the public to change the political system or have that degree of political agency is something that most Americans can’t even comprehend. It doesn’t surprise me that Jefferson and others are spoken of like demi-gods, the agency they wielded certainly seems godly in a modern context. The best a modern American can do is boycott a store, post an angry tweet, or maybe march.)
- This lack of power might have something to do with the fact that many Americans don’t discuss personal political issues as a group. For example, focus group participants generally didn’t discuss their financial problems (Jamie note: possibly because of this link between poverty and being a “bad” person). Consequently, for many members of the focus groups, that was the first time they discussed how it personally affected them. This resulted in the participants realizing, for the first time, how the issues they experienced in 2008 were similar to those experienced by others, how pervasive it was, and that it was connected to the collapse. This is shocking, since the focus group was 5 years after the crisis and these were groups of friends. It seems that many Americans simply weren’t talking about it, which reduced the financial crisis to an individual experience rather than a societal one… and that, naturally, makes it nearly impossible to collectively organize and deal with it as a group. Every man is an island.
The Rise of Policy Free Populism
- As the 2008 crisis continued, the attack upon the American People was cast as a consumer light. ie, the crisis was bad because it impacted the taxpayer’s ability to buy a house. And when the CEO’s buy fancy houses or superbowl tickets, it’s framed as being purchased with taxpayer money. By talking about it this way, the actual cause of the crisis is abandoned and instead the public were given the impression that the crisis was caused by CEO’s failing to be frugal with their personal finances.
- These frames rarely described what the real problems were. There were some individuals like Bernake who were mentioned, and everyone got mad at a few CEOs for their houses, but overall the news failed to communicate real specific sources for the crisis. Furthermore, by focusing so heavily on golden parachutes, it ironically muddied the waters with specificity. Meaning that, rather than recognizing a whole host of ills that came from this, the public became focused like a laser on a few exemplars of corporate greed and immorality. As a consequence, the public outrage was simultaneously too focused, and unfocused… which meant that the public didn’t really know who to be angry at. Instead, there was just a generalized sense of rage at the elites, who they felt were corrupt. Though, they didn’t know exactly how, but it probably involved yachts.
- The overwhelming story that was being told by the news wasn’t that the wealthy have out-sized political power, it wasn’t that the American People should more of have a say in governmental policy, but instead it was that the real problem was how these businesses bought luxury goods and that the government didn’t properly respect your taxpayer dollars. Again, this set the entire conflict within a frame that naturalized the economic system and accepted it. Moreover, it robbed the public of any real agency… at best they could boycott Goldman Sachs or switch political parties. Because the public’s connection was as consumers, it was baked into the cake that they consent to the system that was actively causing the financial strain.
- And while this is going on, despite all the diffuse anger, the elites who caused the crisis and their outsized power continue to march on completely examined and largely blameless. This is reflected in the focus groups where there were nurses in their 50s so angry that they were calling for revolution, but at the same time much of the anger was directed at CEO bonuses and how the government must have been in bed with Wall Street. Furthermore, foreign aid and other government expenditures were targeted, but no one mentioned enormous monetary gifts in the form of tax breaks to multinational corporations. Complaints around government also tended to center around politicians not understanding the value of a dollar, and other personal finance critiques. None of which were the cause of the crisis.
- Thus, while there was a great deal of anger in these focus groups, and there was a sense of a nefarious group of elites that were causing their problems, the participants lacked an understanding of policy, facts, or even individuals that caused the crisis… and thus, they fell back to the frames that they saw on TV of ostentatious personal expenditures, moral condemnations of luxury, and denunciations of laziness. None of which caused the crisis.
- Furthermore, the participants reacted largely from a position of powerlessness. Whatever power they thought they had could only be exercised through voting or consumerism. And they failed to see the loss of their consumer power as a result of their vulnerability to a market that is dominated by elite power structures. Rather, the economic system including the market is still seen as a timeless force of nature, rather than as something that can be corrected and fixed. And thus, the march goes on, and the actual villains continue to avoid consequences.
- But there is still anger out there, and this has created a political opportunity for any willing to seize it. There is a sense of injustice and that the American People are being abused, but due to a lack of policy information, that anger has been largely unfocused and has been waiting for someone to direct it. Meaning that, due to the lack of information, it can be grabbed by just about anyone and directed at virtually anything.
- And unfortunately, the news did a good job of showing us who the “good people” were. They were Real Americans. The hard working semi rural white people who used to have good jobs and pensions, but have now lost them. And if we know who is good, then the bad people must be everyone who isn’t a hard working semi-rural white person… and of course the government. And we can’t really figure out who caused the crisis because no one is talking about that, so many have leapt to the conclusion that this problem must have been caused by the “bad people”.
- Meanwhile, the real causes of the crisis continue to remain blameless, unexamined, and largely unregulated.
Final Jamie Note: And based upon this, it doesn’t surprise me at all that we have the rise of a populist discourse that mixes with scapegoating minorities and immigrants for things they didn’t have anything to do with (and were also the victims of).