Flat White

The Donald, the media — and the misunderstandings

24 November 2016

7:27 AM

24 November 2016

7:27 AM

Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Warren, MichiganYou’ve really got to hand it to mainstream media commentators – often wrong but never in doubt.

Their spectacularly inaccurate predictions of the US election were based on severe misconceptions about voter sentiment. And now, despite years of portraying a very specific caricature of Trump supporters, seasoned political analysts have abandoned it in search for a new one. This is what the biblical flood of post-election think-pieces is all about.

Right up until election day, the Trump campaign was characterised as one fuelled primarily by bigotry. After all, if the candidate is a misogynistic xenophobe, then so must be his supporters. So when it turned out that a staggering 42 percent of female voters and 29 percent of Latino voters supported Trump, analysts hastily backtracked.

And realising that Trump’s unexpected victory is not explained entirely by racism and sexism, the search by commentators for a silver bullet has lead them to another -ism: classism.

Most commentators now insist the surprise election result is due to a working class revolt of sorts. It’s the theory du-jour. It’s possibly right, as might be several other theories. But there is something particularly suspicious about all theories about Trump’s victory… It’s the sheer speed at which they have emerged.

Explainer articles and meditative columns have revised, literally overnight, the reason people voted for Trump. How can commentators, who were so wrong, for so long, now claim to be so right, so soon?

You would think, after years of being culpably out of touch with voters, that pundits would pause.

Perhaps they would take a moment to review, reflect and, heaven forbid, engage with Trump voters before spouting out new theories. Yet there has been no delay. Literally within minutes of the now cliché ‘shock’ election results began the tsunami of armchair political commentary doing a lot of explaining, and doing so very confidently.

And it’s the confidence with which these explanations are delivered that is astounding. On some level, you have to admire the arrogance of it – commentary that explains back to people what they believe, and why they believe it.

Few of these new theories seek to explain at all, why any of the results of Brexit, US presidency or other democratic European elections, have shocked us. After all why should anyone be surprised about popular opinion if it is, in fact, popular?

If there is one thing we can assert with confidence, it’s that mainstream media and its followers had no meaningful dialogue with the people who were doing so much of the damned voting.

There was no dialogue because the mainstream media and its followers were living in a bubble. It is deflating in Europe, popped in the UK and violently ruptured in the USA. You would have to be nuts if you didn’t at least question if we are in a bubble of our own in Australia.

Then again, that’s the funny thing about being in a bubble – no one inside is willing to admit they are in one. That’s what makes it a bubble in the first place.

It may begin organically – it’s perfectly normal for like-minded people to coalesce and organise. The problem emerges when these units insulate themselves from opposing ones, and fabricate an internal illusion of debate. Soon enough establishing and rebutting straw man arguments, or dismantling cherry-picked ones, becomes the pervasive modus operandi. These one-way conversations masquerade as debate. But this is self-deception. There is no true debate without an opposition present.

None of this is helped by the flaws in the new infrastructure we use to conduct our social conversations – the new online media. Consider that Facebook, the dominant social media news source, has bias literally encoded in its algorithm. The news feeds of users display news perspectives we are likely to agree with, from sources we already favour. The new media has also spawned a new genre: reaction-as-news. An amalgamation of topical tweets nowadays constitutes a news article, and chronicling the zingers from last night’s episode of Q&A is considered worth reporting.

This insidious shift in emphasis from fact to feeling finds its most grotesque manifestation on social media, where moral outrage is now the standard currency. The more visceral the outrage, the more likes, shares and retweets it earns. The louder you rally to the chorus of the tribal chant, the truer a member you are. To agree any less than 100 percent with the prevailing tenor is considered a betrayal. This culture kills intellectual pluralism, and causes a silent disengagement.

And so we find ourselves here, where fewer and fewer voices shout louder and louder into an intellectual echo chamber that gets emptier and emptier. And as long as the voices are loud, the illusion of a consensus is maintained.

But this illusion shatters. Every few years the shouting and moral peacocking pauses briefly, and for a few rare moments, people are afforded silence and anonymity. And in their most private moment, they pick up pencil and paper in the ballot box and tell us what they really think. This is why the election results really shock us.


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