I’m Ezra Klein. This is “The Ezra Klein Show.”
In their new book, “The Paradox of Democracy,” Zac Gershberg and Sean Illing make a simple but radical argument. They write, quote, “It’s better to think of democracy less as a government type and more as an open communicative culture.” Their point there is that democracies can end up in many types of governments.
We tend to think of liberal democracies, but that’s only one possibility. You can have illiberal democracies. Democracies can vote themselves into fascism. Democracy doesn’t guarantee you any particular outcome. And so what drives a democracy, what decides what it becomes or what it stays is that open communicative culture, the way its members learn about the world, debate it, and ultimately persuade each other to change it or not change it.
And communicative cultures are shaped by the technologies upon which they happen. Oral cultures are different than textual ones. Radio is different than TV. Twitter is different than TikTok or Facebook. Political scientists spend a lot of time theorizing about Democratic institutions and how elections work. But communicative institutions and the cultures and technologies by which we communicate, they get a lot less attention.
And I guess I’m a member of the media, so I would think this, but I think it’s a huge mistake. I’ve become almost obsessed in recent years with Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, the great mid-20th century media ecologists. I honestly think you have to pick any two theorists to act as guides to our current moment, you could do a lot worse than them.
And so I’m always looking for an excuse to talk about them and to talk with other people trying to apply them to our current political age. So I was thrilled to see this book hit my desk. Sean Illing is one of the authors. He is a Ph.D. political theorist who switched careers and became a journalist, which has always given him, in my view, an interesting dual perspective.
He is the interviews writer at Vox, and he sits in my old chair hosting the podcast “Vox Conversations.” As always, my email, if you want to have an open communicative culture with me and the team here, is at email@example.com.
Sean Illing, welcome to the show.
Great to be here. Thanks for having me.
So you and I, I think, have come to share a fascination with Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, who are these mid-century media critics. And man, I really think that if you want to understand the modern era, you need to read them. So people may have heard McLuhan’s famous line, “the medium is the message.” What does it mean?
Well, it basically just means that the forms of medium we use determine the content, right? So you can think about it like this, and this is the way Neil Postman who wrote “Amusing Ourselves to Death” put it. His book is a kind of indictment of TV. But he actually loved junk TV. He thought it was very entertaining.
The problem is that the news and politics because it relied on TV had to ape the mechanics and the logic of TV. It had to be entertaining. And I was listening to some interviews that he did the other day, and he used “Sesame Street” as an example here. What he was saying is that, look, it’s not that kids don’t learn how to spell when they watch “Sesame Street.” Surely, they do, and that’s great.
It’s that the medium of TV also communicated an important message. And the message was that education and entertainment are bound up with each other. And so that conditioned a generation to expect education to be entertaining, right? And so TV will do the same thing with politics shows. So like John Oliver’s show, which is great but it only works if it’s entertaining and funny.
And it’s the same thing with cable news where you turn on “Morning Joe” and they’re bebopping along and playing Rolling Stones songs while cutting to commercials. It is always a TV show first, it has to be. The form itself, the medium itself imposes that. That’s kind of what he’s getting at.
So I love that you brought in the “Sesame Street” thing there, as I said, because I think it’s a really clear example. Postman got in a lot of trouble for this. He talks about it a lot. But his basic argument as I’ve heard him make it to build on what you said is it people think “Sesame Street” teaches children to love learning. And what it teaches him is to love television.
And he’s obviously right about that. I mean, it maybe does both, but he’s obviously right that “Sesame Street” is training wheels television, and also how I’ve used it for my own child. And to bring this back to McLuhan, what I understand McLuhan is saying is that we really miss the way mediums change us. And I’ve come to think of this as focusing on their sameness rather than their differences.
He’s got this other quote that I think about a lot where he says, “Our conventional response to all media, namely, that it is how they are used to the counts is the numb stance of the technological idiot for the content of a medium is like a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”
So do you want to talk a bit about that distinction between the content that we see on mediums and how they do change, where it is different to say watch Fox News versus watching MSNBC, but that there’s at the same time a commonality to what cable news is that McLuhan would say is the more important message of both of them.
I mean, I think that’s the point that “Sesame Street” is trying to make, right? And so it’s maybe easier to understand it by contrasting it with the printed word, which I think Postman was probably a little bit romantic about. But he argues that print has these pretty clear biases because of the nature of the medium.
It’s slower, it’s more deliberative, more demanding. It’s linear, it’s the domain of ideas, of abstract thought. Or at least it tends toward that. I think some of these distinctions that these ecologists make between different mediums maybe a little too neat. But the core point is right. But TV, unlike print, is not a medium that encourages rational thinking.
It is all about action and imagery. It’s about evoking emotional responses in a more passive way. And again, this goes back to the “Sesame Street” point. Like more importantly TV has to be entertaining in order to capture an audience and sell ads. That’s what it exists to do. So Postman just says that the purpose of a medium can’t be separated from the content it produces.
So TV has to be entertaining. It’s image-based so the people on it have to look a certain way. They have to be attractive. And politics, because so much of it happens on and through TV, has to reflect these biases, right? I mean, that’s the ideological bias of TV. I mean, do you think he’s basically right there?
I do think he’s right. And an easy way to put it is that he makes this argument that various politicians who succeeded gloriously in the pre-television era can never have succeeded in the post-television era.
Abraham Lincoln is an example he uses, this melancholic, tall, not that attractive, slightly weird guy, prone to a lot of depression. His wife is quite ill in a bunch of different ways. He is not the kind of politician who succeeds in the post-TV universe. But a point you all make in the book is that it really isn’t just about one medium versus another. You can get overly nostalgic about that.
It’s that mediums change us. And so in particular the period of time when they are changing us is a dangerous time for democracies because they create a lot of disruption. If you want to talk a bit about that recurrent history of the introduction of a new medium destabilizing political systems?
Yeah, we go through this — sort of the book is kind of moving through history, lurching from one revolution in media to another. And we start in and Athens and Rome, both societies that were formed in large part by speech and rhetoric, but also upended by them. And there’s a printing press where that gets us to the birth of newspapers and books and helps give us the enlightenment, but it also unleashes a devastating religious war that devours the continent.
In the 19th century, we get the telegraph and the penny press, and that’s really good for spreading liberal Democratic norms. But it was also a really important platform for nativist and nationalism.
We get fascism in the 20th century. And fascism was not possible without mass media like film and radio. Those were indispensable vessels for fascist propaganda. And then, of course, we get television and now the internet later.
And the thing again about all those revolutions is not that the technologies are good or bad. It’s just that they’re disruptive in very unpredictable ways. Sometimes you get the Arab Spring and sometimes you get Pizzagate. But they changed the way a society thinks and orients itself. It changes the way a society relates to each other and to the world. And that has far-reaching complications. It changes us and by extension it has to change our politics. I mean, how could it not?
You’re a journalist, you podcast. You write text articles, you do interviews, you write on Twitter. Let’s be a little personal here. When you say mediums change us, how do you feel you’re different in these different mediums?
Well, Twitter has been I think bad for me personally. I mean, I’ve joked that I’m the worst version of myself on Twitter. But the thing about Twitter, and I’m very curious what you think about this, is that to be on there is to give yourself over to the incentives driving it, attention, virality, the impulse to perform. And I think that’s bad.
It blinkers our intuitions, it creates anxieties and pressures that bleed into our work, certainly mine. And for individual writers, it’s kind of become a platform for just personal brand promotion, and that carries its own kinds of perverse incentives. I mean, I don’t know, maybe that’s too dark. You know, McLuhan had this phrase, “a global village” he coined, which is sounds kind of techno-utopian like he was very excited about this future of the internet where we would all be together.
But his point was actually the opposite of that. No, it would be the size of the world, but the psychological dynamics would be like a little tiny town where everybody is all up and everyone else’s business. Everyone’s always looking over everyone’s shoulders. And there’s all these social pressures. And I feel those pretty intensely.
And the more I step away from that and just do stuff like podcasting, which is kind of removed from Twitter and some of that immediate feedback, it just feels liberating. It just feels more satisfying. I don’t know. Is that your experience?
When I write, I tend to convince myself of what I think. There’s an old Joan Didion line that writers love, “I write to find out what I think.” And I don’t believe it’s true, at least not for me. I’ve noticed over time that writing tends for me to be about finding an answer, and I tend to become convinced by the answer I find.
I’ve noticed that because as I’ve done more podcasting I notice how much more when I’m podcasting I don’t seem to enter that mode. I sit much more in a space where many possible answers seem plausible to me, and I don’t feel need to choose between them. Uncertainty and contradiction and paradox are for whatever reason easier for me to hold in the podcast space.
And Twitter, again, for better or worse, what I notice about it, what I noticed happens to me the more I am on it and the better I get at it is that it teaches me to think about the reaction, to think as if I am thinking for the collective in a way that I have some more distance from who I’m writing for or speaking for.
When I’m writing a piece to go up at The New York Times or back in the day at Vox where you are if I’m doing a podcast as we’re doing this now, I am more distant from a concern about reaction more sort of attentive to my own experience of creating the work than on Twitter or to some degree on Facebook or Instagram where I’m much more jacked in to an expectation of what the reaction will be and both anticipating and fearing it despite also knowing its deep ephemerality.
Yeah. We probably overstate the broader impact of Twitter. I think like 80 percent of the country is even on there. But I think it has been very toxic for our business, for journalism. And to the extent that Twitter impacts how journalists think and what they cover and what they fear and what they’re chasing after, it has to have some impact on the public discourse, which is still influenced by political media even if it’s not as significant as it once was.
Like TV, though in different ways, it’s just not a space for deliberation. And for that reason, it’s not good for what we do. It probably doesn’t promote a healthy Democratic culture. But at the same time, I guess that’s sort of the paradox that we’re getting at in the book. Twitter is Democratic in the sense that it’s pretty wide open.
And if the result of that openness is a lot of bile and garbage, I guess that’s just what democracy looks like sometimes. But it the feedback is so immediate and so intense, it’s just very hard to think honestly and carefully, because you’re just scared shitless about what’s going to come back your way. At least I am.
I want to use this as a way to weave in to the other side of the book a little bit, which is, this is a book about the interaction between media and democracy. And you have a line in the book that has started really lodging in my head and changing how I think where you and your co-author write that it’s, quote, “It’s better to think of democracy less as a government type and more as an open communicative culture.” Tell me about that distinction you’re making.
We’re trying to think of democracy as a communitive culture. We think of democracy as a decision to open up the public sphere and let people speak, think and decide what ought to be done. So in that sense, it is a culture of open communication. And thinking of it as a culture rather than a constellation of practices or institutions is not a pedantic or academic thing.
We’re trying to emphasize the open-endedness of it, the fact that it’s always in a state of becoming. And the fact that you can say that a state is Democratic and the fact that doesn’t necessarily tell you how it’s governed is pretty instructive, right?
I mean, it’s not for nothing that fascism has only ever emerged out of Democratic societies.
There’s something about the collision of mass media and mass politics that made fascism possible. If fascism can emerge out of a Democratic society, anything can. And I just think when you talk about this tendency to conflate liberalism and democracy obscures the fact that democracy really is an unwieldy thing. And without something like liberalism to check some of its excesses, it can spin in very unpredictable directions. And there are all kinds of examples of that throughout history and even today.
Spend another moment on that distinction between liberalism and democracy, because I think for a lot of people, they really are quite conflated. What would an illiberal democracy look like?
It may look like Hungary. It may look like Weimar, Germany, right? It may look like Russia. I’ve said this elsewhere, Russia is kind of a police state now, but you know, I mean, Russia was a kind of a liberal democracy in a sense that Putin was pretty popular overwhelmingly. Popular, I think he still is, though this is not something I track very closely. And so even if he’s a tyrant, and surely he is, he’s also a populist.
And we wouldn’t think of a state like that, a country like that as a democracy. And it’s not in a sense that these are places that are kind of shape-shifting into autocracies, but to the extent those regimes or those leaders are popular, to the extent that the publics in those places have been convinced that they should follow their leaders wherever they take them, they are Democratic in some fundamental sense.
So tell me then about what you call “the paradox of democracy.”
Well, it’s the fact that the very thing that makes democracy possible, which is wide open, free expression that while that’s a condition of democracy, it can also be hijacked and turned against it. And that’s what fascism is. So the thing that makes it possible is also the thing that threatens it from within.
And that tension or that paradox is baked into the structure of democracy if you see it in that way. There’s just no transcending that, right?
If you’re going to open up society, then you’re opening the culture up to all manner of persuasion, all manner of rhetoric, the inspirational leaders and the bullshit artists and the demagogues and any other manner of bad faith actor you can imagine. It is a free-for-all in that way. And so that’s just what it is. And that’s what makes it, I think, a paradox. You just simply cannot get out of it. The very thing that makes it possible is also the thing that perpetually threatens it. And in that sense, democracy is just sort of situated on a precipice, always.
So tell me then if I have the structure of your argument right here. So democracy does not naturally lead to liberal democracy, does not naturally lead to openness. It can become anything. And the way it becomes anything is through its communicative culture. The way people in a democracy end up making the decisions that lead them to make and unmake institutions, to elect and throw out different politicians, to choose the person who wants to take them towards fascism or the one who wants to take them towards a liberalism.
That’s coming out of, at least at the beginning, the communicative culture. It’s coming out of the way people talk about ideas, the way they learn about ideas, the way they learn about politicians. And because communicative cultures change radically over time with different technologies and different mediums and different medias, in order to understand a democracy at any given moment, you actually have to pay a lot of attention to its technologies of communication. Do I sort of have you right so far?
Yeah, I think so. We have a line in the book where we say, “Our ideology is our technology, our technology is our culture and culture always precedes politics.” It was really just a way of saying that politics flows out of culture, and culture often flows out of technology.
Ooh, tell me more about that idea that our ideology is our technology.
It was about the biases of our technology imposing themselves on our politics and becoming a thing that actually governs it. So like one of the knocks on people like McLuhan was that he’s too deterministic and he’s like a straight up, hard, technological determinist. And not quite that, but I guess I’m a soft determinist in the sense that I think human beings have not quite like a tabula rasa are heavily conditioned creatures.
I don’t want to say that context is everything, but it’s kind of everything. And if you tinker with something as fundamental as our media environment, then you also tinker with how we structure our world. You tinker with our whole sense-making apparatus. You tinker with our categories of thought. And on some level, you tinker with the core experience of being human in the world.
It reminds me of one of my favorite Postman quotes. So he writes, “Introduce the alphabet to a culture and you change its cognitive habits, its social relations, its notions of community, history and religion. Introduce the printing press with movable type and you do the same.
Introduce speed of light transmission of images, and you make a cultural revolution without a vote, without polemics, without guerrilla resistance. Here is ideology pure if not serene. Here is ideology without words and all the more powerful for their absence. All that is required to make it stick is a population that devoutly believes in the inevitability of progress.”
And I’ve always thought that last line there is really important. The one thing that makes it hard to question technology, hard to question the way our communication changes is that we do, particularly in America, have this baseline view that technological change is always good, that to question it makes you a Luddite. You just don’t know how to use it well enough. You’re just not policing your feed well enough. If you don’t want to watch so much TV, you just shouldn’t.
That it’s all a consumer choice. If you’re making bad choices, it’s on you and individual failing. But the argument here if technology is ideology, and if change is in technology, change our ideology, as Postman puts it, without even words and votes in polemics, then maybe it’s not really individual failing. And there should be some space maybe that we don’t seem to have for collective reflection as to whether technologies are changing us in the way we want them to.
So McLuhan, so he comes along and says, don’t just look at what’s being expressed. Look at the ways it’s being expressed. And then Postman says, don’t just look at the way things are being expressed, look at how the way things are expressed determines what’s actually expressible.
And you’re getting at this, and this is partly why Postman is more interesting to me as a political person because he’s really just asking, does our media environment even allow the serious public discourse? And I think it’s maybe in the first or second chapter of “Amusing Ourselves To Death,” and this gets at the ideology point I think.
Because he’s talking about Reagan and William Taft and how William Taft could not have been president in 1980. Why is that? And he says, J.F.K. is the first TV president. TV was still fairly new and every new medium bears the stamp of the one it’s sort of overthrowing. But by the time you get to 1980, TV is really transform the culture.
And by the time we get to Reagan, he says, it’s no longer or the question is no longer, do I agree with that guy? It’s do I like him? And that’s the thing that still dominates our politics. It’s vibes and feelings and impressions. And Postman noticed that with Reagan that he was wildly popular despite people who actually when you drill down not liking his policies really at all.
And why was that? Well, it’s because they liked him on TV. And in that sense, it’s not an overstatement to say that TV changed what it even meant to be a good candidate. And therefore it changed the kinds of people who could be good candidates, the kinds of people who would even run for office in the first place.
That’s a change so fundamental that it’s almost more fundamental than ideology. It’s just a complete transformation of how we do and practice politics that’s I think hard to overstate, but it seems true to me. Do you think he’s overstating that?
I think it’s true that TV made a televisual likability very important for politicians. What I think is interesting about social media is, I’m not sure it’s done the same thing. I mean, very famously, Donald Trump was the most unpopular major party candidate in the history of polling. And it strikes me that a lot of the candidates who are very good on social media, they are very liked by some but very hated by others. So if TV made it so you had to be the question was, do I like them, what do you think the question of social media is for politicians or for voters?
It may be more about attention than optics. But again, it still feels like internet is at least at this point still just amplifying the culture that TV built. The internet is more individualistic, it’s more immersive, but it is still very much anchored to that world that photography and TV built. But you watch politicians on Twitter, I mean, they’re pushing themselves in the same way that social media influencers do.
You have a lot of politicians now who are basically just professional shit posters. And they’re just on there to say things that will get engagement and that will trend. And that’s good for them to the extent that it gets people talking about them, right? I mean, I guess that’s somewhat different from TV.
Let me try a theory out on you. Because I think one way in which this is all changed and changed in a way that the media still has not caught up to is that the question of sentiment has become secondary to the question of energy. And what I mean by that is that it’s pretty good on television to be likable.
And it’s pretty bad to be unlikable. And I think on social media, it’s pretty good to be likable, and it’s almost even better to be unlikable. Because what you need is both sides contributing energy to your candidacy or to your debate. You need controversy. Not to say controversy didn’t matter at other points in American history, I don’t believe that.
But particularly with algorithms, the prize engagement, you really need people to join the other side of the argument. Donald Trump, people hate Donald Trump and that gives him a lot of attention. A.O.C., A.O.C. drives the right crazy, and that gives her a lot of attention. And the politicians, in my view, who follow a strategy of just kind of being broadly acceptable, if Joe Biden had not been Barack Obama’s vice president, he doesn’t have a chance in the 2020 primary.
But I think that’s really messed up the media because I think we believe that as mediators, our real power is in if we cover someone or something positively or negatively. And we really don’t know what to do with politicians and issues that are able to utilize our negative coverage just as much, maybe even more than our positive coverage.
I think that’s right. I didn’t come from the journalism world. As you know, you hired me. I was coming from the academic world. And so my first few years in this business was just me figuring out how to not suck at this and maybe find people on both sides. Would say I’m still figuring that out. But I started in September 2016 right as Trump was really monopolizing our world.
And it was incredibly frustrating. He was exploiting us. He was exploiting our business model. And by us, I mean, all of press really. And we all kind of knew it, right, but it felt like we had no choice. I guess, there’s always a choice, but you know what I mean. And then I ended up writing a piece about this concept of flooding the zone and something kind of clicked for me.
Do you want to say what flooding the zone is?
Yeah. It’s a phrase that was popularized by Steve Bannon. And, you know, it’s basically a very 21st century way of doing propaganda where the purpose isn’t to convince a society to believe the same thing. The point is to just flood it, overwhelm it with lots and lots of noise so that it’s very disorienting and very confusing and people do not know what to believe.
And I wrote that it’s basically a way of manufacturing nihilism or at least cynicism. And it works because of the way we do business. We race for content, for clicks, for attention and we act like greyhounds chasing a slab of meat. Every time Trump would unleash one of his unhinged tweets or whatever, it was maddening, and it’s still maddening.
But this gets to something we try to say in the book, which is that what the media thinks it’s doing is not really what it’s doing, certainly not anymore. A lot of the press is still wedded to this 20th century model of journalism where we conquer lies by exposing them or we deliver truth to a country desperate to hear it and people make informed decisions and yada, yada, yada.
But this just doesn’t seem to be what’s going on. There’s too much bullshit to debunk, too many conflicting narratives to untangle. The information space has been shattered into a zillion pieces thanks to the internet. And the audience is so fragmented and self-sorted a huge chunk of the country doesn’t really trust public institutions or the mainstream media. And they’re not listening, and a lot of it feels like it’s just a political class talking to itself. And I know that’s kind of depressing, but that has been my experience.
One thing that has always worried me and continues to worry me as a member of the media is that our biggest blind spot in how American politics works, how the political system actually functions is ourselves. And the reason for it is that the question we are comfortable asking about our work is, are we doing a good enough job covering American politics, reflecting American politics, being a mirror to American politics?
And we are unbelievably uncomfortable with the obvious question, the inescapable question, how are we changing American politics? Even if you write the most neutral article in the world, the decision to write that article and not another is an inescapably charged decision. It is a choice that could have been made any other number of ways.
And by making it, you have exerted force on the political system, you’ve made it a little bit different. That choice loaded up over every content decision choice, whether it’s a decision to do what everybody else is doing because that’s safe or to do something radically different like that is the sum total of our impact.
And we don’t really like trying to look at that sum total and then decide if that sum total is what I’m comfortable with, if we should do it differently next year, if we followed good rules or bad rules that we sort of want to stay away from that question, but in a way that leaves this gaping hole in our model of how the political system actually works.
Right. And that’s what was so maddening about flooding the zone. The story I glommed onto in the piece I wrote was the, I guess the 2017 story about Hillary Clinton selling Uranium One to the Russians or something like that. I mean, it was complete horseshit but it was a story that Bannon had fed to the press and it kind of took off.
But that’s basically all it is, right? I mean, part of our business model is selling conflict. This is especially true on TV, and this is something that really comes into fruition in the ‘90s with the birth of cable news and kind of horse race politics. Conflict just works. It’s politics is theater, politics is sport. And to the extent that media has profited from that model, we’ve also helped instantiate it.
We’ve also helped make politics in the minds of people who are consuming our content think that’s what politics is. And the thing that’s so crazy about flooding the zone is that it works because people are doing their jobs the way they’re supposed to, the way they’ve always been done. Something is out there and if it’s bullshit, you debunk it and you tell people why it’s not true.
But the problem is that, like we were just saying, in the process of debunking something, you are also amplifying it. You’re pumping it out there. It’s getting tattooed in people’s consciousness. And if you do that enough, it just becomes very dizzying and confusing to people. And it’s a way of hacking the way media works. And I think it was extraordinarily effective and no one really seems to have an answer to it. I certainly don’t.
I proposed in a piece I wrote years ago now, particularly with somebody like Trump, who is understood so well that outrage is a shortcut to coverage. That if you just do something really outrageous, you can trust that you will then be able to dominate the news cycle and push everybody else out of it.
I’ve wondered about the idea of what if the bar for Donald Trump to get covered was that he had to do something more outrageous for him, which is act like a normal politician and produce policy plans and say something worth covering as opposed to acting like an insult comic dog.
But it’d be very, very hard to try to put that into play across the media. I mean, one, the media isn’t a singular. We don’t all coordinate. There isn’t like some grand meeting of the editors where we decide how to cover things.
And two, we are dependent to some degree on audience. And if everybody else, if the other publications are covering what Donald Trump does and you’re not, I mean, it might be plausible to figure out your way to a different audience, but it’s playing the game on hard mode for sure. And so I’ve never come up with what I think the answer to it should be. I’m curious if you have a better one.
I have no idea, none. I really don’t. It’s part of my frustration with this. It is very hard to see a way out absent some kind of radical paradigm shift, and I have no idea what that would even look like.
But we really need one because I feel like every Republican figured this out from Trump. It’s like the one thing they all learned from him is how to do this trick.
Like Ron DeSantis is going to run an entire campaign based on tricks like this. And there’s no answer to it, really. And it isn’t to say that you couldn’t see this on the left too, although it would probably look different. But, you know, I think the Republican Party, they learned a lot less from Trump’s policy that he moderated on things like Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security. There’s critical of foreign adventurism.
Whatever you think of how he governed, he ran rhetorically more moderately on some traditional Republican issues like taxes and entitlements and foreign policy. And some have picked that up, but many more of them have simply picked up that you can get a lot of coverage by being a jerk. And you need a lot of coverage to win.
Yeah. And this is actually helping me clarify what I find annoying about the populism debate. It’s just something I know you’ve written about, you’ve talked about on the show, this idea that a political party should just figure out what’s popular and then appeal to it. OK, that’s fine.
But if you take media ecology seriously, then you start with a media environment and then notice how it favors certain kinds of rhetorical appeals or incentivize a certain styles of communication. And then notice how that in turn, influences public opinion, right? So it’s like Trump’s is a good example. He’s a dude who just gets social media and he knows what drives the news coverage more generally.
So he just said and did outlandish shit in spectacular ways, and he rode that attention straight to the White House. And this is partly why we emphasize persuasion a lot in the book. And it’s not persuasion in the sense of democrats convincing people that universal health care is a good idea. It was his ability to get attention, to use the media environment to reinforce the image of Trump, the brand of Trump. And to turn the campaign itself into a kind of circus.
That is itself an act of persuasion. And it’s the kind of thing you could never do if you were just following survey data and then trying to craft your opinions around that, right? I mean, Republicans they just use the asymmetries in the media to create salience around issues that favor them, and they just drive public opinion with persuasive rhetoric or propaganda or whatever it is. And Democrats just don’t operate like that.
See, I think that underplays actually Trump’s persuasive effect. I mean, maybe in both directions. But I think it’s really easy to underplay the substance of what he represented at the very least. And he didn’t code it in the way that appeals to the policy wonks because I remember he only had six, seven or eight issues on his web page. They’re pretty thin the way he described his policies back then.
But nevertheless, I think he persuaded a lot of people in part through the fights he picked, in part through who he went after that he was going to represent them, right? That they didn’t like immigration and nor did he. That they didn’t like how this country was changing and nor did he. That they didn’t like Democrats and nor did he. But also they didn’t like George W. Bush and nor did he.
That persuasion I don’t think has to be high-minded. And one thing I think Trump understood is that part of the way you persuade people that you’re on their side is you come to share their enemies. And you expend capital, your own reputational capital, your willing to get flayed in public as almost a show of commitment. That if you’ll absorb this kind of incoming fire to hold your position, well, then surely you’ll do that when you’re actually president, surely you won’t betray them then.
And I would argue that in many ways Trump betrayed the people that he promised to represent. But I do think there’s something here that actually Democrats and populists and everybody else tend to miss, people who are too into policy communication as I am tend to miss, which is, you have to convince people first and foremost that you’re on their side before they’re going to listen to almost anything else you tell them.
And people judge whether you’re on their side not by the white papers you put out but by more fundamental positioning and temperament and choosing of enemies and picking of fights. It’s why I’ve always said that the relevant question isn’t what’s popular that you’re willing to say, but what is unpopular that you’re willing to say.
When Bernie Sanders would say that he would abolish private health insurance and he would take the hit for that, the people who believing single payer believed that he really believed in it too, like he wasn’t going to just abandon us. Like being willing to say the unpopular thing is often how you convince people that you mean the popular thing.
I think that’s right, but I think also Trump was willing to test a hypothesis that I don’t think Republicans we’re willing to test before he showed that it could work. Maybe that’s one of his real contributions is to show that — everything you just said is right — but he also showed that if you just don’t give a shit at all about the liberal Democratic game and you just go after power and you just signal that you’re going to win.
You’re going to win, that your enemies are my enemy, that works. That works because there’s a decent subset of the country that actually isn’t invested in liberal democracy in that way. They do just want to win, and they are convinced that the other side is a kind of existential threat. And Trump was willing to go farther than anyone else in testing that. But now that he has and it worked, I think that portends bad things.
I don’t ask this next question in the spirit of plausibility. I ask it descriptively. What does for democracy a healthy communicative culture look like?
I think a lot depends on what you mean by healthy. I mean, for me, healthy just means stable, right? Like not imploding. But the price of that stability might be a lot of injustice or it might mean a lot of people are excluded from political life. I mean, you could make the case that mid to late 20th century, American liberal democracy was very healthy in the sense that it was — you know, there were exceptions.
But there were certainly long periods of relative stability. But there were very high prices to pay for that, lots of people were excluded from political life. And a lot of speech wasn’t allowed to express itself in the public square. And so there are always trade-offs. And you could look at the culture today like there’s a lot of people making noises about how free speech is under attack and there’s a sweeping culture of censorious and all that.
But you can also look at the world today and say, well, speech is actually more free than it’s ever been by a country mile in the sense that there are fewer barriers to entering the public arena and speaking. Everyone can be their own communication platform at this point. More people are allowed to speak now than ever. And that has obviously created a lot of tension in the system.
But it is free, and certainly freer than it was in the past. And I think that’s a good thing, even though there’s a lot of growing pains involved with that. I mean, if the price of a stable Democratic culture is a significant chunk of that society being excluded, then I think that’s too high a price to pay.
How do you understand that tension where clearly today, there is a wider range of expressive viewpoints in almost all areas of American life. I really don’t believe that to be arguable against any other time in which I’ve been alive or can look in American history. Clearly, many more people. And many more kinds of people can be heard thanks to social media, thanks to the low cost of setting up a web page or a podcast.
And at the same time, people feel in polling that they have to be more careful with what they say. There’s constant fears about cancel culture and a hostile speech environment. And this is obviously playing out in a lot of opinion pages and a lot of our politics about our communication. These two things feel to me like they are not separate, that they’re somehow deeply intertwined. But I’m curious what you make of them, that simultaneity of actual freedom and perceived and felt — I don’t take away from it — felt unfreedom or fear.
I think they can both be true at the same time. I mean, I think if your position is to say that cancel culture is itself a phantasm, that they’re not actually people and forces out there punishing speech in one way or the other. I think that’s just not the case. But it’s also true that if you allow everyone to speak, the boundaries of permissible discourse are going to be challenged and they’re going to move.
And that process is always bumpy, it’s always contested. It can feel like unfreedom perhaps if you’re on the wrong end of it, and maybe there are cases where that’s really true. But I think both of those things can be happening at the same time. I think a lot of the people who are deeply worried about cancel culture don’t reflect enough on what’s actually happening on these bigger questions we’re talking about here.
Again, it feels very suffocating, but it really is just I think a culture of free speech doing what a culture of free speech does, unleashing lots of different voices, lots of different opinions, lots of different styles of communication, lots of disputes about where the lines are. And it’s playing itself out.
One suspicion I have is that the frustrations about how our political communication culture feels right now do reflect one of those lags that you all write about in the book, which is that we are working with very new communication technologies. You know, the migration of so much of our political communication onto social media is something that didn’t just happen in my lifetime, it happened in my adult lifetime. It’s very, very, very fresh.
And maybe we’re just in the lag between when lots of us go there and when we learn how to tune out the worst voices, when people who are running institutions learn what to ignore. That the fact that people are yelling at you on Twitter doesn’t mean you have to respond. Maybe this is all going to settle down.
And this will just be looked back on, you know, the sort of explosion of Trump and Bolsonaros and Johnsons and politicians who were able to kind of unleash some of these darker energies, maybe it’ll just be looked on as another one of these periods where new technologies destabilized us and then we refound our footing. How likely do you find that versus a more structural deranged wing of our politics?
I think it’s very likely. I think there’s almost a kind of comfort in looking at the history of democracy in media and noticing this pattern of revolution in how we communicate, lots of disruption and disorder. Then there’s a lag period and we adjust.
I was just looking at a quote this morning actually from McLuhan.
So he says, “Twentieth century man’s relationship to the computer is not by nature very different from prehistoric man’s relationship to his boat or to his wheel with the important difference that all previous technologies or extensions of man were partial and fragmentary whereas the electric is total and inclusive.”
I’m still working out what that means, but I think it’s relevant to what you’re saying.
Tools like the wheel or the hammer are used instrumentally. Those are extensions of our feet and hands, extensions of our physical capabilities. But McLuhan insisted that electronic media is an extension of our nervous system. So our ability to experience what is happening isn’t limited by our bodies. We can know what’s happening anywhere, everywhere, all the time.
And I think his point was that our brains weren’t equipped to deal with this much stimuli, this much information. And whatever cognitive tools we developed over time to deal with information, to organize our experience in the world, we’re going to be totally overwhelmed by the electric revolution. And this is where you see the kind of Christian humanism bubbling beneath the surface with McLuhan that I find so fascinating. And he never quite says it, but I think he’s kind of worried about our souls on some level.
He was a very Catholic thinker, right?
Yes, I think he was a convert to Catholicism. And if you think about the global nervous system for a second, which is, I think, a really vivid way of thinking about the internet, it is so obvious that that’s not good. If we are being confronted by the anxieties and the outrages everywhere all the time, and we can’t do anything about it, and the algorithms are pushing all the terrible shit in front of our faces all the time, that breeds fatigue and cynicism and probably despair.
And it’s all so new, really. This has — this has barely begun. There’s not — and I said this before — we don’t even have a name for whatever this next era is going to be because we’re still in this weird convergent space. But it is pummeling us from every direction. And things are changing so fast I just don’t think there’s enough time to gain our footing. And I think we will adjust I hope, before we blow ourselves up. But this is still so new. It just feels like it’s been around forever because it’s so damn exhausting.
To your point about McLuhan’s point that it makes the whole world into a village, I don’t know that our nervous systems are built to hold the whole world as a village. I find it to be a very uncomfortable position to be in. As a media professional, somebody who has devoted my life to the news in different ways or at least media commentary nowadays that I’m not sure. I think people should be consuming as much news as we are offering them.
And not that most people are reading all of it because or not or listening or seeing all of it, but I think it should be way less actually for the normal healthy person. There’s a part of me that thinks the weekly news magazine had it right, the daily paper. It’s one reason I actually love “The Daily” as a show. It’s pop in once a day and you get something. And then you get some headlines, and you go about your day.
And I just don’t know that we’re built for this. And I don’t know that we’re going to become built for it because we don’t change that much. And this is a pretty new experiment. Now, maybe the only outcome of that is that we become twitchier and more anxious and a little bit more depressed. And so this is simply one force among many pushing around the human psyche. I think sometimes when people hear you say, we may not be built for this. They think what you mean is we’re all going to dissolve into dust if it doesn’t stop. And I don’t mean that. But it also doesn’t mean that it’s good.
Well, that’s one thing about media technology today. That is actually very different from the past. It evolves so much faster now. For most of human history, the world you died in looked a lot like the world you were born into. And that kind of stability puts culture on a solid footing. Now, I don’t even understand what my 13-year-old niece is doing on TikTok.
The pace of change is too fast for our institutions, too fast for our culture, and probably too fast for our minds to adjust.
If the internet is as transformative a technology as the printing press, and I think it’s certainly comparable, then it’s going to take several decades to fully adjust to the changes it has wrought.
We had roughly 200 years after the printing press without any major revolutions in media technology. And we needed all of that time to develop the institutions of modernity. But I’m not sure we have another 200 years to adjust to this revolution. And things are going to keep changing at breakneck speed. So I don’t know where that leads us, Ezra, but I do think it means we should expect a bumpy ride.
I guess something that brings me to is towards the end of the book, you and your co-author write, “There’s really no answer here. It doesn’t have to do with media literacy. It doesn’t have to do with how we educate the populace.”
I think it’s notable that Postman’s great obsession was our education system, that that even more so than media is what he really took as his core project.
And you’re a little vague on what you think media literacy should look like, but you have a young kid, I have two. What do you think we should be teaching them about the communications world and culture they’re growing up in and that they’re going to be forming?
It’s hard to say, but on some basic level teaching kids or really, at the very least at the secondary education level, teaching people about different communication technologies and the styles of speaking and the rhetorical strategies and the ways they push and pull and impose themselves on us and manipulate us.
Really teaching them about media ecology itself and teaching them about these technologies not as reflections of our world but shapers of it would at least give people some kind of intellectual self-defense system or at least some way of recognizing maybe when they’re being manipulated and when they’re being pulled and pushed and twisted up by these different forces.
But I’m not especially sanguine about how effective that might be. But that kind of media literacy of that kind seems to me more helpful than what a lot of people often talk about, which is civics education, because I don’t think that’s really the problem here.
I think that’s basically right. It’s also a good bridge to what’s always our final question, which is to throw people back to an earlier medium and ask, what are three books you would recommend to the audience?
Well, I have to recommend Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” I know that the book that’s been mentioned here before. Because I just feel like I have to recommend a media ecology book. And McLuhan, God bless him, is so difficult to read. Postman is at least incredibly clear and accessible, and it’s a very good way into media ecology as a way of seeing and thinking about the world.
The second book would be Walter Lippmann’s “Public Opinion.” And I think that was published in 1922. I really think Lippmann, despite his eventual turn against democracy, he sort of threw in the towel, I do think he understood the problems of democracy, especially in the post-industrial world. And whatever you think of his prescriptions, his diagnosis really holds up. So anyone thinking through these problems would do well to read Lippmann.
The third book would be Thomas de Zengotita. So an anthropologist of all things. But he a book called “Mediated.” And it’s just a really lucid and well-written and kind of funny look at the consequences of living in a media-saturated society at the personal and the political level. And I’ve always felt like it’s a very underappreciated book. So I would recommend that.
Sean Illing, thank you very much.
Thanks for having me, Ezra [MUSIC]
“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin and Rogé Karma. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris, Mary Marge Locker, Kate Sinclair and Rollin Hu. Mixing by Sonia Herrero and Carole Sabouraud and Isaac Jones. Original music by Isaac Jones. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Special thanks to Kristin Lin and Kristina Samulewski.