The country is near unanimous in feeling that the elections of 2016 were unique in American history. Some say for the unlikability of the two principal candidates; others, for the rhetorical violence and vitriol on all sides. Still others cite the general volatility of the political year from its beginnings, in its wide swings left and right, in its precipitous ups and downs, and in its sheer unpredictability and its numerous stunning surprises. Lastly, the revelation of stark intraparty divisions within the Democratic Party as well as the GOP seems to have been unsuspected by many people. My own opinion is that what turned this election year inside out, the greatest single contributor to the chaotic political atmosphere, are the digital media, from the largest and most extensive systems down to the individual iPhones carried by an estimated 94 million Americans, or one quarter of the population.
Among the Southern Agrarians’ chief indictments, perhaps the principal one, of the industrial-technocratic-capitalist system was that system’s concern with means to the neglect of any consideration of ends; indeed, its unwillingness to think in terms of ends at all. In our own time, the so-called digital revolution, in communications especially, is the most spectacular example in human history of a total absorption with means to the exclusion of everything else.
It has never occurred to the scientists and technicians responsible for this revolution to ask whether people really have enough of importance to say to one another to justify the astronomical investment in time, talent, technique, and money that the development of the new technology requires. Nor did “anyone” (whoever “anyone” may be—ever the fatal unanswerable question from the beginning of the industrial revolution) ever consider whether such a thing as too much communication, or overcommunication, could be possible. The recently concluded political campaign—or circus, or glorious burlesque, however you wish—seems to me to have answered that question conclusively, at least for those willing to face what for too many people is the unpleasant reality.
Modern communications first galvanized the elections of 2016 by drawing in the vast majority of sentient adult Americans on what seemed to them an intimately personal, and therefore highly emotional, level—and then paralyzed the entire process by a surfeit of inflammatory but often contradictory or inconclusive information that, after threatening time and again to cause it to seize up, nearly succeeded in doing so 11 days before November 8 when the director of the FBI announced his decision to reconsider the Case of the Clinton Emails that he had almost (but not quite) pronounced closed three months before. When everyone seems to know everything, one suspects that one really knows nothing—partly because one doesn’t know what to believe; partly because one cannot possibly discover the truth for oneself; and, again, in part because one suspects or actually assumes that the people in control have the dirt on everyone and are withholding it. This is as true of the directly engaged participants—the politicians and the media—in the business as it is of the general public, so that they, too, share in the general seize-up even as they continue to shout at one other in public and to make broad defiant gestures, hoping to demonstrate that they remain in command of the situation and capable, despite all appearances, of significant and effective action.
Two other factors further complicate the situation by generating added masses of explicative back-and-forth communication between politicians and bureaucrats, between politicians and bureaucrats and the media people, and between all of them and a hungry, skeptical, and angry public. The first of these is the utopian standard of moral perfectionism liberalism sets for public figures, in their private as well as in their public lives, and the impossibility of any mere human being speaking, acting, and living up to it. This gives those public servants (as they once were quaintly known) whose crimes, misdemeanors, marital infidelities, or even simply personal peccadilloes remain undisclosed (for now) unlimited opportunity to denounce to their own advantage those of their competitors whose lapses in virtue have been exposed, and the public license to express the envy and resentment of their superiors that is a natural part of democracy. Popular expression—via blogging, demonstrations, social media, and otherwise—generates more “explanation” from on high, more “information” released, more debated, and more ultimately found indecipherable or indeterminable, while democratic anger and suspicion continue to mount and the public and the media (ostensibly on the people’s behalf) demand clarifications of explanations of explanations, as well as a certain amount of retributive head-lopping.
“It is not lawful or proper for you to know everything,” said Lucian. Or possible, for that matter. Alternatively, Babel in the digital era develops vapor lock, totters—and collapses.