Political rot breeds unintended consequences. One that I think most of us grok at some level is the extent to which consuming news about the corrupted and gridlocked American political situation—a lacerating exercise at best while Trump was president—has changed since his ouster. It’s perhaps even more painful now. Outrage can at least be motivating, but the slow strangulation of political hope under a razor-thin Democratic majority produces different effects. For certain kinds of idealists, it can be functionally analogous to self-harm, and that might be why it seems like a lot of left-of-center Americans news consumers have recently hit a wall and tuned out. (I’m not judging here; far be it from me to suggest how and in what quantities news should or shouldn’t be consumed.) What I’m interested in instead is both how people process political information and how those habits change. It seems indisputable that a significant group of once-avid news junkies are developing avoidant behaviors, and that might have consequences.
This is admittedly a small and niggly question to get stuck on. It might be no big deal. It may not mean much that news consumption is down and it might be a mistake to think this might portend other things (for example, that political engagement on the left is plummeting). But the average American’s relationship to “news” has changed drastically over the past five years, and we have not understood that transformation—or its effects on political consciousness—adequately. Neither, then, can we understand what withdrawal from the news firehose means. At best, people are making healthier choices for themselves. At worst, we’re witnessing the slow and catastrophic demobilization of an entire political sector.
It’s no secret that news consumption, which was unusually avid during the Trump administration, has been dropping since the election: Cable news has seen the largest drops, with CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News all seeing traffic drop by more than 50 percent (a 73 percent, 56 percent, and 53 percent drop, respectively). Digital news hasn’t been as steep, but it’s still dramatic: Between September 2020 and September 2021, there has been a 14 percent drop in traffic at Vox, a 12 percent drop at the New York Times, and a 20 percent drop at the Washington Post. Slate has seen a similar decline. That’s not necessarily surprising; it usually happens after elections. The reason I suspect there’s more to think about here is because the consumption habits shaped by Trump’s never-ending emergencies were unhealthy, addictive, and they delivered real political consequences. People voted against him in record numbers. It would seem, then—and the recent gubernatorial race in Virginia bears this out—that lower news consumption might have consequences too: It might translate to lower engagement. A segment of a high-information population that was, as recently as January, consuming every upsetting political development it could (you have to tune in during emergencies, no matter how upsetting they are) isn’t clicking, or watching, anymore.
If this is demobilization, it was a long time coming. I argued almost two years ago now that Joe Biden would win the Democratic primary because Americans were exhausted by the onslaught of catastrophic news to which they were constantly being asked to respond. That news had become enough of a factor in the lives of ordinary Americans that it materially affected their moods and lives, and that a presidential candidate’s approach to news-making might—under these specific conditions—itself operate as a political platform. “You will not hear about or from me often” is a campaign promise of sorts, and it resonated with people sick of being held hostage to a narcissist’s need for headlines. Biden’s weird affect was in this respect not to be underestimated: his political unreactivity (I called him an inert gas) was a surprisingly robust and appealing feature in this unusual electoral terrain. It looked pretty good after Trump’s never-ending Sturm und Drang about who didn’t praise him enough and which of his rotating list of allies and enemies deserved to be behind bars. People wanted to be able to tune out safely; hypervigilance is exhausting, especially when you know it’s “necessary” in the sense that you, the public, are the feeble last line of defense once sclerotic institutions have stopped responding effectively to crises, even when one political party is floating extremism, authoritarianism, and political assassination as political solutions. People didn’t tune in because it was pleasurable; they tuned in because it seemed like they might need to do something.
If news consumption is down, then, it follows that the perceived need to respond is too. It would be a mistake to say that anger has diminished—people are still mad on the internet for all sorts of surprising reasons—but the kind of organized political rage over matters that should really matter to Democrats has unquestionably decreased. The Supreme Court is hearing arguments in two direct challenges to Roe v. Wade, including one via S.B. 8, Texas’ patently unconstitutional anti-abortion law. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin are neutering efforts to help ordinary Americans pay less for prescription drugs. Paid family leave was almost possible; now it’s dead in the water. Rage at these developments—organized, protracted rage—isn’t materializing. People are not responding as they would have two years ago. Maybe that’s natural; Trump was a galvanizing force. But there’s a more concerning possibility: Maybe it’s because they’ve learned, through bitter experience, that their best efforts will not make any difference at all—even in a Democratic administration, where it obviously should. What’s the point of getting worked up about abortion rights when public opinion no longer matters to one party and the other party won’t do anything to stop them? After all, Republicans have packed the Supreme Court and Democrats have demonstrated that they have no intention of correcting that imbalance.
These things aren’t linear, of course. The protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder proved that there was still an enormous capacity for a public exhausted and badly disillusioned with their government to demand change from institutions like the police that have long refused to curb their abuses, especially toward people of color. There existed a will to confront an unacceptable situation and insist on its unacceptability even in the face of long-standing institutional indifference. There were global shockwaves of public feeling—of spectators radicalized and repulsed by what they saw. No one, surely, could accept this state of affairs.
But then it was accepted. The biggest protests in American history were not enough to achieve even minimal changes. They didn’t get rid of qualified immunity. Police have not reformed. They have certainly not been defunded. This became just one more untenable thing, along with the pandemic, that has been accepted. Over and over, the American answer to crisis has become: Nothing can be done.
Here is where I say that this isn’t an entirely correct impression, however widespread it is. Some things have happened. The government sent out stimulus checks during the pandemic. That mattered! Multiple vaccines exist, and treatments for COVID are being developed. Biden actually implemented a vaccine mandate (who knows if it will last with this Supreme Court, though). The Build Back Better bill has some genuinely good stuff on climate and may pass unless Sinema and Manchin decide to further strip it of worthwhile provisions. The labor movement is genuinely energized and doing better than it has in decades. Police in some communities have faced disciplinary measures. And restorative justice—once a fairly recherché concept on the left—has gotten widespread enough that the backlash is well under way.
But that’s not what it feels like. News—by which I don’t mean “the media,” that boogeyman everyone loves to blame but rather the narratives politicians put out—shapes the story of political possibility as American citizens experience it. And the Build Back Better Bill, which could have been a triumphant demonstration of the Democratic will to actually improve things in this country, has instead come to us so arbitrarily pecked and scratched and stripped and sliced by two showboating senators that its passage—should such a day ever come—will still feel like a defeat. To most Democrats, not just progressives. Its contents will matter to those who benefit of course, but politically? It’s dead in the water.
Even the attempted insurrection—arguably one of the more interesting things to have happened in America recently—is, narratively speaking, hard to talk about now. What else is there to say when the situation is plain and dire? One party effectively supports the insurrectionists and the president who inspired them. That party is working to disenfranchise voters and to pass legislation that would enable various states to overturn electoral results. The other party is trying and failing to do much about it. And so we tune out those attempts. I asked my editor to confirm my sense that people aren’t really reading about Jan. 6 anymore, at least on Slate.com—she did. But shouldn’t people want to know as much as they can about the insurrection to overthrow the American electoral process and keep Trump in power—and what’s being done about it?
To those who have tuned out, the question is naïve. No, people don’t want to know anymore. People already know too much, and the knowledge hasn’t profited them. They know about all the harms that were done to American institutions and American democracy while Trump was president. They also know what the much-ballyhooed Mueller report—each development of which many of them followed attentively—achieved: nothing. Why would the Jan. 6 commission would be any different? This is what happens when the “news” is that a nation’s entire system of accountability is broken: Even the consequences that do get meted out start to feel weightless. Maybe the “QAnon shaman” goes to prison for four years (certainly some of the insurrectionists should). But everyone understands at this point that the actual instigators—including the ex-president and members of Congress who worked with and informed the rioters—are immune to consequences. So why read about it?
These sorts of demobilizations aren’t uncommon. When Obama was elected, it felt like the Republican-led nightmare of the Bush era had ended, and that made a lot of people relax, detach, tune out. But this feels different to me. People stuck in the doldrums sense now that no wind is coming. Voting rights will not be protected. The gerrymandered maps are recipes for permanent disenfranchisement and the party that could do something about it is paralyzed by idiotic infighting. Who would want to keep up with this vision of the present? What story are they getting that inspires or rewards political engagement? Say what you will about Trump—I have said plenty—but he certainly gave his people that. That’s almost all he gave them, in fact—news. Narratives that made them feel like they were winning. That he delivered little in material terms didn’t matter; the news—and that’s what really changed during these past five years, news as a fundamental, as a driver of feeling to which Americans were addicted—was enough.
I don’t know what the opposite of radicalization is in this specific context. I hope I’m wrong to suspect that it’s well under way within a population that was once extremely motivated to follow political news and fight for progress. But the problem is that it feels like it’s happening. And as we’ve seen, sometimes the feeling is enough to create the narrative, which then becomes the reality.