Something has changed in American politics. The chasm between progressives and conservatives has grown and, according to research by Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, Americans have become more tribal in their politics. Americans feel a deep commitment to their ideological positions and a great deal of hostility toward their political opponents. This is bad news for social movements. Progressive and conservative causes, as well as the movements that organize around them, are caught up in this antagonism, making it more difficult than ever to capture the hearts and minds of the citizenry. Political consensus seems to be a thing of the past and reasoned conversations about important political issues virtually extinct.
We certainly have seen these political divisions in public conversations about racism and the Black Lives Movement. Last week in an interview with The Guardian Kathy Miller, a county chairwoman for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in Ohio, claimed that there was no racism in the 1960s and that African-Americans had only themselves to blame for their lack of success. She told the paper:
If you’re black and you haven’t been successful in the last 50 years, it’s your own fault. You’ve had every opportunity, it was given to you. You’ve had the same schools everybody else went to. You had benefits to go to college that white kids didn’t have. You had all the advantages and didn’t take advantage of it. It’s not our fault, certainly.
According to The Guardian, Miller also said that the Black Lives Matter movement was “a stupid waste of time” and claimed that lower voter turnout among African Americans might be a function of “the way they’re raised.”
Her comments shouldn’t surprise you given what Trump himself has said about the movement. In July 2016, Trump argued that the movement was responsible in some cases for the killing of police officers and suggested that the Attorney General investigate the organization. Of course, Trump had another motivation for taking a strong stance against the Black Lives Matter movement. Trump was trying to appeal to the disaffected alt-right, which even Breitbart admits attracts some racists, and clearly separate himself from the Republican pack of candidates. Trump, in other words, was capitalizing on the ideas of a different social movement with the hope of mobilizing support. It worked.
The rhetoric is no less passionate – or strategic – on the other side of the political aisle. After initially ignoring the movement, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders came out in strong support of addressing racism in the criminal justice system. “Criminal justice reform” appeared as an issue on Clinton’s website during the primary with the promise to “come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America.” Notice that there is even a quote from Clinton that includes the slogan, “Black lives matter.” Her efforts to translate a movement meme into a set of policy positions is very clear.
Screen shot from Hillary Clinton’s campaign page on the issue of criminal justice reform.
Arguably, this could be regarded as a movement victory. Clinton, after all, is the Democratic presidential candidate and her position is not short on substance. Clinton outlines a detailed six point plan to strengthen trust between police and community members, reduce mandatory minimum sentences on nonviolent drug offenders, focus federal enforcement resources on violent crime rather than marijuana possession, make rehabilitation a priority for nonviolent drug offenders, end the privatization of prisons, and promote the economic and social success of formerly incarcerated individuals. Of course focusing on this platform success alone ignores that this clearly strategic and tenuous at best alliance between the movement and the Democratic Party feeds the animosity, racism, and sexism of their political opponents. If you don’t believe me, take a quick trip to the Blue Lives Matter Facebook page, which had 1,191,298 likes on Monday September 26, 2016. You won’t have to scroll down very far before you see racist comments like those below, which are in reference to a Black Lives Matter protest. If Iyengar and Westwood’s conclusions are correct, a de-escalation in rhetoric and political animosity is unlikely. In fact, the seething political divides in the U.S. are likely to widen rather than narrow.
While I am loathe to jump on the blame-the-media bandwagon, it is clear that Internet Communication Technology (ICTs) are fueling political discord. Sure, ICTs have brought marginal voices into the mainstream. Communication scholars consistently find that the relationship between mainstream news and social media is bi-directional, meaning mainstream media shape social media discourse and social media affect mainstream media discourse. The problem is that the most extreme political voices are amplified in the contemporary media environment.
Money is to blame for some of this – and I’m not talking about mainstream media’s desperate attempts to make a profit. Millionaires have long funded groups that champion their platforms, and now they fund groups that troll their political opponents. For example, Palmer Luckey funds a group called Nimble America, which is dedicating to “shitposting” Hilary Clinton on- and off-line. According to a post on the reddit site:
We conquered Reddit and drive narrative on social media, conquered the MSM [mainstream media], now it’s time to get our most delicious memes in front of Americans whether they like it or not. This means Billboards (like this one) [which shows a cartoonish Hillary Clinton with the tag “too big to jail”] in all battleground states while the “blue hairs” are commuting to McDonalds, late night T.V. slots when their wives are busy, NYC Time Square Stickers when those globalists are trying to sell America out from under us, and in their newspapers when those liberals are trying to sipping their LGBTrans Helicopter Gendered Non-American Made Tea-ish Wannabe.
American politics have been reduced to memes designed to anger and amuse rather than finding a political common ground. It’s no wonder that Iyengar and Westwood found that Americans increasingly see their political opposites as people to whom they cannot relate.
Social movements will have a tricky time navigating this political environment, especially if they are organizing in social media forums for all the world to see. Their movement memes will be co-opted and potentially used against them by politicians – likeminded and opposing – faster than ever before. Gone are the “critical communities” described by Thomas Rochon in his 1998 book Culture Moves. In today’s high octane media landscape, conversations about ideas and values are laid bare for the world to see and have little time to develop. If movements aren’t careful, they may find themselves cogs in the meme-machines of actors with more power, money, and influence than themselves.