I submit this as one person’s view of the world, nothing more.
When the 2007-2008 primaries started to dominate the front pages, I was sitting in Iraq at the time, processing volumes of classified information into concise intelligence products, which were then briefed to the senior leadership.
I learned how to aggregate hundreds of tiny pieces of information, which were essentially short news articles, and stitched them together to create as accurate a mosaic as possible for my superiors.
My access to information about the 2008 election was in a very similar format, comprising mainly of political articles and other information that I could access through the internet, which I then divided into two levels:
- The first level is the journalist. The reputation and background of the company that they write for, the background and expertise of the editors and the journalists, and the resulting news, analysis, or opinion that flows from those sources.
- The second level is the reaction by the readers, who range from people who only read the title, to those who skim, to those who really process the information. Regardless of their level of engagement, these were members of the general population who were motivated enough to spend time writing out a reaction, be it under the article or on social media. It is a model which is wrought with pitfalls, and not necessarily a representative view of the entire nation, but it did allow me to see how information was being processed by other citizens.
Understanding the different levels of how readers engaged an article allowed me to further break down the comments based on the quality, from the spam and troll behaviors to well-thought out essays that could almost be stand-alone articles. But discarding the spam, even the trolling and anonymous hate contains tiny bits of information that adds to the picture.
I started to stitch together a mosaic of America’s political climate.
I saw what was happening. The same exact topic had several different silos of discussion, dictated by the partisan leanings of both the journalist/publisher and their readership. And it came with a cost. Across the political spectrum I would see conspiracy theories about “the others” tear through the community like a plague, driven by misconceptions based on fear and stereotypes instead of actual understanding.
This process then started a disturbing feedback loop, the community would latch onto these misconceptions of “the others,” which would then provide incentive for journalists to find stories or write them in such a way that supported these misconceptions. In other instances, articles were being misinterpreted or had enough of a slant to support the community’s biases. Regardless, the end result was similar.
Conservatives believed that some Obama supporters were socialists or had socialist ideas, a sentiment supported by conservative journalists and their communities misinterpreting statements or finding radicalized liberals to reinforce these views. Eventually, the concept that some Obama supporters were socialists turned into every Obama supporter was a socialist.
In a similar process, some liberals in the comment sections started to believe that a large number of McCain supporters were racist. Initially, those sentiments received some push-back. But by the end of the campaign, nearly every criticism of Obama was unchallenged in its re-characterization as an attack by racists.
Views that went against the narrative in these discussion spaces were quickly and brutally crushed, the dissenter harassed until they gave up or were banned. A great case study into this phenomenon is the political discussion forum on Reddit, which went from being center-left, to being left, to being a very left echo chamber. Conservatives, moderate conservatives, and even moderate liberals were run out in a systematic process that crushed any attempt to bring in the ideas from a different point of view.
Immediately following the election of President Obama in 2008, a wave of anti-Obama energy ripped through the right wing, similar to the anti-Trump wave of unrest that has followed the 2016 election. Concerns about Obama’s stance on guns, the expansion of government programs, and flat-out bigotry fueled an explosion of anti-Obama merchandise, increased weapon sales, and hand-wringing from the right-wing media and politicians.
On the left there was a social justice awakening.
Investment of resources into the sources and effects of bigotry revealed issues that had to be addressed, and exposed how racially illiterate the right was on issues affecting the African American and other minorities. It exposed the racist and bigoted propaganda that was in entertainment, in media, in day-to-day society, in conservative politics, and more. A very salient sign of the progress is the LGBT community, which saw rapid success in their fight for equality in the eye of society and in the eye of the law. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and Defense of Marriage Act (better known as “DOMA”) policies were toppled, paving the way for Obergefell v. Hodges.
This awakening fueled a progressive movement that was fixated on the inequalities of society in general, not just on social issues. Occupy Wall Street rallied in New York City to protest the growing income and wealth gaps, epitomized by the extremely successful slogan, “the 99 percent and the 1 percent.”
Many on the right, especially the wealthy and power-brokers, plugged their ears to both messages, retreated to their enclaves, and nominated Mitt Romney in 2012. Mr. Romney was torn down by the media for being an out-of-touch elite from an out-of-touch party, a sentiment echoed by a growing part of the right, and paved the way for President Obama to win a second term.
I transitioned out of the military and was enrolled in Norwalk Community College in Connecticut when President Obama won his re-election in 2012.
By this point, I had learned enough about social issues from the left to fully reject the social conservatives and started thinking of myself as a “comma,” more frequently known as the people who say that they are “socially liberal (comma) fiscally conservative.”
Once I had found my footing in the new world of academia, I applied for a position at the college’s walk-in tutoring center. Two to four times a week, I would spend a few hours helping students learn about economics, mathematics, and accounting. During our conversations, I would ask them questions to learn about different world views, and to hear different perspectives.
I tutored traditional-aged college students, recently divorced or single mothers who were looking to start a career, middle-aged men and women who had lost their job due to the Great Recession, professionals looking to add credentials, and so on. The student body was diverse in almost every conceivable way.
At my graduation I spoke to as many spouses, parents, children, and friends of those graduating, their stories having a common theme:
“I never thought she would graduate, she had a kid so young.”
“I never thought he would graduate, he was an addict.”
“My husband lost his job, we went through tough times, but now we see the light.”
These were people who had grabbed onto the ladder and were pulling themselves up. I walked away from Norwalk Community College with a truth – we need more of this, we need to make this more available, we can use this to open up the door to the American Dream for everyone who was willing to put in a full-faith effort. I saw this happen at my graduation, people from all different backgrounds were walking into the bottom of the middle class with a chance to go higher.
They were in the game.
Much to my surprise, most were “commas” like me to varying degrees. Most placed emphasis on the social issues and were liberals, others placed emphasis on economic issues and were conservatives. Some were more informed on racial issues, others were less informed and made some mistakes or had misconceptions, but they weren’t racists. They weren’t bigots. The Obama social awakening had many conservatives and conservative-leaners privately admitting to me that they were wrong about the LGBT community. The anti-bigotry movement had achieved a stunning success.
And then it went too far. From the liberal and progressive echo chambers rose a movement that took an amazing social achievement and radicalized around it. They weaponized social justice, and unleashed it onto society.
The model of the echo chamber, called a “safe space,” was seemingly lifted from the internet and transported to college campuses. It quickly spread into wider society, driving a radicalized version of the diversity movement. This section of the diversity movement is every bit as fascist and disturbing as the poorly-researched Alt-Right, so I will label them the Alt-Left, though they are more commonly known as “Social Justice Warriors.” And to be fair, like the Alt-Right, they comprise a small percentage. (I will discuss the Alt-Right later.)
Dissenting opinion was no longer an alternative point of view, it was “offensive” and “triggering.” Like a virus attacking cells, this Alt-Left began attacking anyone who disagreed with their narrow world view, shaming and pushing anyone accused of “wrong-think” out of their safe spaces, unless they submitted. In the name of diversity, using accusations of racism and bigotry like weapons, conversations were being forcefully sterilized. I saw a familiar pattern, what had happened on Reddit’s political forum was now happening in society.
The left watched and let this happen.
Some discarded their concerns and either joined in or simply submitted to the radicals running around screaming at anyone who stepped out of line. Others simply fell silent, or have tried to placate the mob by incorporating a more moderated version of their theories, rhetoric, and tactics.
Fast-forward to 2015, and Donald J. Trump is considered a “joke candidate,” but not a racist or a bigot. He jumped out onto the scene by poking every big-name Republican in the eye, tapping into the disgust many conservatives had about their own elites, and gathering a large following among the right. Despite the entire Republican establishment lining up against Mr. Trump, the base stayed steady, wanting a centrist with a sour disposition to take it to the Democrats after he was done tearing down the Republicans.
Once the media saw that Mr. Trump was going to be the likely nominee, the predictable happened. Mr. Trump was charged as a racist, a sexist, a bigot, allegations which were based on his rhetoric. His base dismissed the outcry, and laughed at the Republicans jumping ship. Trump supporters viewed their candidate’s rhetoric as a form of social protest, a statement that the left had gone too far, and that their conduct over the past three years was no longer acceptable. It was a message to say that what had started as a social awakening was now a nightmare of identity politics that was leading to fractures throughout society.
But inside this group, a different idea has surfaced. Instead of being locked in partisan battles where good ideas are rejected simply because they have an “R” or “D” next to their name, society could transcend this dichotomy. They want to match up the economic ideas of the right with the social justice truths that the left had brought to the table.
They saw a vision of bipartisanship in Mr. Trump’s rhetoric, a “get s*** done” mentality that stood in stark contrast to Mrs. Clinton’s “more of the same.” They saw Republican insiders fighting to elect Mrs. Clinton so the country could spend the next four years in gridlock. Not because it was the right thing to do, but out of self-preservation. This plea was rejected by the base of the right, and a significant portion of the Rust Belt.
Every working class community, regardless of color, was hurting.
In their eyes, both the Democratic and Republican establishments had failed in their duty to create a more equitable and sustainable economy, one with a robust middle class, lead by elites who took the inherent responsibility of owning vast amounts of wealth seriously. They believe that Democrats have failed in minority communities and in the cities, the Republicans have failed in white communities and the countryside. The old white men in smoke-filled rooms on the right were thrown out with the pretentious and similarly out-of-touch liberal elites on the left. The racists and the people who weaponized allegations of racism were similarly tossed out.
This group has a lot in common with the technocratic movement, a desire to replace the sophists with scientists and experts, including those whose expertise is waking up every morning in the society that the intellectuals create.
I hesitantly call them the technocratic-right, but since they reject a lot of the right, I prefer to just call them modern technocrats. Some call them the second generation of the Alt-Right, which is not entirely true. Some call them Trump Republicans, and to be fair, many of their ideas are an appeal to their version of republicanism.
The “Actual Alt-Right,” which is a small group made up of openly racist anti-Semites, was fueled with racial resentment after the 2008 election, and went searching outside the Overton Window for ideas on how they could push back against the growing ethnic diversity in America. They leaned into Nazi rhetoric, which lead to their envy and resentment of Jews, took statistics out of context to legitimize their racial resentment, drove deeper into misogynistic beliefs, and cherry-picked through history to support their theories. From their controlled echo chambers, and with propaganda filled with Statistics 101 errors, they started to spread their ideas.
Where they spread their ideas was an entirely separate group, eventually labelled the Trump Republicans, that too had reacted to Obama’s election and subsequent social awakening. But instead of diving deeper into their cognitive dissonance, they went outside the Overton Window to help them push back against the Social Justice Warriors, or Alt-Left.
They wanted to hear from racists, anti-Semites, communists, fascists, socialists, nationalists, globalists, anti-globalists, capitalists, historians, economists, sociologists, STEM-based scientists, philosophers, soldiers, police officers and every other perspective and expertise that they could get their hands on.
Since they shared the same discussion spaces, they developed a small amount of shared language and culture, which the media misinterpreted. The memes and cartoons of frogs that caused so much confusion and controversy was evidence that they had shared the same discussion spaces, but the media failed to realize most Trump Republicans laughed at the racists and anti-Semites. Trump Republicans rejected the Actual Alt-Right on the basis of their bigotry, and refused to ignore the truths that they had seen in the social awakening. Some are starting to reject all partisan labels, and are transitioning into modern technocrats.
This movement cheered when Tusli Gabbard (D-Hi) met with Mr. Trump, excited about the possibility of an administration that was willing to hear ideas from upstanding politicians. Even if many disagreed with her politics, they knew that she represented truths that could be incorporated into solutions. They similarly cheered Mr. Trump’s announcement that he wanted to keep provisions of Obamacare, not solely because they liked the provisions, but more to due with the message it sent both Republicans and Democrats.
This movement is not without its flaws. It suffers from the effects of echo chambers, which causes conspiracy theories to rip through the community, such as the controversial and poorly-evidenced “PizzaGate.” It remains to be seen if this group has learned from history, and will fight back against the effects of their own safe spaces. To keep stirring in controversial and dissenting opinions, and to keep reminding themselves that the left, too, has good ideas.