The state of play in the scramble for digital order.
Voters are growing sick of being sold as news.
For those with eyes to see, the sudden freak-out over the evident weakness of Elizabeth Warren as a challenger to President Trump offers a peek behind the curtain of the elite sensibility. A recent New York Times poll—you remember how predictive the election-o-meter turned out to be in 2016—shows unambiguously “bad news for Warren,” as the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner observes; “against President Trump, she performs worse than Biden or Sanders, with Trump leading or tied in five of six swing states.”
For elites concerned that, on ideology and identity alike, both Biden and Sanders would be unacceptable nominees, Warren held out the promise of a better way—neither “moderate,” “socialist,” nor an elderly heterosexual white man. But this better way now looks worse, or probably worse: because the political science that elites “know” ought to drive public policy is supposed to be fundamentally quantitative, the polls—meaning the pollsters—must be trusted.
The nature of this trust is interesting. Is it a logical imperative? Is it an ethical one?
The Science of Liberalism
The answer is both—if you follow John Stuart Mill, the intellectual godfather of the idea that liberalism is and should be a science. Political polling today exhibits the features of an “exact science” in the terms Mill applied to his theorized “Science of Character,” which he dubbed “ethology”: it is “necessary to the exactness of the propositions that they should be hypothetical only, and affirm tendencies, not facts.” Such “propositions,” Mill urged, “being assertive only of tendencies, “are not the less universally true because the tendencies may be frustrated.”
So our elites have real skin in the game: they must obey this duty to trust polls and pollsters. Failure to do so subverts and undermines the claim that liberalism is itself a science, “the exact science of human nature,” as Mill put it in his essay on ethology. Poll problems sink the operations of democracy into darkness, and we all know what happens to democracy in darkness. Democracy must be open and transparent, not just among citizens but—and perhaps especially—before social scientists. Democracy must show its work to its assessors to receive a passing grade. “Ethology is the science,” as Mill explains, “which corresponds to the act of education, in the widest sense of the term, including the formation of national or collective character as well as individual.”
Ethology in Crisis
If a pattern of behavior opens up too great a gap between monitored and quantified tendencies and real-life actualities, the result is not just a crisis of knowledge but, as the election-o-meter amply showed in 2016, a crisis of being.
The psychic shock and strain of this double crisis places an all-consuming demand on the victims to supply themselves and others with answers. Both fellow elites and ordinary people, both rulers and ruled, must be furnished with an authoritative and re-authorizing account of what went “so wrong”—what made liberalism cease to look and act like a science, and made it look more like just an idea, or perhaps a dream.
In 2016, the poll-discrediting aftermath of Trump’s election required an exonerating explanation from elites who “knew” themselves to be credentialed experts at the science of liberalism. Their explanation was that the tendencies they so grievously mis-measured and misinterpreted were not frustrated in a way social science could be justly expected to comprehend and head off at the pass. Brazen yet crafty actors willfully frustrated the precisely predicted tendencies of democracy—hacking or hijacking the system with coordinated, conspiratorial acts. They must be stopped! And restoring the authority and functionality of polling as an instrument of governance is an indispensable means to that end.
Notice that even incredibly trivial but willful acts of frustration, carried out by the wrong kind of people, could under important enough circumstances be viewed reasonably by elite ethologists as an intolerable infractions—the kind of authority-flaunting mischief that promises mayhem if not made a swift and painful example of. Yes, ethology has its “broken windows” theory of policing too.
Liberalism’s need to rationalize itself and manage democracy as a science is revealed in a recent interview about the Warren polling, overseen by the Times’s Nate Cohn. Cohn, a friend and former colleague of Chotiner, who, well known for his tough questioning, obliged Cohn to get more transparent on a troublingly clouded region of the swing-state map:
IC: Your poll included a note that the Michigan data was hard to gather. What, exactly, was the problem?
NC: Michigan has been tough for us for a while. We just have very low response rates, and a lot of numbers were people saying the person we were asking for doesn’t live there. The people apparently are pretty mean to our interviewers, too. The survey responses don’t come in as balanced as we want them to, which requires more weighting. In this case, we reduced the number of interviews compared to everywhere else. I guess my view is that I don’t think this poll is terrible or something. I think it still obeys the rules of the margin of error. But, by the measures that we use to evaluate our own polling, it’s objectively the worst of the samples. So I would say I have more uncertainty about that result than the others.
If the hobgoblins and trolls of Election ’16 chilled the spine of democracy’s elite assessors, the prospect of a brewing voter insurrection against polling itself promises a panic spiral.
“The backward state of the moral sciences can only be remedied by applying to them the methods of physical science,” Mill vowed, “duly extended and generalized.” If people refuse to become collected information in the way pollsters and their organizers demand, how can politics be quantified into the sort of matter upon which the science of liberalism can act? How will liberalism remain the science which corresponds to the practice of conforming the national character to its principles? How will liberalism remain a science at all?
In the darkness of voters’ own sentiments, sentiments over which they might suddenly become (gasp) sovereign, will it be ethology itself, and not democracy, that will die? A popular insurrection against polling signals an existential threat: the assessors will cease to be able to do their jobs—they will lose their status. They will cease to be able to be who they are.
Threats like this are fought with weapons, trusted weapons, and the ethological elite has had no trouble weaponizing their expertise in the past. “Having ascertained not only the empirical laws, but the causes of the peculiarities” in people’s collective and individual character, “we,” Mill nodded, “need be under no difficulty in judging how far they may be expected to be permanent, or by what circumstances they would be modified or destroyed.”
In the age of television, the means of modifying and destroying unwanted peculiarities of character was, as Jacques Ellul amply demonstrated, propaganda. In his 1973 book on that subject, subtitled The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Ellul strove to show that an ethical definition of propaganda as a bad kind of communication was inadequate; his sociological definition simply described propaganda as a rapid and incessant form of communication designed to shape mass sensibilities at an unconscious level. In making this move Ellul showed that there was a salutary gap between science and ethics: without the gap, there was no seeing how propaganda could carry content you might find ethical, unethical, or neither.
But Ellul also showed that propaganda “is called upon to solve problems created by technology, to play on maladjustments, and to integrate the individual into a technological world.” Our elites are panicking because up until recently the technological world in which propaganda was utilized by democracy’s assessors to integrate people into their order system was televisual. The medium of television made propaganda visual; visualizations could and did work less consciously on the target audience than text or radio, which demanded more active participation. The top-down televisual broadcast of “ethical” propaganda enclosed people within an “attention economy” far more powerful and all-consuming than anything today’s digital titans can manage. But of course, their medium isn’t all about human elites blasting propaganda to the masses. It’s about expert machines graphing the identities of individuals and groups.
The degree to which propaganda relied on broadcasting fantasies created a deep tension. The pre-electric era of print was, for elites at least, an “age of reason.” Enlightenment spread news and knowledge in a way educated people could fruitfully and advantageously use to strengthen their position in life and in the world, drawing them together (as Mill claimed) around the facts and truths that emerged from the open contestation of claims among the brightest and most dedicated of discussants.
The electric era culminating in the triumph of television, by contrast, was an age of fantasy. Order no longer arose from the algorithm of enlightenment, but from expertly-produced scripts of broadcast make-believe. Disciplined interpretation was eclipsed by ethical imagination. But it did not disappear altogether.
The Revolution Will Not Be Televisual
Today’s news elites—journalists and pollsters alike—remain strongly influenced by a view of themselves as members of an indispensable fourth branch of government, giving people the facts they need to make democracy function. But behind this apparently social-scientific commitment to disciplined interpretation has long grown a commitment among news elites to a much different idea: the idea that their elitehood ultimately pertains to their expertise at correctly using their imaginations to grasp the correct ethics—and then to propagandize the people into adopting it.
This notion, that the duty of news is to expertly package and broadcast content such that the correct ethics is input into the minds of the masses, is getting more difficult to reconcile with the older notion that the duty of news is to mount a sustained, disciplined response to the inescapable task of making real events intelligible to people pursuing fruitfully human lives.
The first notion, that the mission of information elites is to install the correct ethics into the masses via the authority of their special expertise in obtaining and presenting “news”, is not just different from the second; it is easier, more alluring, and less demanding of rectitude, self-discipline, humility, and discernment. Relative to the second, the first notion offers a much clearer path to cashing in, hoarding access, and wielding power.
Or it did, at least, until digital technology overthrew the dominance of televisual technology.