Joan Didion began covering political campaigns in 1988. By then, she had switched to being a Democrat, which did little to change her views of the world or change her life in any tangible way. This made her incredibly skeptical about America’s two-party system. Back then, she noted that, “[T]he political process had become perilously remote from the electorate it was meant to represent. It was also clear in 1988 that the decision of the two major parties to obscure any possible perceived distinction between themselves…” was done purposefully in the hopes of appealing to a small niche of “target voters,” and had “imposed incredible strain on the basic principle [...] of assuring the nation’s citizens a voice in its affairs.”
The poverty of distinction was, in other words, intentional. Bill Clinton embodied this tendency, especially when it came to his domestic policies. Let’s take two important examples that seem to be ripped from the GOP party platform. First, his infamous repeal of the Glass-Steagal regulation that brought us the 2007 financial crisis, absolutely ravaged the middle and working classes, and nearly ended the world economy. Second, in 1992, he ran as a “tough on crime,” “law and order democrat.” His 1994 Crime Act, of “superpredator” fame, was a disaster for the black community and for the criminal justice system. As Keanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes:
Clinton lobbied for his legislation in the same Memphis church where King had given his last speech the day before he was assassinated. Clinton’s pulpit speech demonstrated the tremendous shift in racial politics. King had used that pulpit to support poor Black maintenance workers attempting to unionize; Clinton used it to ask Black people to support expanding the death penalty. Clinton claimed to be using the words he assumed King would say if he were alive to deliver the speech himself: ‘I fought to stop white people from being so filled with hate that they would wreak violence on black people. I did not fight for the right of black people to murder other black people with reckless abandonment.’
An appalling statement and a merciless policy. As a result, we have 4.4% of the world’s population and 22% of its prisoners. The human cost has been incredible, the drain on the state unbearable. By 2015, Clinton would admit it was a horrible mistake even if he didn’t fully understand why. With Clinton’s presidency, we had finally arrived in the era of the Third Way consensus, the “post-political” and “post-ideological” era (Obama, of course, would complete the third part of this trinity: the “post-racial”). This political consensus created new challenges for the media. After all, if there’s little difference between Democrats and Republicans, why bother? The horse race of electoral politics, especially for the media, needs to showcase the difference. And it can’t look vague.
In 1996, the recently deceased elephantine orb of Elmer’s Glue, friend of Rachel Maddow, and former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes took over the network. He cultivated an incredible propaganda machine dedicated to scaremongering senior citizens into thinking gender neutral bathrooms are the first step towards sharia law. Ailes’ monstrosity has been disastrous for modern life. It is hard to name anyone else so successful in polarizing the country, especially given that he started off at a time notable for its political blandness. His network also created a backlash in the liberal media. In response, the liberal media catered to the dumbest, pettiest, most self-congratulatory parts of their viewership. They created a culture of smug narcissists, and narcissists fiend on two compulsions: short term ego boosts, and shitting on other people. More clinically, ingratiation and aggression. That’s called narcissistic supply. And it’s not just a habit. It is a need.
To get their fix liberals tuned into The Daily Show, MSNBC, or the Aristotelian quaalude that is Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. Each monologue, each snide quip about NASCARnation was meant to affirm the viewers’ sense that they felt the right feelings, saw the world the right way, and, most importantly, weren’t hateful slobs who refused to floss their only tooth while singin’ the songs of that old time religion. Never mind that most liberal policies are now built around marshalling state violence to immiserate and discipline minorities and working class whites, or marshalling state violence to needlessly carpet-bomb the Middle East or go Zero Dark Thirty on some children (remember: consensus!). This largely took the aesthetic form of lectureporn. It is the apex of narcissistic supply delivery.
So what is lectureporn? It is the media spectacle of a lecture whose audience is the opponent of the lecture’s intended target. Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, Keith Olberman, Rachel Maddow (again, friend of Roger Ailes), Aaron Sorkin, and a whole host of others have built their careers on this form. Lectureporn pulls off an amazing trick: it simultaneously delivers both elements of narcissistic supply. You sit and watch someone ingratiate themselves to you while they eviscerate someone you don’t like who is, in turn, unlikely to watch said lecture.
We’ve all seen the the moment when one of these well-coiffed smirks turns to camera three and says, “And I’m talking to you, Red America. You whine so much about taxes and welfare and yet you’re the ones that suck up all that nanny state help. Well, I’ve got news for you. From now on, everytime you say ‘welfare queen,’ or ‘culture of dependency,’ we’re going to personally drive to your house and hold up a mirror to you and remind you that we, the blue states, make your lives possible with our generosity. Be grateful we don’t refuse to pay up because we actually believe in decency.” Or any time an Aaron Sorkin character starts a sentence with, “And by the way,” while talking to any female character ever. The whole point of lectureporn is to get off on a political opponent getting rhetorically owned by the best version of yourself. That’s what the media alleges to present: the best versions of ourselves.
But the problem isn’t just that lectureporn is snide, tedious, elitist, lazy, and naive—and it is. The problem is that it’s dangerous. It breeds confirmation bias and a lack of empathy—two things liberals saw backfire in 2016 after years of media class scoldkriegs. Confirmation bias is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the habit of looking at new information strictly in a way that confirms your beliefs. Everyone does this to an extent. But this is the “short term ego boost” part of the ingratiation in narcissistic supply. All you experience is media coverage that psychologically reinforces how you already feel and what you already believe. You feel rewarded for having all the right perspectives and feelings because you’re smart and worthy enough to understand how it really is.
Constituents and politicians alike end up confusing the map for the terrain. It has real consequences. The book Shattered and the Netflix documentary Get Me Roger Stone have ended the need for post-mortems on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, so all I need to say here is that her defeat, taken with the fact that the Republicans are something like five state legislatures away from being able to rewrite the U.S. Constitution, highlight the danger of lectureporn and the narcissistic pathology it encourages.
There are more reasons for our present political reality than lectureporn, but lectureporn is without a doubt a contributing factor. It has shaped the liberal perception of the world. In the Bush era, I remember every arrogant suburban dad big on Monty Python and “REALITY HAS A LIBERAL BIAS”-type bumper stickers telling me they only watched The Daily Show, because it was the only real news out there. Even at 16, I knew that was not a good sign.
The thing that falls out of this kind of confirmation bias is a lack of empathy. Narcissists are known for being totally unempathetic, but this has a unique character. Bill Nye’s new show and the March for Science perfectly illustrate one of the fundamental contradictions of liberal ideology: the truth is both politicized and neutral in the way that science is alleged to be neutral. The level of cognitive dissonance here is incredible. There is no such thing as political neutrality. And this ideological contradiction creates a major problem: the fetishization of rationality. The fetishization of rationality means you think reasonableness paves the road to political office and, on an individual level, that anyone who opposes you is an idiot who can’t understand reality. Thus, you have no purchase on someone else’s perspective because you’re narcissistically invested in your own view—the “correct” and only perspective. Dissenters are just the unworthy. Matt Taibbi puts it like this in his piece about the rash of Democratic special election losses:
The unspoken subtext of a lot of the Democrats’ excuse-making is their growing belief that the situation is hopeless – and not just because of fixable institutional factors like gerrymandering, but because we simply have a bad/irredeemable electorate that can never be reached.
This belies an important distinction between liberals and conservatives, lectureporn and the ubiquitous tirade in conservative media. It’s the Nietszchean distinction between contempt and hate. You can hate an equal or someone with power over you. So conservatives hate liberals (hence their paranoiac victim narrative), whereas liberals have contempt for conservatives, which means they’re arrogant. Arrogant people are lazy in general and inept when it comes to empathy. If you can’t empathize with people, you can’t understand them. And if you can’t understand their worldview, you can’t hope to either win them over or defeat them. You’ve played yourself. No one cares if you’re right and ineffective. That’s called being an impotent loser. For all the talk about “bleeding heart liberals” who vote with their tears, they’ve proven to be staggeringly emotionally incompetent.
Now, let’s go back to that part about thinking reasonableness makes ready the path to power. The lethality of lectureporn to political thought and participation is its misapprehension of what political power actually is. Regardless of whatever we think or feel about the GOP’s platform and its coterie of alleged rapists, bigots, and unfuckable sneers, they actually get what it means to gain, maintain, and wield power. In 2011, when the Republicans shutdown the government, everyone wondered why Obama couldn’t have his “LBJ moment” where he grabbed Boehner by the lapels and said, “And by the way, you son of a bitch…” and brought him around with sheer rhetorical force.
But even LBJ didn’t have an “LBJ moment,” as his biographer, Robert A. Caro reminds us. Johnson’s real power on Capitol Hill came from his access to a money pool that could make or break political careers. These grab-them-by-the-lapels moments known as The Johnson Treatment were, as Caro writes, “only tassels on the bludgeon of power.” Obama had no such reservoir of financial power. While he tried to grand bargain and concede his way to victory, the Republicans banded together to deadlock Obama’s regime through dirty tricks, voter suppression, gerrymandering, and intercine parliamentary rules. That’s political power—even if it’s corrupt political power.
The idea that rhetorical force can be equated with political force is a fantasy. Lectureporn perpetuates this fantasy. It is the ultimate narcissism to say, “We lost because they’re dumb. They are our inferiors incapable of grasping the righteousness of our cause.” If they’re so dumb, why’d you lose so bad? Let’s face it, the Democrats have been losing for decades. They don’t think it’s a bar fight.
Too bad—it is. And bar fights only have two rules: punch hard and never assume the other guy’s gonna fight fair. That’s why it’s crucial to get people on your side. But in order to fight at all, it must be clear who and what you’re fighting for and who and what you’re fighting against. This is one of the major lessons to be learned from Jeremy Corbyn’s recent success in the UK general election. He made an honest and real distinction. “For the many, not the few.” It’s that simple. If you can’t make a real distinction between you and your opponent, you’re getting your nose broken for nothing and for no one.
Emmet Martin Penney is a poet and essayist. His writing has previously appeared in Paste Magazine, Hollow, Madcap Review, and The Bad Version. He also runs the blog Museum of the Half-Forgotten, and co-hosts the leftist political video/podcast How to Talk to Girls at the Mall. You can find him on Twitter.