Not long ago, the prevailing opinion among political writers was that Joe Biden would probably never be president. Measured against the other candidates in the crowded 2020 Democratic primary field, it was said, he was too old, too personally and politically compromised, and too removed from the debates of the moment to mount anything more than a vanity campaign. Criticisms from Biden’s ideological opponents on the left and on the right could have been expected—but doubts about his viability as a candidate ran deep even among his natural allies in the centrist press.
The Atlantic ran anxious pieces about his debate performances and criminal justice record. Politico’s Charlie Mahtesian argued that Biden would struggle to gain traction in a newly “unsentimental and unforgiving” Democratic Party. “Biden’s competition wouldn’t be a lone independent socialist,” he warned. “The Democratic field is expected to be historically large and is likely to feature more than a few candidates with nearly pristine records on the issues that animate the party’s foot soldiers.” And at the New York Times, columnist Frank Bruni all but begged Biden to stay out of the race. “His party can’t get enough of the word ‘progressive,’ but he’s regressive, symbolizing a step back to an administration past,” he wrote. “Don’t get me wrong: That’s infinitely preferable to the indecent present. But it’s a questionable campaign slogan.”
That consensus overestimated the extent to which the ideological and cultural arguments driving online conversation would matter to a majority of voters. While those discussions were influential among a highly engaged portion of the Democratic electorate, it should have been obvious to more analysts that a much larger share of voters would respond to the shock of Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump by opting for the most traditional and sociopolitically uninteresting candidate available.
The fact that I, recently a Web-first staff writer at The New Yorker and the New Republic, happened to gauge the priorities of the offline electorate correctly hasn’t been of much comfort to me in the time since. As with Trump’s victory in 2016, the outcome of the 2020 Democratic primary and Biden’s ascent to the presidency raise deep, existential questions about who and what political punditry—and online political writing in particular—is supposed to be for.
Thirty years ago, the roster of newspapers and magazines offering political commentary to truly national audiences was relatively small. There were a few major papers with national followings, like the Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the Post; the large general-interest publications like Time, Newsweek, US News & World Report, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker; and a handful of ideological publications like the New Republic, The Nation, and National Review. Today, though, a much broader array of political publications, from the far left to the far right, collectively draw millions of readers across America every day.
As much as the reach of political writing as a medium has expanded, however, dedicated readers of online outlets do not make up a dominant share of the public. According to the Pew Research Center, 45 percent of Americans still get most of their political news from television, while just 25 percent get most of their news from online news sites—a category that includes the highly trafficked websites of the major TV networks. (Only 3 percent of Americans report that they get most of their political news in print.) As for the 18 percent of Americans who report getting most of their political news from social media, that can’t be fully accounted for by the online press—our pieces share space in news feeds with television content, viral misinformation, and armchair punditry from ordinary people who have come to believe, rightly, that they can bloviate about campaigns and political happenings about as well as most pundits.
We political writers are fond of telling ourselves that our readers matter more than most—they often include policymakers, base voters, and political activists uniquely placed to effect political change. But how reliably has that really made a difference? Day in and day out, readers from the center to the left are offered the same arguments about the state of the Republican Party and what Democrats ought to be doing, without much discernible impact. Many journalists in my particular corner of the political landscape have persistently high hopes for what progressive writing can do, and those hopes are grounded in some real accomplishments. It’s probably fair to assume that bold and strident left-wing punditry has intertwined with other factors—including on-the-ground work by activists and organizers and the socioeconomic realities facing key Democratic constituencies—to bring about some of the policy and electoral victories progressives have seen in recent years on issues such as criminal justice reform and drug policy, particularly at the state and local levels.
But at the federal level, where most of our energy and attention is spent, national political commentators have succeeded mostly in encouraging an impressive share of Democratic political elites, activists, and policy professionals to engage with important policy ideas— Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, the addition of new states, the expansion of the Supreme Court, and so on—that are unlikely to pass Congress. And the successes progressives have seen so far during the Biden administration—including the size and scope of the recovery and infrastructure packages, a new commitment to aggressive antitrust enforcement, and other policy pushes—can probably be credited less to posts and tweets than to the work of progressive policy researchers, academics, and advocacy groups, which policymakers can access directly, without journalists and their explainers as intermediaries.
It’s not clear, either, how much independent influence writers even have on the typical reader. Most people who read Jacobin or Vox or The Atlantic or The Federalist do so because they already share the ideologies and political sensibilities of those publications, to the point that they might agree with their articles before they’ve even read them. Anxiety about what that dynamic might be doing to our body politic has itself built up a prodigious subgenre of political writing. It’s true that the health of a democracy depends upon the state of its journalism. But the relationship also works the other way: the state of journalism depends upon the health of democracy, and not just in the sense that journalists depend on press freedom. Democracy gives journalism purpose; the journalist brings information and arguments to the public, and the informed public acts, or makes its preferences known to those in a position to act. But if our sclerotic political institutions are less responsive to broad public opinion than to the imperatives of major corporations and the wealthy—and if, as the political-science and social-psychology literature tells us, public opinion isn’t reliably responsive to argument and new information to begin with—what are the would-be shapers of public opinion to do? Even the act of making an argument becomes problematic. In implying, falsely, that the average reader’s opinion necessarily matters in the grand scheme of things, the journalist’s fundamental obligation to the truth is violated.
Of course, there was never a time when the world could be expected to move at the stroke of a hack’s pen. But we’re living in a moment at which the basic premises justifying conventional engagement with national politics no longer seem plausible, and our structural stasis has been belied by the unprecedented volume and intensity of our punditry. Certainly, the internet has had some positive effects on the industry and helped diversify it with more writers from under-represented backgrounds. But that only makes it all the more surprising that online conversations feel as homogeneous and repetitive as they do. The tonal and stylistic differences between writers and publications are eroding; the dynamics of the internet have driven competing outlets to make similar judgments about what’s worth writing about and how. The morsels of rage and misery we offer might not have much political effect, but they do feed an online writing economy that rewards speed, quantity, and deference to algorithms designed for the profit of three or four tech companies—an economy that offers few incentives to generate writing that lingers in the mind longer than half a day or half an hour. Exploratory writing—ruminative, tentative—is simply a riskier bet than tidy, punchy, reductive, and nut-graph-ready arguments destined to be skimmed by a predictable subset of a subset of the public before disappearing into the Web’s ever-decaying memory. The whole system is one of the bleakest forms of entertainment imaginable.
But we can do better. Writers ought to be given the time, space, and opportunity to say not the first, second, or even third thing to come to mind, but maybe the fourth—a chance to write at an angle or with prose that challenges or surprises. If persuasive writing has any real independent power at all, we’ll likely find it in larger arguments with larger stakes: work from writers who break the rhythms of our most intractable debates by slowing down to gather context from historical material, scholarship, and, yes, reporting.
We should be encouraged by the work of online writers already traveling in this lane—including The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer and the New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie, to name just two—as well as by a key revelation of the newsletter wave: readers are willing to pay for writing that breaks the rules that obtain across most of online publishing. And while some of these readers subsidize rambling curmudgeons fixated on the same material as the rest of the Web, many others subscribe to writers who use their newsletters to deliver commentary with real style and personality, and to pursue interests that most outlets don’t consider worthy of sustained investment. That’s their loss. Ultimately, good writers will gravitate toward the platforms where they can do the work they find most meaningful. As it stands, most of the internet doesn’t have much to offer them.
TOP IMAGE: Illustration by Kevin Whipple