Political Writers Should Not Buy the Coercion That We’re All Partisan

“Quibble Stick,” a rough wooden object next to a stick with a wire in a rough circle attached. Art by Richard Knight.
“Quibble Stick,” a rough wooden object next to a stick with a wire in a rough circle attached. Art by Richard Knight.
“Quibble Stick,” by Richard Knight. Used by permission of the artist.

I’ve been pulled late in life, by recent events, to return to journalism, to do my best to ferret out facts, read about historical events from differing points of view, and double check quotes in testing a thesis.

Like scientific study, it is a self-correcting enterprise: you go where the facts take you.

The work has been engaging. I’ve learned more about things I knew only a little about, and I’ve learned many things I didn’t know a thing about. Most illuminating, I’ve learned that I have had the wrong idea about some events I thought I knew well.

A handful of my opinion pieces have been published. I’m proud of the work I’ve done so far, and I’ve received some useful feedback.

I’m not writing for the comments — “that way madness lies.” But it’s nice to get some notes from friends, to better understand what elements of a piece had an impact on them, to learn from what came through, what was relatively lucid in the writing.

One of the most frequent comments has been along the lines of “This is great stuff, but no one who needs to read this will read it.”

It’s an interesting comment. The implication is that because of partisan differences the writing is rather pointless. In my case that likely would mean your writing is being read by “blue-state” eyes only, when you really need to reach “red-state” readers.

Now, I know that my friends would not go so far as to say that the writing is useless, but this you-are-preaching-to-the-choir attitude — even with straight news stories — is endemic and no doubt exerts at least a small psychological toll on journalists, fact checkers, researchers, and other writers. In a time when a sizable portion of the population apparently lives comfortably in an alternative reality offered up by the Limbaugh-Fox-OAN Triad of Disinformation, and the like, the impetus of getting the truth forward (meaning simply the best understood facts on the street, subject to amendment when more information has been gathered) has been dampened, to say the least.

It may seem a small thing to discuss when journalists in many parts of the world risk their careers and even their lives to bring you the news, but we do live in a country where the current occupant of the White House calls the free press “the enemy of the people,” and all writers understand the implications of that. (You might ask journalist Katy Tur, who had to be escorted by members of the Secret Service for her safety out of a Trump campaign event in 2016, when he verbally derided her in front of a seething crowd of supporters.)

It should go without saying that writing honestly, as best you can, is decidedly not a waste of time. There are still people out there with open minds — and many of them are new voters. We are actively and energetically sold the story that all voters are entrenched in their views, but how true is that, really?

My friends forget that I also write poetry, so it’s not like I’m used to being read at all. No matter the form, one writes to get close to the fire of truth. With poetry, one dances around the flames; with journalism, one may very well have to step into the flames and come out holding a burning log — and then explain to an editor why this log (still in hand, now smoldering) matters.

But this response by readers is a subtle form of coercion and represents precisely the despair propagandists want you to feel. Our wannabe-dictator and propagandist-in-chief purposely overwhelms the news cycle with his endless toddler-level antics — in the face of a deadly pandemic, in the face of Black Americans protesting for justice, in the face of clear dire evidence of climate change — and people are justifiably exhausted by it.

But political writers cannot allow themselves to be exhausted by it. (I have to admit that I found “Writing About Politics Sucks” by Drew Magary very funny.) At the beginning of the “American carnage” of the Trump administration, many people said that resisting would not be a sprint, it would be a marathon. It has turned out to be an Iron Man/Woman–level marathon through endless outrages, during which the president mostly played golf. We didn’t even get a T-shirt.

Trump’s appalling behavior during the first debate was no surprise; it was just an especially dark slosh from his usual bucket of swill — to bluster, to bully, to talk over, to change the subject, to insult, to distract from his endless failings (one of which is to prepare for a debate). Was his lack of empathy or his appeals to his racist followers (the comment about Pocahontas and the appeal to so-called Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by”) really newsworthy at this point? I suppose so, but we already know who he is.

As Joe Biden said during the debate, deftly quoting Trump: “‘It is what it is’ because you are who you are.” Biden may have been referring to Trump’s intentionally mismanaged federal response to the pandemic that has is on pace to result in more than 370,000 U.S. deaths by the end of the year, but the statement stands for everything about Trumpism and his enablers in Congress and, yes, his supporters.

In this president’s criminal organization (at this writing, eight top advisors have been charged or convicted of crimes, the latest being Steve Bannon, who is charged with defrauding supporters of Trump’s wall) the “Big Lie” is at work “bigly” every day, multiple times a day, moment to moment — in order to overwhelm the ability of the press to respond, to divert attention from massive failures, and to stoke the fears of the base. Trump’s enablers in Congress and partners in the media repeat his lies and spin out his false narratives and conspiracies so they take up all the available space basic facts and the truth need to inhabit in a democracy.

As political scientist Greg Weiner put it in “The Towering Lies of President Trump,” which recently appeared in the New York Times, Trump follows the “effectual truth” described by Machiavelli: “

Claims that are true, he wrote in The Prince, are not because they correspond to objective reality but because they are politically useful.

(It makes me wonder what a campaign banner my wife and I recently saw in a rural part of our state could possibly mean: Trump 2020: No More Bullshit. Really? Could it mean “no more than usual”? A comma would render it “No, More Bullshit.” I expect they left out the comma, then.)

And now, ever more darkly and clearly, the ceaseless lies are being peppered with threats worthy of a mob family. (And when you read “peppered” you rightly thought of pepper gas, yes?)

Down in the polls, as he was in 2016, Trump has again preemptively questioned, with no basis, the legitimacy of the voting process. And he has repeatedly declared that he might not honor the results. And now that this authoritarian tactic of election day violence has been fully endorsed by the likes of Fox friends Tucker Carlson, Jeanine Pirro, and Laura Ingraham, convicted felon Roger Stone, and every Republican member of Congress who has not spoken out against it, is there any question now that he will not?

It might be instructive in future — if we have a future as a country — to remember that while Democrats support a national holiday on election day, Republicans support intimidation and violence on election day.

In the face of such towering lies, such shameless bullying, brain-stunted bravado, and hate-filled ruthlessness — the encouragement of violence against voters, the sham investigation into the Bidens — it is of course even more necessary than ever to stand up and be counted — as a scientist, as a journalist, and, particularly, as a voter.

Scientists and journalists in the United States have something else in common these days: having to deal with a president who thinks he knows everything and is, therefore, not listening.

So, the lies and obfuscations and direct threats must be countered by anyone and everyone who can peck at a keyboard, by anyone who is able to march in peaceful protests, by everyone who can get their ballot in early or vote on the day. And readers of news and of opinion pieces should discuss and argue differing viewpoints, but they should think better than question whether a piece (if they think it at all worthy) should have been written simply because some others will never read it. That’s where they want us to be.

As historian Heather Cox Richardson put it in a recent “Letters from an American”:

Lots of people are tired right now. Indeed, the whole point of the constant stream of chaos coming from the administration is to exhaust us to the point we will stop caring what Trump and his supporters do.

But have you noticed that reporters are increasingly calling out the administration’s lies, and people are increasingly articulating what they want the world to look like, rather than what we are currently enduring? Famously, “in the midst of chaos there is also opportunity.”

Am I preaching to the choir here? Yes, for the most part, though I think there are people of good faith out there who will listen, who want to read many viewpoints, and young people who may be just beginning to consider politics and who are earnestly at work discovering their own worldview. In good faith, have begun to read columns from conservative writers, a number of whom I’ve come to admire. They are fact based and honest about how dire our situation is right now.

In his essay “Why I Write,” published in 1946, George Orwell noted that two main motivations of writers — after “sheer egoism” and “aesthetic enthusiasm” — are an “historical impulse” (“Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity”) and a political desire to influence humanity to move society in a certain direction.

Writers understand that when someone is setting himself up as an autocrat, everything is at stake, including writing. In response, writers (including me) are flooding publications with essays, much in the same way birds begin calling out danger, “mobbing,” when a predator appears. Birds of differing species will often come to assist to chase the predator off.

In our times, you might think of, say, the brilliant teams writing for The Lincoln Project and for The Bulwark and individual “non-practicing Republicans” like Nicolle Wallace working alongside moderate and progressive journalists and publications to sound the alarm for our democracy in the time of Trump.

Is it worth the energy and the labor of writing in support of maintaining the Republic even if many who need to read it will never read it? As every journalist knows, it is essential to not only the endeavor itself but to keep their own minds and souls intact.

Written by

Kirk Swearingen is a poet and an independent journalist. His work has appeared in Salon and The American Journal of Poetry.

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