The Trump administration’s whirlwind of news cycles has had me thinking about the Feiler Faster Thesis. Named for Bruce Feiler but popularized by Mickey Kaus, the FFT posits that the acceleration of the news cycles softens the crush of the compression of actual news events and allows voters to get the information they need to make informed decisions.
What my Failer Faster Thesis presupposes is… maybe it doesn’t?
In fairness, Kaus himself allowed for this possibility: “Of course, voters may not entirely be keeping pace with Trends 1 and 2. Are they really as well-informed and conscientious as before–swooning, having second thoughts, rebelling, coming ‘back home,’ and so forth, just as they used to, only more rapidly? Can you keep dividing time into smaller and smaller bits without bumping up against the limitations of the human brain?”
In one sense, there is a case to be made that humans living in the internet age have increased their ability to process information, particularly visual information. It’s a trend that has been observable for decades before the internet, in the decreasing length of television soundbites, the popularity of the original, jump-cut laden MTV, etc.
In another sense, Kaus referred to James Gleick’s book Faster, which suggests at points that what we lose in an accelerated society is the chance to reflect, analyze, and render considered judgments. And this theme has continued to resonate as recently as Andrew Sullivan‘s much-discussed column/essay on what he’d later call “distraction sickness.” Peggy Noonan explored a related idea in “The Politics of The Shallows.”
To be sure, it’s easy to look around any public space and see people — especially younger people — lost in their smartphones.
But Kaus and Sullivan and Noonan are discussing the phenomenon in relation to a very particular class of people, those obsessed with political news. Social media, particularly Twitter, rewards us with an endless stream of news nuggets like lab rats pressing the bar for their reward pellets. Indeed, odds are it deposited you here. As glad as I am of that, let’s be a little self-aware.
What we lab rats forget is that vast swaths of the general public do not care nearly so much about politics and would consider plugging into Twitter like we do as the equivalent of being a lab rat that gets an electrical shock for pressing the bar.
These people are getting up, maybe catching some news headlines on TV or the radio, managing the kids (if any), going to work, coming home, having a meal, perhaps spending some family time, watching some non-news on TV, and turning in for the night.
To these people, the micro-cycles of the news are largely the trees falling in the forest, well out of earshot, or perhaps explained by some late night show joke (though many may have given up on these shows as too political). To these people, politicians should be interested in them and their lives, not the other way around. Crazy, right?
Ironically, this may be part of why America is increasingly partisan. People who don’t want to obsess over the political news of the day may tend to rely more on political party identification as a quick signifier as to what they ought to think about the issues of the day. I don’t even mean that in a (completely) harsh way; that is supposed to be one of the functions of political parties.
Perhaps what we are seeing more these days is less a disconnect between “globalists” and “populists” than a disconnect between the class of political obsessives and everyone else. And that the people who are historically “influencers” on politics among their family and friends are those most at risk of the sickness, of the diminished judgment. We become more likely to shout, to go ALLCAPS, to marinate in conspiracy theories and palace intrigue, while more normal people begin to suspect our sanity, pat themselves on the back for not caring about politics, and drift into whatever positions party leadership takes.
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