In This Episode
Inflation is down, Trump is on the run, Democrats are on the march. And out of the primordial stew of all this good news, Dark Brandon has risen—a new, viral depiction of Joe Biden as a relentless, remorseless political warrior who crushes his enemies and easily overcomes obstacles in his way. On the one hand, Dark Brandon is a fun, satisfying retort to years of unanswered right-wing attacks on the president as a confused, failing old oaf. But on the other, it’s a real-time demonstration of the irrational ways conventional wisdom forms, changes, and spreads—and of how both good and bad actors can use social knowledge (that is: memes) to shape the political world we all inhabit together. Social networks and political psychology expert Jaime Settle joins Brian to dissect whether public opinion shapes memes, or memes shape public opinion.
Brian Beutler: Hello and welcome to Positively Dreadful with me, your host, Brian Beutler. Okay, so imagine this. Imagine you’re exchanging text messages with a friend. Doesn’t really matter what it’s about, but it’s probably about some unsolved problem in the world or in your life. And she sends you a two cell cartoon of a dog drinking coffee in a room that’s on fire. And the speech bubble says, as if I even have to fill in the blank for you. The speech bubble says, This is fine. I don’t think it’s crazy to assume most of the people who listen to this will call up the mental image of that cartoon before they even hear the full description. For many of us, particularly liberal people, the This is Fine Dog has been the defining meme of the past several years, followed very closely by the LOL Nothing Matters meme, both of which became very zeitgeisty in the Trump era. But what do these memes actually mean? We use them almost like second nature now, right? Few of us remember when we first happened upon them. Most of us know how and when to deploy them without much conscious thought. But what ideas are they actually getting at? On the face of it. The main ideas are that things are not quite right. They’re not getting fixed. Attempting to fix them is probably futile. I think the ubiquity of both of these references suggests a widespread sense that this describes our collective condition in some way. The added layer of humor on top of it suggests that the best way to reconcile ourselves to that state of affairs is with the sense of ironic detachment. And for what it’s worth, I think survey data over the years has been consistent with the idea that this is or was a sincerely held point of view. It’s reflected in pessimistic assessments of the direction of the country and negative views of various civic institutions. I think you can see it in Joe Biden’s atrociously poor polling among young voters. When you look at the partisan breakdown of the right track, wrong track question and polling data, it’s almost darkly amusing to watch it flip predictably when elections sweep the incumbent party out of power. But as recently as early July, even most Democrats thought things were headed in the wrong direction. But that is no longer the case. In the last month or month and a half, Democrats and independents have become less gloomy. A majority of Democrats now actually have a positive outlook about the country’s direction. Biden’s approval numbers, while still pretty bad, are on the upswing. And as we discussed last week, I think that has a lot to do with Democrats kind of getting it together politically to push back against the Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade to pass the Inflation Reduction Act to turn up the dial on Trump accountability. It also doesn’t hurt that gas prices are down. Prices generally have stopped rising. And out of the primordial stew of all this good news, a new meme has emerged. If you haven’t heard of Dark Brandon yet, please do Google it. There been a couple of decent explainers written on its origins and what it means, but basically it’s a counterpoint to the prior prevailing wisdom, which is that Biden was old, feeble, and that his presidency was basically a flop. With things on the upswing for Democrats. That idea has transmuted into a new kind of ironic one, where Biden is a relentless, remorseless political warrior who crushes his enemies and easily overcomes obstacles in his way. Okay, but is that idea correct? As much as I enjoy it, I think the answer is definitely not, right? People’s feelings about Biden may have changed, but fundamentally it’s the same Joe Biden. He did not bring the price of gasoline down or enact the IRA on his own, let alone by wielding laser beams through his eyeballs. Still. I think it’s closer to the mark than the previous CW. For months, Biden struggled under an unending avalanche of bad news and crises. And through that period, surveys suggested people held plainly incorrect ideas like that the country was in a recession, even with unemployment at historic lows and falling. And here I finally get to my point. What is my point? These ideas, right or wrong, spread online from person to person and among groups. That’s just the definition of a meme. But when they take hold, they can be very sticky. Even when the ideas themselves are questionable or empirically wrong, they become something like social knowledge, things we know or take for granted or expected to echo and care about because our peers keep talking about them and we keep hearing them on television. And for liberals, I think this phenomenon creates a dilemma or some cognitive dissonance because it’s only at best loosely attached to empirical reality. We happen to live in a historical moment where injecting false ideas into public consciousness has never been easier. If this is a big part of how people form their political views in modern times, then it’s ripe for mischief. And that conflicts with a widely held belief or faith among liberals that good policy is good politics, that the truth will out. If we can’t count on those things happening, it raises the question of whether there was ever any basis to believe them in the first place or whether they were just false memes themselves. So that’s the question. What role does social knowledge, the things we think we know because our sources of information keep bombarding us with them. What role does that play in shaping public opinion and thus the political world we all share? I’m lucky because my guest this week researches more or less this very question. Her name is Jaime Settle. She’s a professor of government at the College of William and Mary. She wrote a book a few years back called Frenemies, which is about how Facebook in particular has contributed to polarization and not just the sorting of left from right, but our growing collective sense that our political opposites are more radical and noxious than they are in reality. And I’m hoping she’ll be able to help us tease out whether some things do matter. So, Jaime Settle, welcome to Positively Dreadful.
Jaime Settle: Thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Brian Beutler: Okay, so here are a couple of hypotheses and hopefully you can tell me if you think that they’re valid. All right. First one public opinion is to some extent the output of millions of individuals assessing their material realities and the realities they see around them and forming independent judgment through the application of reason. That’s one hypothesis. The second one is public opinion is to some extent, a social construct that grows out of the viral information people gather from media and personal relationships. Do both of those sound plausible?
Jaime Settle: They both sound plausible. And I think that’s actually a question that political scientists have been trying to get at for decades. I think both hypotheses probably would find some merit among different kinds of people at different points in time and in different media ecosystems. And and likely that that over time, we’ve probably seen a bit more of a shift towards this idea of picking up social cues and picking up more and more information around us that that might play into the opinions that we form.
Brian Beutler: So that was the next question I was going to have is, can they both be true? And if so, which which process does the lion’s share of the work? Right, this sort of enlightenment-y one where we’re all rational actors with reasonably good information, or the one where we’re social creatures and we’re just aping the interpretations of reality we pick up from our friend the TV or the endless scroll of social media.
Jaime Settle: So I think that political scientists have landed probably closer to the second, though they’re not entirely in that camp. We’ve known for a long time that that most people just don’t care about politics that much. Right. They’re not thinking about politics in their day to day lives. They’re not reading all that much news. They’re not trying that hard to stay informed. They’re really just relying on a handful of sources or the people around them who they know pay a lot of attention. And so when you you know, when you think about people like that who aren’t thinking about politics, they get a call from a pollster or they go online and are filling out a survey. We know what can we imagine about where the information in their head is is coming from. And we’ve known for a long time that people people change their minds, right, what they tell someone on a public opinion survey, as is only a mire of what it is that they might actually believe and that they might hold the kind of conflicting considerations. And whatever they report to the pollster is a reflection of what’s most salient in their mind at a given point in time. Now, I think what’s changed over time is that people really are encountering a lot more political information in their day to day lives and a lot more of our day to day lives have become politicized and so that it’s harder and harder to escape getting that political information. And that can have impacts on what’s most salient in people’s minds and whether or not they really are forming more independent judgments versus just kind of reflecting back the latest information that they’ve heard.
Brian Beutler: You had this line in your book about how Martin Luther and Thomas Paine went viral. Like, we didn’t have computers back then, obviously, but the process by which their works became widely known was very similar in a non technological environment or non computer age environment to how things become sort of common knowledge now. If there’s a debate among experts about, to what extent ambient reality affects how people view the world versus the social cues they pick up from things that go viral. Are there canonical examples of of either, right? Like, you know, Salem witch trials just leaps to mind but where either you have like a mass hysteria event where people just based on wrong interpretations of reality act in mass to do something great or something horrible. Versus one where like hyper reason took over and and, you know, collectively we all came to the right conclusion through, you know, enlightened process processes.
Jaime Settle: That’s a great question. And I don’t know that I have a clear example, but I do think thinking about the economy is a really interesting way to approach what you’re getting at, which is that there are objective indicators of the economy, right? We have techniques for systematically evaluating at the macro level what’s going on. So we feel confident in being able to to say certain things about that objective economic reality. But yet people experience the economy in totally different ways, right? They experience the economy through their own lens, their own purchasing behavior, the stories and anecdotes that they’re hearing from people around them. And who are we to say which of those two realities are more real? Right. Which what sort of information should we prioritize? Should we really expect people to be factoring in these national level statistics about the declining price of gas or the low unemployment rate? If people around them are really suffering and having a hard time getting a good paying job or are still not able to afford all the groceries that they would like to get. And so I think it’s I’m not sure we should be in a position of judging whether one approach is or is better than the other. I think I think, you know, ideally, we would try to have a balance of both, right. That people are not rooting all of their opinions solely on what they personally have experienced, but neither are they divorcing themselves from the reality that they’ve observed and just rely on indicators telling them that things are going better or worse than they have in the past.
Brian Beutler: I’m so glad you brought up the like the empirical state of the economy is a good way to sort of test to what extent people’s views reflect reality versus they reflect what they hear on the radio or whatever. I mean, I already mentioned, right, like most people think that we’re in a recession and have since, you know, going back months when it just has not been the case. Right. That’s that’s a piece of social knowledge. It’s widely held. That’s false. And it came from somewhere. And, you know, you could you could imagine that people just think, oh, you know, I keep hearing bad news about the economy. That means recession. So when a pollster asks me, I’ll say, I think we’re in a recession. Or it could be that people are just actually picking up intentionally false information from Facebook or whatever else. And that phenomenon that we’re that we’re witnessing right now stands in contrast to how I at least I thought of how the economy affected political perception as recently as a decade ago. I remember I remember covering the Obama administration in the 2012 election. And because President Obama had taken over at the natter of the Great Recession and then he passed the Recovery Act, there was some consensus, I think, mostly uncontested in the political establishment that he owned the economy, irrespective of how bad it was when he took over and how hard it is for economies to recover from financial crises. And so, you know, we’re approaching the election and the economy is still not great. And so we’d all kind of wait with bated breath for the monthly jobs reports that the Department of Labor puts out. And of course, like Obama supporters, wanted the report to be good, I think for both good reason, they want they want the economy to be good because it’s better for people and also because they they wanted it to help their party. Republicans at the time were sort of palpably rooting for bad news. And I remember that what I cared about and I know because I would write it into my stories explicitly, is that is that the headline job growth, whether it was high or low, was sort of less important for news cycle reasons than if, you know, the economy was generally improving. People would experience it in their daily lives. And that would be a number of channels sort of redound to Obama’s benefit. And I believe that because I learned it from political scientists. Right. Like they have this idea that economic growth rates in quarters before the election correlate with better incumbent performance. And, you know, in a way, I think you could say that the 2012 election bore that out because Obama won reelection. But we’re ten years on now, and I haven’t read any new scholarship to say that that was wrong or that it’s no longer true. But I kind of don’t believe it anymore, right? [laugh] Like. It seems today that what’s more important is whether political actors with concerted effort can make people care about this or that aspect of the economy that isn’t ideal. And like with a mix of echo chamber effects and maybe Orwellian lying, you can make whole populations assume that a pretty good economy is bad or that a bad economy is actually okay. And. And that’ll shake out in the politics, irrespective of what the numbers from the government say.
Jaime Settle: You know, I think you’re picking up on interesting dynamics here. We have known for decades that there is a rough relationship between how the economy’s doing before an election and incumbent performance. But we’ve also known for decades that people filter their perceptions of the economy through a partisan lens. And that was happening even before polarization really got up and running. We’ve now had decades of an extremely polarized environment, and I think partially what’s happening is that the people’s evaluations are becoming more colored by their partisan views, and people are also detaching their evaluations of the economy from their vote choice to a certain degree, because there’s less and less that would make them deviate from connecting their partisan identity to their choice in the ballot box. I mean, you can see this with, you know, Democrats and Biden. There are a lot of Democrats who say in a poll that they don’t want Biden to be the candidate in 2024. But at the end of the day, if Biden is the candidate, they’re going to vote for Biden. Right.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Jaime Settle: And so, the sense that, you know, if if your party’s in power right, you kind of no matter how badly things are going, you’re really inclined to to, you’re just predisposed to like be to support them that no matter what you’re thinking of the economy, it’s got to be pretty bad to change all the other factors that would incline you to be voting for the candidates of your party.
Brian Beutler: Right. So I mentioned Dark Brandon in my wind up, and I want to get back to that in a minute, but I really started thinking about doing an episode on this before we even launch the show. And I wanted it to focus mostly on how badly Biden polls with young adults. It’s like way worse than all the other age cohorts. It’s he pulls worse with young people than Trump did in most surveys that I’ve read, which is crazy because I obviously don’t think that these young people are suddenly becoming very right wing, but they just will not tell a pollster that they like Biden. And, you know, at the same time, if you ask young people where they get their news, they’re mostly not getting it from MSNBC or FOX or The New York Times. They’re getting it from social media and increasingly from TikTok. [laugh] And if you look at the political information on TikTok, at any point in the past year, it was just an avalanche of anti Biden mockery. Right. And and so you’ll hear political strategists say, you know, you can attribute these numbers to inflation. Or maybe Biden didn’t follow through on his promise to forgive student loans. And it’s not that I don’t think that those things matter at all or that they’re irrelevant to the question of why young people dislike Biden. I just wonder, are people in that age cohort telling pollsters they disapprove of Biden because they stop and assess that my prices are higher and my student loan debt hasn’t been discharged, and then just adding up these pros and cons and coming to some sort of rational assessment or are they just in a social [?] where Biden doing a bad job is just something everyone knows. And so that’s what they say.
Jaime Settle: Well, one thing to to start with is that historically, at least young people are the least engaged in politics. Right. They’re least likely to turn out to vote, especially in the off cycle or midterm elections. They report that they don’t pay as much attention to news as as older cohorts do. And so when you need to contextualize any of our statements about younger people based on what we know about how much they’re actually connected to or engaging within the political system. I think the second point I’d make is, you know, think about what it has been like to come of age politically as someone in Gen Z. Right. And think about what you what do you accept as normal, what you think of as what the country’s doing well and what the country’s not doing well. There’s a lot of you know, I worry it tends towards cynicism, but maybe it could be a healthy skepticism, right, about the ability of the government to tackle big problems. Right. Even if you lean left and think that there’s a role for a strong federal government in shaping the direction our country goes. What examples do you have of the country effectively doing that? Right. And I think people in that generation, it’s harder and harder to have observed that with your own eyes, as opposed to just hearing stories about the government doing great things in the past. And I think the third thing is just what the cultural new is for each generation, right? And I think Gen Z, even more so than other generations because of the technology they were raised with, has this kind of sarcastic, humor oriented way of communicating and that that’s just the way they’re used to to exchanging information. And so do I think that that there are some members of Gen Z who are thinking, as you said, rationally through what their student loan situation looks like or how inflation might be affecting the choices that they make day in and day out? Possibly, yeah, just like older generations. But I think it may also be more of a distinction between how they talk amongst each other and then the choices that they actually make when they’re faced with what is almost always just a dichotomous choice at the ballot box. Right. You know, we don’t we don’t give people many options to express their opinions on the issues that matter most to them. We give them an up or down choice on which party or which incumbent to pick.
Brian Beutler: I’m glad you mentioned the thing about like they get their information online. There’s a sort of sarcastic edge to the political culture they inhabit because it reminds me of specifically reminds me of the John Fetterman campaign. I mean, on the one hand, I think if you look at everything he has put out, he’s running a very substantive, issue oriented campaign. He’s got like a lot of conventional and also fairly progressive ideas about policy, and he’s not really shy about advocating for them. But the the real centerpiece of his campaign is just making an absolute mockery of his opponent online. And, you know, I think that he’s blessed to have an opponent who is easy to mock, but in a in what seems to be an otherwise very competitive election cycle, you know, Fetterman is is beating Dr. Oz by like 19 points or something crazy more than the other statewide race in Pennsylvania, more than sort of purple state race, swing state races that are also happening this cycle. And it just strikes me that it’s not because the people who say they prefer Fetterman to Oz are looking at the detail rich policy prescriptions he has on his website or anything else. It’s that they they gel with how he is trying to beat his opponent who they don’t like. And and it it’s working better than it would be if he was sort of trying to run a more buttoned up conventional campaign.
Jaime Settle: Yeah, in some ways it almost feels like there are two campaigns going on, right? There’s the campaign that is driven by these very strategic choices about how to use social media in ways that will resonate with your supporters. And then there’s a more traditional approach where you actually outline what you intend to do and highlight the weaknesses, the policy oriented weaknesses of your opponent. I think one thing that’s really easy for political scientists and political pundits and people who care about politics deeply is to remember that most people aren’t following all of the details and nuances of these races in the ways that we are. And so, you know, this this matters because we’re also in an era where the polling industry is really struggling to figure out how to ensure that the people that they’re talking to are widely representative, as opposed to just the people who care enough about politics to to talk with someone about it. Right. Or to pick up the phone or to fill out that online survey. And so I think one concern I see with these these campaigns that are often very plugged in to the way that things function in the online environment is that they may really be resonating with people who spend a lot of time online, but their electorate does not necessarily uniformly spend that much time online. Right, and so you want to make sure that when you’re evaluating these estimates of support, that this is not just a reflection of the fact that that people who are participating in polls at this point are more likely to care and be paying attention to these sorts of details in politics.
Brian Beutler: Do you have a sense or does the field have a sort of collective sense about whether there’s any symmetry between the parties vis-à-vis how much to focus on material conditions following polls and proposing ideas that are popular, making those the basis of a campaign versus memes for lack of a better word. Just talking points and trying to, through sheer repetition, make elections, turn on different questions than you would, you know, sort of traditionally expect voters to care about.
Jaime Settle: I think we can, you know, make some generalizations about the way the parties have behaved. But even though our parties have become very nationalized, we often are still dealing with with, you know, 50 state parties on each side. So there’s a lot of variation in terms of how campaigns can be run across the country. You know, I think generally speaking, we tend to think that Democrats try to be focusing on issues that they think should be mattering to people that that reflect what people say they care about, you know, the cost of prescription drugs or health care issues in general, and that Republicans maybe have have appealed to the issues that that resonate more based on identity or kind of culture. And I think there’s a classic disjoint in sort of what people say they care about and what they they say they they want versus what they actually engage with. Right. If you look at this example for the kinds of news people say they want. Right. People. People don’t like negativity. Right. They don’t like they say that they want high quality information. They prefer more positive campaign ads. They want, you know, campaigns to be run above the fray. But then when you look at engagement metrics and what they’re actually paying attention to they to pay attention to lower quality information and negative ads. So that’s your question about the parties. You know, I think there’s been some conventional wisdom that in the past few years, Republicans tend to be focusing on issues that activate their bases, perception of threat, or that the change in our country as opposed to the bread and butter issues that would actually make their voters lives better. But that’s a really hard generalization to make, given the vastly different, you know, tenor of a presidential versus a Senate versus a House versus a local campaign.
Brian Beutler: Well, it matches my sort of nonscientific sense of things as a practitioner in the media. Like, for instance, just last week, because it’s my job and I kind of have to I was watching cable news while the House was voting to pass the Inflation Reduction Act. And whichever program was on had Sean Patrick Maloney, who’s who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on as a guest. And they had the temerity to ask him about the FBI raid at Mar-a-Lago. Right. And, you know, I think instinctually you and I and most people listening would think this is a great gift for Democrats like you. This is a there’s a softball right across the plate. He can knock it out of the park. He can tie the whole opposition to the president being under investigation for stealing classified information its a crazy story. And what he did was he scolded the hosts of the show for sort of having the temerity to ask about this distraction when the House was in the midst of passing this bill that will lower prescription drug prices and help people with their kitchen table issues. So on the one hand, I think that’s a little nuts, but that’s like, I think reflective. He you know, he sort of embodies the strategic approach the party is trying to take. And he would prefer to talk about this legislation than to talk about the leading the leader of the opposition being a criminal. I think separately, you’re much likelier to see Republican operatives passing around video of that selectively edited to make Biden seem confused than to talk about whatever their plan to stop inflation is and to get angry at the media if they don’t cover inflation being high or Biden seeming old or whatever. And I see this basic contrast almost day in, day out, covering national politics. And for the Republicans at least, I can’t say that I blame them, because if you look back at recent elections, you find, for instance, like in 2014, if you look at the generic ballot for that year’s midterms, it was basically even all the way through October when Republicans started this sort of propaganda blitz about Ebola and terrorists smuggling Ebola into the country across the southern border. And Donald Trump, who was then a talking head on Fox, was like a leading agitator for this idea. And suddenly the preference for Republicans on the generic ballot spiked and they won that election in a landslide. And then two years later, just through dint of repetition, they turned the election into a referendum to a large extent, on Hillary Clinton’s email server, which I think is objectively not that important. But Republicans were able to make people feel as if it were important and it won the election for them. And, you know, they’re not getting regular feedback from the electorate that their obsession with tribal issues or with flooding the zone with shit or memetic warfare, whatever they call it. They’re not being punished for it. You know, they’re still winning at least half of all elections and doing so on the basis of a of an agenda or a platform that’s, you know, empirically less popular than the one Democrats run on. So if that’s how things go, why not dial down the hard work of fixing America’s problems and dial up agitprop about caravans or the deep state or whatever else. When I, on one hand, I say I don’t blame them for doing that. On the other hand, I feel like it’s a bit of a troubling phenomenon.
Jaime Settle: Well, I think what I hear kind of buried implicitly in what you just said, is that people should be voting for candidates who support policies that will make their lives better. And you have a set idea of, you know what, what are those policies are going to make people’s lives better. Well, you know, I think that policies improving your life are one way that people might understand how to make their lives better. But there’s a whole other set of issues that are relatively detached from specific policies that that if you’re concerned that, you know, the country doesn’t look the way you think it should. Right. Or that we’re moving in the wrong direction on kind of an existential issue, not just on the latest economic issues. You know, you might not be looking for particular policies to make things better. What you might be looking for is the sense that your politicians think like you do and understand the world through the same lens that you do. And if you have particular attitudes that are shaped by your attitudes on race or your attitudes on gender or whatever it may be, it’s it’s not a particular set of policies that are going to excite you. And so it’s you know, I think that we have to question the assumptions we make about what we think voters think about when they want their lives to be better and what the parties are promising to them.
Brian Beutler: So I it’s not exactly that I wish things were a certain way the way Sean Patrick Maloney wishes they were, where voters look at two agendas two two policy platforms and pick the one that most closely resembles their personal preferences or their kitchen table concerns or whatever else. I think it’s more like I would like to believe that irrespective of where voters fall on policy questions, that there’s certain, like certain factual realities about the people who they are given the choice to vote for that should like in a decent society in a way matter and become evident to them. Right. That if if you have one party that’s, you know, running on fairly conventional set of ideas and where there are mechanisms of accountability within the party that prevent it from engaging in too much lying or corruption. And then on the other hand, you have a party that has sort of embraced Orwellian lying and is sort of trying to win elections by mass deception, that there would be a political price to pay for Team B. And what I’ve noticed over the past decade or so is that at least the way the parties do politics today is there isn’t really a penalty. Or if there is a penalty, it’s not so severe that it costs a party with more bad actors in it. More elections.
Jaime Settle: Yeah, I think I think what you just said hit on something really, really important. So it’s this certainly is in part due to the changes in our media environment. Right. I mean, we’re able to see actors who don’t care as much about lowercase d democracy, you know, using our our contemporary media environment in ways to to persuade people that, you know, some of these norms and accepted bounds of behavior in a democratic society, maybe this shouldn’t matter as much as we would hope. But it’s hard to know kind of which came first. Right. So we’re I think in a moment where we’ve become increasingly aware that a large segment of the population isn’t as committed to lowercase d democracy as we might hope. Right. I mean, there’s a lot of really interesting polling and survey work, alarming showing that that people don’t support some of the key tenets of a liberal democracy as much as we would want. That hasn’t necessarily changed over time. Right. I mean, those same sentiments in historic polling are there. It’s just that we had elites and political parties who agreed to the rules of the road. Right. They kind of put these boundaries up on what was acceptable behavior within the political realm. And so even if the public had tendencies that might lead them to to drive off the democracy road, our parties and our elites kept us within those bounds. And you’re right, we’re seeing one party becoming less committed to playing by those rules and upholding some of those standards. And I do I think the political scientists right now are very alarmed about it. But our colleagues who study comparative politics and have looked at how democracy has become stronger or weaker across the world are not surprised when we put America in a more comparative context.
Brian Beutler: Yeah, I mean, follow up to that is is that dynamic that you talked about or that trend that you talked about, is it measurably worse? And to what extent is it the erosion of gatekeepers that used to sort of keep a boundary on what ideas and information were considered, you know, within the acceptable norm of discourse? To what extent is it just leaders being sort of fixed in old ways and not being able to adapt to new times?
Jaime Settle: So as a field, I would say the study of American politics is is just beginning to earnestly and systematically tackle this question about whether it’s getting worse and whether there are ways to quantifiably measure how much each side is engaging in this. I mean, one of the the hallmarks of democratic erosion is you often end up with a tit for tat situation, right, where one party may kind of start breaking down these norms but the other party faces a tough choice about how to respond to that. So I think we are beginning to find ways to quantify that. We are beginning to to think about the indicators that are signs of a weakening democracy and collect more data in the American context about how those are. And we all have a sense for what’s coming. Right? We know what’s coming, but we’re just now beginning to amass that body of evidence. And so I think we’ll have a lot more information in the next year or two as people begin to publish some of these studies that they have been looking at. You know, I think the it’s a hard problem when you think about it from the point of view of the leaks, because it’s such a small and right not to keep that on you here, right, but when we’re thinking about the systematic quantitative study, if you’re thinking about presidents, right. You’re really it’s hard to do rigorous analysis when you’re focusing on such small numbers, but individuals matter. Right. And and so I think that there have been changes in our elites and the rhetoric that they’re using. But it’s a lot of work to design studies and collect data to to demonstrate that pattern. But but we’re getting there as a field. Political scientists are always challenged and that we have to observe the world around us before we can start asking the right questions to collect the right data to study these. And we just need to be moving faster as a field to respond to these changes around us.
Brian Beutler: I’ve been trying to, as I was preparing for this, trying to assess for myself like what I thought. But is it the case that maybe because of Trump, maybe because of social media, maybe a mix of factors, politics has become more untethered from empirical reality or, you know, just sort of trying to capture the center as depicted in in polls and and more a function of of random viral ideas, or has it kind of always been that way and that in that any sense I had from before the Trump era, that things were more rooted and graspable or empirical or whatever? Was it was maybe an illusion, right? Like I going back to 2012, I think you can look at you can tell one story about 2012 where you have a talented incumbent politician in a bad economic environment, and he’s governing just well enough to make voters mobilize rationally on his behalf. The economy is growing. His policy agenda is pretty popular. The Republicans are running on these sort of draconian ideas about slashing social services to cut taxes for affluent people. Add it all up in and voters more voters than not make make the the choice that you would expect given what they tell pollsters. I think you could tell tell it equally well as a story of a talented incumbent politician dealt a bad hand. Except then Republicans go ahead and nominate someone who’s easily caricatured as Richie Rich. And then they just made fun of him for tying his dog to the roof of his car and selling stock to get through college and being a corporate raider. And obviously, I realize that if there had been a double dip recession in 2012, Obama probably would have lost. And if Republicans had nominated someone with more common touch, he also might have lost or Obama might have lost. I have come to see that election, in hindsight, more is the latter than the former that I used to think of it as. Like, oh, like this is. Obama executed the formula perfectly, and that’s a formula politicians should follow in the future. And it’s about policy and it’s about it’s about crafting an agenda. And looking back on it now, I think maybe it’s more like these sort of intangible things that require some amount of luck and capitalizing on good fortune and and being clever about how you brand not only yourself, but the opposition and that that matters much more than creating like picking the exact right menu of things to tell voters.
Jaime Settle: Well, you know, it’s dealing in the world of counterfactuals is hard. We’d like to know what these other options, I mean I think one thing that has just changed is there are fewer persuadable voters. Right. As as we’ve gotten to the point where people are more attached to their party team, there are a smaller number of people who are willing to be responsive to the changes that that matter during a campaign. Right. So that’s one piece of this. And I think, you know, the other pieces when we talk about the era of social media, right. And we talk about the impact of social media or bundling together a ton of different kinds of changes that have distinct impacts on how people process information and thus how they use that information and their vote choice. So one change is just the availability of information, right? There’s a lot more information that people have access to. And the second is the way that people encounter it, it’s more interwoven into their day to day of their lives as opposed to just watching news or just reading a newspaper, you know. And I think the third then is the quality of that information environment. And I think that’s more where you have been focused on thinking about how is social media changed the way that people communicate and change the way that people process information. And has that had the effect then of kind of of breaking the cause and effect of thinking about how people cast their vote? And, you know, I think it’s a little bit of everything. I think we have to remember that for most people, they’re not approaching politics as systematically trying to gather all of this information. Right. And so when they’re deluged online or when it becomes harder and harder to tell whether or not a source is credible or not, you know, a lot of people, it’s just overwhelming. Right. And they decide to kind of check out and and go with their political habit as opposed to trying to assess the new information that they’re encountering.
Brian Beutler: All right. How about this? Let’s take a quick break and then we’ll come back and talk about Dark Brandon.
Brian Beutler: You’ve mentioned a number of times now, and I think it’s important that most people are not like you and me, and they don’t follow politics obsessively. They don’t really know what’s happening in what we would call the political discourse on any given day or any given week. We know because we follow it closely, that Democrats have had a sort of nice turnaround in the past several weeks, and it’s reflected in polling data. So it’s not just me giving my subjective sense of things like there, there, voters feel better about them than they did just a few weeks ago. That coincides with a bunch of stuff, including, as I mentioned, the the reaction to the Dobbs decision. The gas prices are falling. You have inflation leveling out, the January six hearings, the Inflation Reduction Act. So this crash of stuff and it correlates to Dems doing better. And I think that it’s no secret that in that milieu you have this new meme emerge where Joe Biden is no longer like a total loser, but he’s actually this kind of awesome dark lord with super powers. But I feel like once upon a time I would have said that the sort of era of causation, when people understood, like saw that Democrats have kind of gotten it together, they changed their opinion. And about Democrats as a result of that and through that process, you know, funny ideas about Joe Biden emerged on on Twitter and elsewhere to reflect the new consensus. Now, I think it’s hard to tell. Right. Like, are the people passing around Dark Brandon means doing so because events have changed and forced them to reassess their sense of Joe Biden? Or do they see this meme everywhere and it makes them think, Oh, Biden must be doing better? And so that kind of in a positive feedback way redounds to his benefit. And the more this meme circulates, whether or not people understand why it materialized in the first place, it’s just good for him and will change the way people think about Democrats and about the incoming president, whether he should run again like these. I, I have sort of come increasingly to the view that it’s the latter and it’s sort of like the animal spirits of the Internet conspired to do him a solid in the last few weeks. [laughter]
Jaime Settle: Well, you know, an empirical social scientist, I don’t think I can go all the way, [laughter] but I you know, and again, I think it’s both. So here’s how I think it’s both. Even though you may be right that for more people, it’s it’s the latter scenario you described.
Brian Beutler: I also think it’s both. For what? Just to be fair. [laughter]
Jaime Settle: Yeah. So, you know, for people who are paying a lot of attention, we political scientists have called them opinion leaders. Right. They’re the ones who actually get that kick from politics. That can become almost like a hobby for a lot of them. It’s probably mostly the former, right? They’re the ones making those connections between what’s happening in the world and of the vibes of how things are going, and then translating that into digestible content for people to understand. But most people are not paying attention. Most people are sort of out there encountering politics somewhat unintentionally, you know, maybe picking up things here and there, asking their more informed friends and family members. And for them, yeah, if there is a large quantity when you see something go viral, right, when you keep seeing something over and over and over, that does give it more credibility. It does put it more on your radar screen. It does make that idea more salient in your brain and maybe make you more receptive to information that would then confirm that idea you have, especially if you’re predisposed to wanting, you know, your team, your tribe to be doing well. Right. If you’re a Democrat who is been, you know, unhappy and not not approving of Biden’s performance, but you want Democrats to keep winning. You are going to latch on to that information. Any sign or evidence that things are moving in a better direction for your side of the aisle.
Brian Beutler: So I’ve belabored all the ways that I think that, you know, what seems to be the ebb away from empirical reality mattering more and towards social reality mattering more. There’s a danger in it that we get fully detached from reality. And it’s it’s especially in the Facebook era or in the Tik-Tok era. It’s a magnet for for bad actors who want to mislead people. I’m wondering if there’s like another side of the coin, right? If you’re a political liberal, smaller liberal, and you think politics should be about good government and materially improving people’s lives and using reason and empirical evidence and logically sound arguments to persuade people. But you see increasingly that all of that can get swamped by concerted efforts to flood the zone with shit. Is there a way for people with the liberal sensibility to adjust to a world where social knowledge matters more than empirical knowledge and essentially win, but with sort of different tactics, different approaches that resign themselves to the fact that it’s a new time. And and, you know, the old ways of making political decisions have started to change.
Jaime Settle: The tough question. Right. And it brings me back to this tit for tat idea. Right. If one side has changed the way they communicate and change their strategies, should the other side join them just to be able to win those elections? And I honestly don’t know the answer to that. I think there is a fine needle to thread, right. I think you can think about how to take a policy driven campaign and communicate it in language or images or videos that will resonate and make people feel right and not just use their heads to evaluate your ideas, but actually feel connected in a way. And there are examples of it. Right. We talked about Fetterman earlier. I think that’s a good that’s why so many people are fixated on that campaign, because it seems like he’s tapped into that secret sauce about how you don’t have to abandon the idea of policy oriented politics, but you can still meet people where they want to be met. You know, the ship has sailed in terms of our our broader communication environment. If you look at people’s attention spans, if you look at what people are clicking on, if you look at how younger generations want to be consuming information of all sorts, it’s in shorter digestible images and videos. And so we do need more concerted efforts to think about how to take big, complicated ideas and distill them down and into the ways that people want to be communicating information. And, you know, political scientists have a role in studying that. But it really is going to be people in the practice of politics who have that experience and are on the ground, door to door, still engaging with people to understand what it is that they want to be consuming and paying attention to.
Brian Beutler: Right. I mean, on the one hand, I obviously don’t think well, like, you know, Republicans have embraced disinformation as a political strategy and they’ve essentially abandoned policy specificity as a political strategy. And so Democrats should do that, too. I think that that’s obviously not right or moral or it’s not it’s not the world I’d want to live in any way. But I do think that, as you said, political practitioners can see that should be able to see that those tactics are either working or they’re not preventing Republicans from winning. There’s no price that they’re paying for it. And it does seem to affect how large swaths of the public perceive political reality. Right. Like they can be made to think that the southern border is swamped with Ebola carrying terrorists or whatever. And so to think that it should impel them to think more deeply about how to using, you know, true ideas or factually rooted ideas to to create a different kind of miasma about what political reality is. And so, you know, as much as Democrats seem to want voters to care about prescription drug prices in as much as polling data says that’s an important thing to voters, that experience reality suggests that. And what people click on and what commands viewership on TV is the fact that the leader of the Republican opposition has all these criminal problems and that you can lean into that and it shifts the public sense of what is important in the election. It’s not necessarily because of some iron law of nature. It’s not prescription drug, drug, drug prices. It can be democracy. It can be the fact that Republicans are all in on somebody who appears to have committed a bunch of felonies. Right. And I have a hard time explaining to myself why the practitioners haven’t picked up on that, if that makes sense.
Jaime Settle: Well, yeah. I mean, I think because it’s really hard and constantly changing and you see I think a lot of bandwagon approaches, right? When someone thinks they’ve got something that works, you know, everyone tries it out as opposed to just all sorts of different kinds of innovation. And yeah, I think another thing to keep in mind, you know, I will first say there’s more variation in personality type and psychological disposition within each party than there are bigger differences on average between the parties. But there are some differences between the kinds of people who gravitate towards the right and gravitate towards the left. And so. There. It could be the case that our parties shouldn’t just be mirrors of each other in their communication strategies, because there are differences in the compositions of the kinds of people who are inclined to vote for them. And so I think that makes it tricky too right. It’s not just taking, its not just figuring out what has worked and why it’s worked on the right and then adapting it to your messages and your goals on the left right. It’s really thinking about who your voters are and what’s going to resonate with them. I agree with you. You know, it’s it’s worrisome. The the threats to our democracy are moving faster than we are responding to them. And so I will see everyone more aware of this. But it’s also a big ask of of everyone involved in a democratic society to pay attention to those big picture threats. Right. I mean, people can barely manage to keep up with the day to day news, let alone ponder more existential questions about what it’s going to take to keep a democratic society functioning. And, you know, when you’re asking people to take abstract principles and ideas about how they should act to be good democratic citizens. Right. And apply those in their minute by minute experiences in terms of what they’re clicking on, on social media, that that’s not a simple task. That’s not something we can expect political practitioners to figure out in a single electoral politics cycle.
Brian Beutler: I’m trying to I’m trying to decide what I think about that on the fly, because on the one hand, everything you said makes sense. On the other hand, I mean, Democrats have kind of been on a roller coaster for the last year and a half. Right. They come into power this unexpected trifecta. Biden gets to work doing a bunch of stuff right off the bat for the first three or four months, things are going pretty well. He’s maintaining an above water popularity and things seem to be moving in the direction they like. And then and then for a year it’s just hell, right? Like everything goes wrong. The pandemic doesn’t go away. The inflation begins. The Afghanistan withdrawal and the way it’s covered, suddenly he’s super underwater. Democrats look like they’re going to lose in a landslide. And then we’re back up. Right. And why are we back up? I mean, I think it’s because the events conspired to put Democrats in a sort of partisan offensive mode on a number of fronts. And they succeeded. Right. They passed the Inflation Reduction Act. They they did the January six hearings, and they did them very well. They have started trying to make Republicans own the the Dobbs decision. And, you know, not not because voters are internalizing all this, but because the miasma has changed and the and the thematic center of politics has moved. Polling numbers have moved. And I feel like it’s at least worth them asking themselves, yes, maybe that’s how we should do things more of the time. Not that they have full control over it, but that that’s the that’s the ideal that you want to race towards instead of racing towards, you know, a consensus idea that polls at 70% where you can say even 50% of Republicans support cheaper prescription drugs or whatever, they should be able to just sort of feel how this is all ebbed and flowed. But I, I get the sense that it’s the old ideas that are going to prevail and that they’re going to say it’s gas prices fell or that, you know, people knew that the prescription drug costs were going to come down and and that did all the magic worked for them. And it seems like obviously false to me. I start to wonder like, is it a lot to ask of them? Are these just people that are stuck in a certain way? They’re part of a machine that has always operated in a certain way. And so that’s why they’re not able to adopt fresh tactics when the political climate changes and the opposition party moves in this authoritarian direction.
Jaime Settle: Yeah, I mean, that I think you’re hitting on a key difference between the way practitioners study politics and political scientists studying politics. Right. I mean, my instinct is to tell you it’s the middle of August. We’ve got a long time until the election actually happens. We haven’t talked at all about the role of enthusiasm and mobilization and turnout, which we know in midterm elections is a huge piece of this. Right. And so no matter what we’re seeing in the polling, if Democrats aren’t able to to channel this change in the miasma into a change in the midterm electorate. Right. Who actually turns out it’s not going to matter anyway. Right. And so I think if my answer is, you know, I think thinking about and it’s kind of two to separate puzzles we’re trying to wrap my mind around. Right. One is the messaging. One is how we communicate to people what’s going well and why. And the second then is getting them to change their behavior as a result of that. And so I hope people are you know, I hope practitioners are open minded to thinking about what’s gone well on the cycle and what hasn’t. But there there is it’s a challenge, right, too. When you have so many moving pieces and so many changing parts of the puzzle, it’s very it’s gonna be very hard to attribute it to one explanation over the other.
Brian Beutler: Last question is what, as far as you know, does the comparative politics field say about how a small Liberal Party or coalition should respond to an authoritarian drift in the other coalition? My sense from reading a bit and and talking to other experts is that practitioners have settled on is that the, you know, step one is to re-embrace a sort of normal politics. Don’t chase every shiny object that the opposition throws at you. Just be relentless about reminding people about what you’re doing to improve their lives and how all these distractions don’t do anything to improve your lives. And I think that’s what Democrats have tried to do under Trump. So it’s advice that that they took sort of consciously or not. I know that there is resonance there in how the liberal coalition responded to Berlusconi in Italy. But then there’s this, I think follow on question is, is can that be taken to far. And in the in the Berlusconi question, my understanding is basically like it it worked in getting him out of power or beating him, but it sort of drew the focus of the polity away from the idea that this guy was a crook and he deserved accountability and that the party who empowered him should also be punished for that. And so he was, he had a second act as a result of that. And we’re worried about basically the same thing happening with Trump here in the U.S. now.
Jaime Settle: So I would steer you and your readers to two books that are written from a comparative framework that help Americans understand what’s going on. So one is How Democracies Die Ziblatt and Levitsky, and the other is How Civil Wars Start by Barbara Walter. And I think those do a good job of thinking about the framework, the kinds of questions we should be asking ourselves to understand in as it’s happening around us. You know, what are we observing and what are the signs and symptoms of a potential for a collapsing democracy? I think one thing that really matters and this is where I’ll point to the January 6th committee and the importance of the Republicans who are sitting on that committee. Is that one of the best things the party that’s still committed to liberal democracy has to reach out to the more moderate faction of the party that’s heading towards authoritarianism. My understanding is that their success really relies on trying to bring that broad coalition together in the center again and not giving up entirely on the whole party just because it seems like it’s moving in that direction. But that actually puts a lot more onus on moderate Republican voters and moderate Republican candidates in this case. And it has been a brutal primary season for those Republican leaders who who took a more principled stand. This cuts, I will be dancing around in my answer to this issue because I think this is what political scientists are really trying to grapple with now. At what point is it appropriate for a party who’s committed to the principles of liberal democracy to use tactics that may seem more extreme in order to protect that liberal democracy? And so you see it with ideas related to the filibuster, with ideas related to making changes to the Supreme Court. If a party is in a position to make changes to institutions, to try to strengthen them against authoritarian tendencies, but have to do so through means that that are outside of the normal bounds of how politics operates. Are you playing tit for tat or are you actually doing things to strengthen the quality of your democracy? And that’s where we’re at right now. I mean, that’s what we’re all grappling with. That’s what we’re thinking about and trying to observe and gather the data we need to in this moment in American politics so that we can learn from all the cases. Right. It’s more than an end of two. You’re picking examples that are recent and salient, but there’s a lot we can learn from studying how these processes have operated in other countries.
Brian Beutler: I feel like we’re also dancing around a sort of like optimistic answer to the question I asked earlier about Is there a way for practitioners of small d, democratic politics, small l, liberal politics, to use modern tactics and strategies based on how people receive and process information, how to convince them of true things and mobilize them in a pro-democracy direction. And the January 6th committee is a sort of great example of that in and of itself, and that it like broke important striking facts down in digestible bits. It made people realize why those pieces of information were important. It did it in a sort of drumbeat way. It became a thing people talked about around water coolers or wherever they gather to talk. And it seems to have really damaged Trump, at least if not the whole authoritarian movement in the Republican Party. And, you know, the I guess we could like put a pin in the question of whether the Democratic Party leadership or the practitioners who run their campaigns have taken long lasting lessons from the effectiveness of that. You know, one tactical thing that they did with the committee and just observe that it does seem like it worked and it works by marrying sort of small l liberal ideas about ethical behavior and and democracy with sort of less enlightened ideas about how people should process information and what should matter to them. And in my mind, it’s been one of the best things that Democrats have done in the whole Trump era, with obviously the help of those two Republicans.
Jaime Settle: No, I agree. I agree. I mean, those did not feel like congressional hearings. Right. Those really felt like it it almost felt like a documentary you’d watch on a streaming channel. Right. In terms of laying out that case and giving people big ideas, but with tangible examples, too, to kind of work through. But as as successful as it is, I don’t think we should replicate it ad nauseum. Right? I mean, I don’t think we should. I hope that we don’t have too many more situations of the magnitude of January 6th that would call for that. But I agree about this idea of using using the tools that people are inclined to do anyway. Right. Thinking about how to produce information in a way that’s going to resonate. I hope that Democrats learn from the success of that committee and in terms of what they were able to do.
Brian Beutler: You got the White House tweeting out Dark Brandon images. Now, I think that maybe it may be a whole new day in Democratic politics is dawning. Yeah. Jaime Settle, thank you so much for spending so much of your time with us today.
Jaime Settle: My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me. I really enjoyed our conversation. [music break]
Brian Beutler: I know we covered a lot of ground just now, but all of it was meant to explore two big questions. First, is it true, as it seems, that American political outcomes in the social media age, the Donald Trump age, have become less rooted in material conditions and thus more difficult to game through competent governing and poll driven agendas? Second, if that is true, then is American politics a playing field that liberals, with their ethical commitments and democratic values, can hope to compete on against an opposition that has embraced totalitarian propaganda with relentless message discipline? I think we learn the answer to the first question, for better or worse, is seemingly yes. But the answer to the second question is also yes. It’s just hard for practitioners to adjust and unclear at times how they ought to adjust. But they did it with the January six committee. They’re doing it well on John Fetterman campaign. And of course, Dark Brandon is the force behind all of it. I know that a lot of people in capital D Democratic politics find this whole conversation very frustrating, and I totally get it. Outside of the muck, politics should be a higher calling for people who care about improving the common good. And the incentive structure of politics should reward parties that have a better track record in that regard. And even before today’s conversation, what I’d say to them is competent governing policy vision. These things are always going to be important, but they’re also kind of like table stakes. Even if you nailed the execution, you still have to mobilize people to your side and against your opponents. And that aspect of politics has changed faster than the Democratic establishment. Speaking of frustration, that’s what’s been particularly frustrating for me. But I think from the vantage point of August 2022, there are signs that they’ve started to catch up to changing realities. And as they do, new leaders will provide a more reliable template for party strategy one rooted less in stubborn poll chasing than in the emotionally resonant, visceral stories and ideas that shape social knowledge. What people think they know about the two parties and what they think is important. Positively dreadful ss a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is Michael Martinez and our producer is Olivia Martinez. Veronica Simonetti mixes and edits the show each week. Our theme music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos.