Why Liberalism Needs the Reading Public

Why liberals have a lot to lose as media culture changes.

By Nathan Pippenger

On Tuesday, I participated in a Brookings Institution panel on the future of media in the digital age. (Fittingly, it was an online panel.) We had a wide-ranging conversation about the decline of journalism’s traditional revenue sources, the scramble to cover local and regional news in the wake of cutbacks and closures, the harmful consolidation of journalism jobs in a few major cities, and the democratic potential (as yet unfulfilled) of the Internet. You can watch the panel discussion below and read my contribution to the accompanying series here.

Towards the end of the conversation, our moderator (Democracy’s own E.J. Dionne) asked us to close with some thoughts on the relationship of media and self-government. (The question appears at about 57 minutes in.) I offered a few remarks on how media doesn’t merely cater to, but also cultivates, its readers. This is a theme I’ve written about before, but E.J.’s question nicely made its connection to democratic politics explicit. The intense financial pressure on journalism has understandably encouraged us to imagine readers as consumers: What do they want? What will they find entertaining? How can we cater to their tastes and preferences? How can we avoid alienating or offending them? As I suggested during the panel discussion, this way of thinking is at odds with thinking of readers as citizens, or (perhaps more precisely, if also with a dash more elitism) as citizens to be cultivated. Coverage decisions, on this way of thinking, prioritize what readers need to know, not what they want to hear about. Outlets, ideally, don’t shy away from important stories that readers might find obscure, complicated, frightening, or offensive. They don’t assume that readers approach a publication with their preferences already formed—or rather, they don’t accept readers’ preferences simply as they are. Instead, they understand that preferences can be shaped. This approach rejects the consumer-centric mindset that has permeated seemingly every aspect of our politics and culture. What I didn’t mention in the discussion, but want to suggest below, is that this rejection is also uniquely important for liberals.

That’s because liberalism’s 21st-century agenda requires a citizenry with enough taste for nuance to reject the temptations of conservative soundbites. I don’t want to suggest that only conservatives are capable of demagoguery; only that liberals today face too many uphill battles because the opposition excels at translating its policies into simple, intuitive terms. Criminals are bad; let’s be tough on them—so sentencing reformers are soft on crime. Taxes take your money, so let’s cut them. Terrorists are bad and dangerous; anybody who opposes maximum aggression is subjecting you to danger. Opposing this agenda requires making arguments like: “Yes, in a sense, taxes do take your money, but…” A citizenry that has lost the patience for anything more demanding of its intelligence or attention than a GIF-based listicle is less likely to sit around for that argument. And the obstacles are even higher when the argument deals with complex empirical issues (climate change) or dry, technical details (financial reform). If you tell people that liberals are control freaks who want to tell you what lightbulbs you can use, or that they’re a bunch of jealous eggheads who hate the rich, your argument appeals to the bored impatience of the Internet age. We all have an interest in resisting the slide toward that kind of reading public, but my hunch is that liberalism should be especially careful. We have a lot to lose.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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