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partisan politics in an object-oriented democracy

Possibly in an effort to save folks some grief over the holidays, Trish Roberts-Miller offered this recent explanation of what she terms “GOP loyalists” and the effective impossibility of engaging in a rational argument. The basic yet intractable problem is that they are ensured in a propaganda feedback loop extending from their attachment to a narrow band of partisan media.

As she is quick to note, it is not only Trumpers who fall into this category. She relates a story of her first encounter with people caught in such a loop as being various Marxist student organizations when she was attending Berkeley. As she writes, “There were four communist groups at Berkeley when I got there (maybe five), each of which had a very small number of members, and they mostly spent their time breaking up each other’s meetings.” All of which reminds me of this:

Anyway, Roberts-MIller goes on to say, “while it’s true that there are lots of propaganda feedback loops, it isn’t true that both sides are just as bad–people who self-identify as liberal (or left) are more likely to believe in fact-checking, consume media that issues corrections and has norms of accountability, and get information from disconfirming sources.” And I can agree with that, although not being as polarizingly partisan as the GOP loyalists is a super-low bar. The left has plenty of purity tests. It’s just that ultimately, as a group, the left relies upon coalition building, on exchanging, evaluation, and building new ideas, and on the acceptance and integration of different viewpoints. These are all things that the GOP cannot do.

As I’ve discussed recently here, to look at this through the lens of electracy, we might say that GOP loyalism is an electrate politics that makes affect (pain/pleasure) its operating principle. Simply put, the experience of the Trump rally makes the GOP loyalist feel good. It doesn’t matter if the message is true or moral, or at least, such concerns are a distant second. You might say it’s like professional wrestling.

But here I’m veering in a different direction. Basically the Latourian notion of an object-oriented democracy is one that recognizes the role of nonhumans in deliberation. In modernity we strive to keep two modes of representation separate. There’s the scientific-empirical representation of the natural world, which is aided by nonhuman instruments, and the political representation of humans through a democratic process. The obvious recent clash of these two has come in climate change, but there are many possible examples, really anywhere that “facts” become politically difficult. In such scenarios we instead claim that people have a “right” to represent their political viewpoint and that facts are just politics by other means. In the nonmodern, object-oriented approach, however, these two modes are not separable. So instead, we need to understand how we are “made to act” politically through our relations with non/humans. We become assemblages and populations that can be statistically described (as we see over and over again).

For the humanist scholar, this is first recognizable as Althusserian ideological state apparatuses or perhaps in Foucault’s disciplinary or Deleuze’s control societies. Latour gives us something a little different. Is it a distinction without a difference? You can decide. In each of these though we might observe that our politics (but not only our politics, really our entire epistemology) relies upon continual renewal and organization.

My own worldview relies upon the network of higher education and its various disciplines. This is partly true of all college-educated people, but especially true for someone like myself who works as a professor. I wouldn’t be doing the work I’m doing or writing this blog now otherwise. Does my work inform my politics? No doubt as my politics are informed by what I know about the world and what I know about the world is informed by my experience of it. I’m not saying my politics would be completely opposite if I had a different job, but they would be different. And of course career is just one part of an equation, but it works as an example. My point is that being “college-educated” or a “professor” is not simply a demographic data point that inheres to my subjectivity. They require ongoing connections. The old saying goes, “you can take the boy off of the farm but you can’t take the farm out of the boy.” There’s some truth to that: bodies of all kinds have histories that cannot be erased, and yet that boy off the farm won’t be a farmer and will need to learn a new life with unavoidably different values. Similarly, the college graduate who returns to the farm will lose much of what came from being part of a college community. Returning to the notion of the GOP loyalist, s/he (well mostly “he”) requires the connections of partisan media, evangelical churches, rural towns, and so on to maintain that identity.

I suppose what I am saying is that these partisan political identities with their familiar statistical-demographic dimensions are not describing inherent identities. They are not who we are. They are descriptions of activities, relations, processes, and networks/assemblages. That said, social assemblages can differ in their operation. GOP loyalists populate an assemblage that is highly territorialized and stringently coded. That means the population tends toward homogeneity and has strict rules. For example, as Roberts-Miller points out, the GOP loyalist will only accept information coming from a small range of sources. In the US, the left is far more loosely bound. It is heterogeneous in terms of the familiar categories of identity. There are a wider range of religious beliefs, social values, cultural practices, and so on, though within that coalition there certainly are some populations that are as tightly coded as GOP loyalists are.

So what does all this mean in terms of arguing with a GOP loyalist? Well, Roberts-Miller has already told you that that’s pointless. It is, however, possible to deterritorialize and decode the assemblages that maintain the population. This is where understanding the object-oriented operation of democracy becomes useful. There are many different strategies available here, but I would think the most just approach is one that simply accelerates the most extreme manifestations of GOP loyalism, especially since acceleration is precisely what the most loyal loyalists desire. The more fanatical, radical, and homogeneous the GOP becomes ultimately the less sustainable it will be as it grips ever tighter onto a set of bad ideas. The more it relies upon a shrinking set of mechanisms to maintain its purity the harder it becomes to grow.

All the things that create the propaganda feedback loop with which we are so concerned are evidence of the unsustainability of the assemblage. I.e, as GOP loyalists are restricted to one TV station, one religious denomination, a few scattered websites and social media groups, and a shrinking way of life with ever fewer options then they become weaker, not stronger. I would think the important strategy is to ensure that their ideas do not infect others.

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