Populism and the 'Long Tail' of political discourse

facebooktwittergoogle_plusmailfacebooktwittergoogle_plusmail

Remember when Chris Anderson popularized the idea of the power law distribution in The Long Tail? The basic idea is that a few popular albums or books will sell like hotcakes. But a large percentage of products will linger in “the long tail.” That's the place on this graph representing stuff that ain't selling nearly so well. Sure, long tail stuff does sell. But it's eclectic and it's cool or valuable to an elite few. Still, it's neither Britney Spears nor Glenn Beck. Long tail products are for the discerning consumer.
Lately a few enlightened libertarians and conservatives have begun to lament both the popularity and lack of intellectual rigor of mainstream political media. This is the stuff that is not on the long tail.
 
But these very smart critics (producers and consumers) of political media are in the long tail. Never mind that these very same people didn't bother to check to see if the term epistemic closure was spoken for; they grabbed the phrase to bludgeon best-selling entertainment pundits on the center-right. Why? Because they're more discerning than their higher earning counterparts. But again, these elite libertarians and conservatives consume media in the long tail. They like their politics thoughtful, rigorous and well-researched. But guess what? Most people, that is – most voters – do not. And in a constitutional republic, elections are the only game in town.

Now, I'm not here to defend the Becks and Levins of the world on intellectual grounds. In fact, I consume political media from the long tail, too. I get the fact that populists of the right – like the Maddows and Olbermanns of the left – are not intellectuals. So I'm not really interested. But here's the rub: if they were intellectuals, they'd be on the right side of the power law graph and consumed by very few — namely a few self-satisfying intellectuals who might be so bold as to employ the phrase “epistemic closure” in everyday parlance (notwithstanding its origins).

But what would be the trade off?

We'd have far fewer outraged voters and others marching on Tax Day. We'd have fewer people knowing that there is anything at all going on with the current state of statism. We'd have fewer people going to the polls in November. No matter how you slice it, our liberty is being threatened pretty seriously. We can quibble about details while the Titanic goes down, or we offer grudging respect.

Yes, these personalities often allow issues to get hyperbolized, distorted, or ground up into crapioca-pudding narratives fit for consumption by people on the bulge of the bell curve. And I realize there are people like Milton Friedman (and Chris Anderson, actually) who have the gift for being intellectually rigorous while speaking to laypeople. But Milton Friedman was a rare and wonderful phenomenon. The sad fact is, the market doesn't care what gets rewarded–Britney Spears or Yo Yo Ma. Likewise, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, Rachel Maddow are popular for a reason: they're vague, populist, emotional, have selective memories and, yes, are closed to new knowledge.

But seriously. Does anyone expect Ross Douthat – no offense – to get people into the streets or to the polls? No. Would anyone expect the Light of Reason to descend upon the noumenal selves of each and every American after Glenn Beck has gotten in touch with his inner Nozick? Would Truth write itself upon the tabula rasa of each man and woman – compelling them to act – if they only had greater access to more fair-minded intellectuals like Jonathan Rauch? As John Stossel would say: gimme a break.
I'm afraid the following is the trade-off most days: You're going to get sloppiness, omission, sensationalism and epistemic laxity with the kind of mass media that moves people to act. You're going to get analytic rigor, intellectual openness, research and nuance with pundits on the long tail, but you won't get motion. Occasionally, very occasionally, you'll find someone who can synthesize complex concepts for everyone. But I think people who care about liberty should be thankful for the existence of the Levins, Stossels, and Rands. They move hearts, minds and legs.

Despite their simplicity and their sensationalism, they are one of the last bulwarks standing between Leviathan and the American individual. While some of us may not want to consume the hash they have to sling, they are effective. While we may wish the goddesses of Reason and Wisdom would bless us – each and every one – with gifts of insight and subtlety, they won't. And guess what? All is fair in love, war and political discourse. Such is not to say we shouldn't do our best to be reasonable where our abilities allow. It is rather to say that the power law of political discourse may be immutable.

It is to in fact argue that there are only two forces in this world that matter: power and persuasion–and neither runs on Reason alone.

In Other News