Demagoguery, “Cov-Cath,” and Public Discourse in the Trump Era

(Coauthored with Elayne Allen, Research Assistant in Washington, D.C.)

On January 18, 2019, video footage of a group of white male adolescents facing-off with an elderly native-American man at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial began drawing attention on news and social-media outlets. It was quickly established that the adolescents attended Covington Catholic High School in West Virginia and that the elderly man was part of the Indigenous Peoples March then taking place in Washington, D.C. On the basis of two brief videos, journalists, pundits, and Twitter-users reacting to what would come to be called the “Cov-Cath” incident were quick to assimilate the events into a narrative of white male depravity. As a fuller picture of the incident began to emerge, however, many of those who had initially reacted began to revise their interpretations in light of the newly-available information, thereby conceding the (at least partial) erroneousness of their initial characterizations.

On one level, incidents like Cov-Cath suggest that older standards of veracity no longer hold sway in American public discourse, because new forms of pandering and demagoguery have both cast them in doubt and profited by their absence. Indeed, liberals and progressives who contribute to demagogic spectacles like Cov-Cath manifest symptoms of the demagogic pathologies that are embodied by the public figure whom they themselves most despise: President Donald Trump. But while there are key similarities between the rhetorical excesses on display in Cov-Cath and those employed by Trump, there are crucial differences, as well. Taken together, these call for a nuanced framework for distinguishing responsible yet opinionated commentary from irresponsible demagoguery.

“Post-Truth” or Sub-Truth?

Inaccuracies and hasty conclusions are endemic to the very enterprise of journalism, and in an increasingly fast-paced and interconnected world, media sources on television and the internet will come under growing pressure to keep apace with rapid news cycles. To advance their careers, reporters must get the story out first and each social media personality must proffer the hottest take. What distinguished Cov-Cath from other instances of careless reporting and commentary was both the speed and seeming earnestness with which commentators assimilated the otherwise inconclusive evidence into the political narrative to which they happened to be committed. Among others, Caitlin Flanagan—a liberal contributor at The Atlantic—has documented this event in some detail, remarked on its peculiarity, and deplored its likely toll on the reputation of news and social-media sources.

As insightful as Flanagan’s article and other like it have been, however, there is more to be said about the political pathologies on display in Cov-Cath. Understanding Cov-Cath and other incidents like it requires apprehending their broader political and rhetorical context in the Trump presidency. We live in an era when the nation’s highest elected official has built his reputation on dismissing the news media—the country’s primary information-source—as consisting in large part of “fake news.” As a consequence, some scholars such as Lee McIntyre of Boston University have gone so far as to call ours an era of “post-truth,” in which public discussion of the nation’s affairs is openly, and unabashedly, steered by the tribalistic commitments of pundits and politicians heedless of confounding information and facts. This view derives plausibility from Trump’s rhetoric as well as from incidents like Cov-Cath, wherein commentators reveal themselves—at least initially—as willing to allow their interpretations of information to be determined exclusively by prejudicial assumptions about the way the world works, rather than evolving their assumptions in an open-minded way.

And yet, as noted above, news and social-media commentators on Cov-Cath did revise their initial interpretations of the incident when new information became available. Consider one particularly salient example. The day after publishing an article entitled “Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats Mob Native Elder at Indigenous Peoples March,”The New York Times ran a second piece entitled “Fuller Picture Emerges of Viral Video of Native American Man and Catholic Student,” which incorporated new facts and significantly moderated the interpretation advanced in the first. To quote the Times’ second article:

Interviews and additional video footage suggest that an explosive convergence of race, religion and ideological beliefs—against a national backdrop of political tension—set the stage for the viral moment. Early video excerpts from the encounter obscured the larger context, inflaming outrage.

Such a change is not insignificant. Among other things, Donald Trump has become infamous for refusing to do precisely that, not only on the 2016 campaign trail but in his official capacity as president. Indeed, when confronted with information that confounds or at least renders implausible his characterization of an event or of a general viewpoint he has espoused, Trump invariably chooses to “double-down” rather than modify or moderate—let alone concede the erroneousness of—his initial position. Last May, for example, he boasted eagerly but falsely of raising military salaries for the first time in ten years. Seven months later, he repeated this claim, adding that he raised salaries by 10 percent, when in fact troops’ salaries saw only a 2.4 percent increase. Similarly, Trump Tweeted on July 25, 2018, that the U.S. “[l]ost $817 Billion on Trade last year.” However, in the face of reports confounding that figure—within a day of his Tweet, Vox and the New York Times published articles refuting it—Trump subsequently repeated his erroneous claim in a speech at Granite City, Ill., asserting “[w]e lost $817 billion a year, over the last number of years in trade. In other words, if we didn’t trade, we’d save a hell of a lot of money.”

While Cov-Cath and similar incidents of commentator-driven demagoguery are of a piece with the kind of rhetoric on display in Trump’s public speech, meaningful distinctions can and should be drawn between these and other instances of demagoguery. The degree to which one resists confounding information, and “doubles-down” instead of making reasonable adjustments to one’s own narrative, signals the degree to which one has acquiesced to the pressure of demagoguery.

Reaction and Counter-reaction

Incidents like Cov-Cath suggest that we assign roles to individuals and groups in society based on how they fit into our pre-existing political narratives. As a consequence, we tend to expect characteristic words and deeds from the actors and groups that occupy a particular place within our political narrative—often in the face of evidence that suggests our expectations are misguided. Frequently, for example, we assume beforehand who the “good guys” and “bad guys” will be in a given situation, imposing our narrative on the data and refusing to reconsider whether this was correctly done upon receiving new data that is potentially confounding.

Thus, liberals and progressives tended—at least initially—to view the Cov-Cath images through the lens of group politics. Howard Dean, for example, tweeted that “#CovingtonCatholic High School seems like a hate factory to me. Why not just close it?”—even though the former presidential candidate knew almost nothing about the high school or the adolescents involved in the protest apart from what had initially been broadcasted about the incident. Expecting beforehand to see certain behaviors exhibited by certain groups—in this case, “hate” on the part of white Christian Trump-supporting males—Dean and others like him interpreted the video footage and pictures accordingly, as corroborating evidence for the veracity of their own narrative. By virtue of their sparseness and ambiguity, however, this documentation was suggestive of a range of plausible interpretations which Dean’s characterization obliterated. And on the other side of the political spectrum, right-wing news sources reflexively responded to these initial leftwing interpretations by applying their own counter-narrative of white male victimization. Breitbart contributor John Hayward, for example, hyperbolically characterized the progressive-liberal reaction to the incident as a threat: “Shut up, stand down, and submit or your life is forfeit.” In short, rather than presenting facts whose meaning could be contested and arguments whose tenability could be questioned, journalists and pundits treated the ambiguous images and videos—as well as reactions to them—as if they simply spoke for themselves, requiring neither context nor interpretation. If you did not immediately understand the incident’s meaning—commentators assumed—you were thereby revealed to be morally defective.

And yet at the same time, Cov-Cath suggests that citizens are not simply wedded to their own narratives. Writing for The Atlantic, Julie Irwin Zimmerman describes the transformation that her initial interpretation underwent in light of new videos that had surfaced by Sunday, January 20, two days after the actual event:

As I watched the longer videos, I began to see the smirking kid in a different light. It seemed to me that a wave of emotions rolled over his face as Phillips approached him: confusion, fear, resolve. He finally, I thought, settled on an expression designed to mimic respect while signaling to his friends that he had this under control. Observing it, I wondered what different reaction I could have reasonably hoped a high-school junior to have in such an unfamiliar and bewildering situation. I came up empty.

As statements like these suggest, observers are more or less willing to revise their own application of a narrative to given facts according to the nature of their commitment to that narrative. And in some instances, they are even willing to reassess the overall tenability of the narrative to which they had been committed hitherto, on the basis of consistently and overwhelmingly confounding information. The trick, then, is pinpointing the sources of internal resistance that different people have to information that would seem to disrupt or undermine their respective narratives. What is the cognitive threshold that prevents an individual from rethinking his or her narrative?

Defining Demagoguery

As we define it, demagoguery is the application of political narratives to particular events in a way that aggressively resists questions regarding (1) the appropriateness of a given narrative-application or, more generally, (2) the tenability of the narrative itself. As we understand them, narratives are cognitive glimpses, or more-or-less complete pictures, of the world one inhabits. They are not just arbitrarily-created fictions or baseless musings, but rather attempts at a coherent account of the political world, which is made up of institutions, actors, and resources, as well as of ideals and goals. Accordingly, a political narrative consists in a mental image not just of the way the political world does work, but of how it ought to work, as well. Thus, public speech is more or less demagogic according to the particular way in which it assimilates ambiguous information into an existing political narrative.

One might reasonably question the tenability of evaluating discourse in terms of narratives, as we propose to do. After all, narratives are, at heart, fictions rather than scientific accounts; so what does it ultimately mean to distinguish narratives in terms of truthfulness or validity? Because we believe that some narratives are truer than others, we might be viewed as naively empiricist—that is, as subscribing to the unsophisticated view that achieving truth in politics is simply a matter of tabulating discrete, neutral facts, and that comparing alternative narratives and normative worldviews has little role to play. Yet it is precisely because we do seek to develop a framework that presupposes the possibility of distinguishing political truth from falsehood that we must begin by acknowledging that human beings are in their nature very imperfect empiricists; that they do not, as a rule, draw appropriately tentative inferences on the basis of all the available evidence—and that this is understandable. As mortal beings, we do not interact with the world in a simply neutral or “objective” way, because simply too much is at stake for us. Being in the world for a human being is never simply a matter of navigating alternatives through a series of detached rational choices. Life is about commitments—about cares, anxieties, and, sometimes, deadly-serious decisions. Of course, none of this is to say that no lines can be drawn between truth and falsehood—if it were, our enterprise here would be self-defeating. It is only to admit from the outset that our expectations regarding political empiricism—that is, the ability of members of a political community to form an accurate picture of the polity they inhabit based on an objective assessment of neutral information—must be circumscribed by those elements which constitute our essential humanity.

These dynamics are on particularly vivid display in politics, where both normative principles—what we ought to do—and scarce material resources—who gets what in the community—are at stake. In our capacities as “political animals,” we are therefore predisposed to interpret the world selectively according to political narratives which affirm our own political identity: our sense of who deserves what in relation to ourselves and the polity we inhabit.

On the other hand, we might be accused on conceding too much to the argument that politics is merely subjective, that everyone has their own narrative that vindicates their own private worldview, and that genuine arbitration between these worldviews is therefore impossible. On this point, critics of the language of “narratives” have correctly observed that it is difficult to say how one could plausibly evaluate the relative truth of contending narratives—i.e., narratives that render a contradictory picture of the same neutral information. As interpretivist political theorists such as Anne Norton have insisted, there are no simply “objective” facts in politics; all political facts are embedded in a political context and must be understood as such. Moreover, by insisting that narratives include a picture of how things should be—of values—in addition to one of how things actually are—of facts—we open ourselves to a legitimate objection. How can contradictory narratives be ranked in terms of truth, if they are based in large measure on values—on preferences that are themselves based on personal choice?

The way we use the term “narrative” implies at least the possibility of external validation, if not of air-tight demonstrability, when it comes to evaluating how well a given narrative applies to and explains mutually-intelligible facts. Initial media reports of Cov-Cath, for example, alleged that the incident was illustrative of a broader political narrative about privileged white males and their relations with minority groups. Later, when more information was made available, news sources revised these initial reports, recognizing that while their narrative is frequently born out in other regrettable instances (e.g., acts of violence at Trump rallies) nevertheless, the adolescents who took part in Cov-Cath had acted with much less overt malice than had been ascribed to them by initial reports.

Narratives and Informational Openness

Because early interpretations of Cov-Cath were revised in light of new, disruptive information, those who revised their immediate understanding might be said to be “cognitively open.” The framework of cognitive closure and openness was developed in the 1990s by political psychologists Arie Kruglanski and D.M. Webster, who define cognitive closure broadly as “individuals’ desire for a firm answer to a question and an aversion toward ambiguity.” Additionally, the framework has been applied in the study of comparative judicial systems by Daniel M. Brinks, political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. In our application, cognitive (or informational) openness signifies a willingness to modify one’s initial interpretation of a case in light of new knowledge.

Within our framework, to be sure, incidents like Cov-Cath do unfold in a demagogic way insofar as a narrative is applied before even a plausible assessment of the facts can be made. And yet, such incidents are not as demagogic as they might be. Hasty applications of narratives coupled with informational openness contrast with hasty narrative application coupled with informational closure—that is, a determined refusal to incorporate new information into one’s original interpretation of events. This is the kind of media representation that counts as thoroughgoing demagoguery.

Thoroughgoing demagogues wield their favored narratives in such a way as to preclude the very possibility of revising even a particular application of their narrative, let alone the tenability of the narrative itself. At this point, the demagogue’s interpretation becomes un-contestable. The interpreter preemptively dismisses the very possibility of external invalidation, and so the interpretation becomes a cognitively closed system, sustained by purportedly special or private—i.e., non-contestable—insights on the part of the interpreter and his or her loyal followers. Consider, for example, Trump’s repeated characterizations of mainstream media as “the Enemy of the People.” To be sure, considerable segments of mainstream media are less than sympathetic to Trump and Trumpism—think of Rachel Maddow’s openly hostile approach to reporting on the Trump administration. Nevertheless, versions of Trump’s blanket, unfalsifiable descriptor are parroted by Trump’s most loyal devotees, reinforcing and heightening their pre-existing suspicions of the press. Indeed, by declaring segments of the press “enemies,” Trump is denying not just individual reports with which he disagrees; in fact, he is denying the very possibility that any story by the media which contradicts or problematizes his own claims could be true. As a result, Trump’s followers instead receive information solely from “trustworthy” sources, such as Breitbart and Fox News, which create a cognitively closed system that shields both Trump and his followers from external invalidation.

Russell Muirhead, political theorist at Dartmouth College, and Nancy Rosenblum, emerita political theorist at Harvard University, suggest in their new book, A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy, that demagoguery taken to its extreme metamorphoses into conspiratorial thinking. Detractors, or those who question the validity of the demagogue’s narrative and its applications, are themselves folded into the narrative which the demagogue seeks to promote: They are “explained” by the demagogue as evidence of the very narrative he uses to “explain” the political world around him. Thus, politicians and commentators who deny the existence of a “deep state,” or who dispute Trump’s characterization of the Mueller probe as a “witch hunt,” are themselves rendered by Trump as part of said deep state or witch hunt which he claims to have discovered. Similarly, the very fact that certain journalists contest Trump’s label of “fake news” demonstrates, in Trump’s telling, that they are themselves peddlers of said fake news and therefore confirming that they are “enemies of the people.”

Trump has also demagogically seized on conspiracy theories created by others besides himself at the fringes of the conservative movement and of his own following. Among the most notorious of these are the “Birther” theory—reportedly originated by Illinois political candidate Andy Martin in the mid-2000s—and the anti-Semitic accusation of George Soros for acting as a puppet master behind global events which negatively impact Trump and his white-nationalist supporters. Though Trump himself did not come up with either theory, he has declared himself an ally of both. He perpetuated the Birther theory for six years, from 2010 until 2016; and he suggested—without a shred of evidence—that Soros paid protesters to confront Jeff Flake during the Kavanaugh hearings.

What all these theories share is a conspicuous disregard for—indeed, a hostile and vehement rejection of—any information that might plausibly contradict the theory’s underlying narrative. As Professor Jeffrey K. Tulis observes in his discussion of Trump in the 2017 second edition of The Rhetorical Presidency, thoroughgoing demagogues who stoke conspiratorial thinking among the public constitute demagoguery’s most dangerous and damaging form because, like Orwellian advocates of “the big lie,” they are actively opposed to information that confounds the narrative which they have a personal interest in advancing.

Demagoguery—Cause or Effect? The Neo-Socratic Approach

We are by no means the first to think about public discourse in the Trump era in terms of demagoguery. And while our approach builds on much that has been said already, it also offers an alternative interpretation of how many scholars and pundits have tended to understand the relationship between political commentators and their audiences. Many have argued that demagogues are best understood not as provoking an otherwise moderate public—as political scientist Morris Fiorina, in Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, has argued they do—but rather as responding to a demand for pandering on the part of their readers and viewers. Kevin Williamson, for example, has lamented that “[f]ake news cannot be counteracted because fake news is what people want.” Michael Doran shares this view but characterizes the same sort of discourse as legitimate in a democracy: “In a democratic culture, the pundit is not a philosopher. He exists to inform and guide like-minded voters, which is only possible if they trust him to be thinking along with them.” For Doran, commentators do and ought to couch facts within the narrative they know their intended audience shares. Accordingly, on this very point, American Spectator writer Emerald Robinson has criticized “Never-Trump” conservatives for having “no popular following these days,” declaring them “out of touch” for refusing to endorse Trump’s rhetorical tactics which have been embraced by much of the Republican Party.

The theory that demagoguery is hatched by public unreason and discursive decay has antecedents reaching back to Greco-Roman antiquity. In Plato’s dialogue The Gorgias, for example, Socrates explains that demagogues are those public figures who flatter their constituents instead of telling them sobering and often painful political truth. In this respect, explains Socrates, the demagogue is, by analogy, more akin to a pastry chef, whose primary concern is to please, than to a doctor, whose primary concern is to heal and improve. Explaining his analogy, Socrates challenges the would-be teacher of rhetoric Callicles to name a rhetorician who does not pander and treat “the populace like they were children, trying only to gratify them without giving any thought to whether they’ll be better or worse.” To this end, Socrates tells Callicles that if he wishes to succeed as a rhetorician, he cannot simply be an imitator of the public; instead, “you must be like them in your very nature.” In short, this means becoming the very embodiment of the passions that are most gratifying to the public.

According to this view, news and social-media commentators bear some responsibility for incidents like Cov-Cath but not as much as the public at large. Such incidents showcase that the public has become amenable to the simplistic, provocative, yet politically effective rhetoric of political panderers who fashion themselves into the embodiment of their audience’s narratives. Thus, any account investigating causes of demagoguery cannot ignore the agency of both the demagogue himself and his audience in generating deceptive rhetoric.

The Demagogue as Cause: Pre-Processed Reporting

The neo-Socratic approach affords penetrating insights into how public discourse generates demagogic rhetoric. And yet, there is a dimension of this process that has been insufficiently explained, namely where audiences get their narratives in the first place. As is described in the neo-Socratic account, media consumers signal their grievances and preferences to news and social media commentators by consuming more of, and reacting more enthusiastically to, stories and commentary which corroborate their own political narratives. In turn—and this is the stage in the process we wish to spotlight—reporters and commentators come to anticipate the political grievances which their readers and viewers already harbor and have shown themselves to be gratified by. In short, they learn how to become demagogues and they get better at practicing it, thereby realizing a degree of agency in the process hitherto insufficiently acknowledged.

Thus, the demagogue sets in motion a chain of events that would not have been precipitated without her. Instead of reporting information in a relatively viewpoint-neutral way, and letting viewers process and interpret the information by their own cognitive and normative lights, demagogues elects to present their audience with information that is pre-processed according to the way they anticipate their audience wants it to be. By “pre-processed,” we mean neutral information that has been woven into a shape that fits into a pre-established political narrative.

Here, an analogy is perhaps useful for thinking about how pre-processed information fits into our framework of narratives and demagoguery. As we understand them, differing audiences which constitute the public as a whole see politics through characteristic lenses, or narratives. Drawing on the proverbial “square pegs and round holes” analogy, we think audience narratives can be helpfully likened to differently shaped “holes,” into which only appropriately shaped “pegs” proffered by public speakers and commentators will fit. Within this analogy, the utterances of public speakers—i.e., those of news and social media sources as well as of politicians—can be likened to differently shaped pegs which “fit into,” or register with, a given audience according to that audience’s prevailing narrative. In turn, public speakers tailor the content of their statements—that is, facts and information—into forms, or narratives, that are more or less likely to fit the dominant shape, or narrative, of a given audience.

Are holes or audience narratives fixed? Are speakers and commentators’ words predetermined by what a given audience finds acceptable? Williamson’s view—that fake news cannot be counteracted because fake news is what people want—and other views like it certainly suggests so. If this view were correct, audience persuasion would be impossible because speakers would be entirely constrained by an audience’s pre-established shape or narrative. Indeed, much of the neo-Socratic view tends to assume precisely this—namely that demagogues are simply reflections of audience preferences, and that pre-existing audience narratives are completely determinative of what gains traction in the public sphere.

We believe that while audience narratives do exercise a considerable degree of agency in the formation of public discourse, they are not the only variable in the equation. The degree to which neutral information is pre-processed determines, in part, the likelihood that audience will accept or reject the message as a whole—including the relatively neutral parts of the message. In turn, informational pre-processing can affect audience opinion in different ways. A media personality or public figure can interpret information in a way that appears to corroborate the expectations of their audience, thereby validating and further cementing the audience’s pre-existing narrative. More cunningly, they can present information in a way that is designed to tempt an otherwise cognitively-open audience into adopting a narrative that is more demagogic, but also more emotionally satisfying to the audience’s hitherto suppressed resentments and grievances. Commentators and skilled politicians have the power to present relatively neutral information in ways that an audience may not have previously imagined, thereby subverting a relatively moderate narrative. Regrettably, space does not permit us to develop these alternatives at greater length; but in light of the recent emergence of white male resentment and the media and political cultures that have stoked it, one can imagine cases that plausibly illustrate our point.

Thus, in our telling, speakers and commentators control the degree to which they impose their own narrative on information that would otherwise be more or less formless. Formless information is assimilable by any audience, irrespective of the narrative which that audience holds at the time they receive the message. Yet relatively neutral reporting can form audiences too, because it allows the shape of relatively natural or “unprocessed” information to have its effect on audience narratives. Unprocessed information, while relatively chaotic and therefore hard to organize cognitively, nevertheless is often preferable because it gives audiences the freedom to construct narratives and apply those narratives for themselves.

Not all shaped or pre-processed information is demagogic, of course. As we acknowledge above, information is never completely neutral; it is always cabined within some kind of narrative bearing on human concerns and normative goals. What is more, purely neutral information is not only impossible; if it existed, it would be undesirable, because its chaotic formlessness would make it unintelligible. We need information that is formed because we need to be able to categorize it and prioritize its constituent parts. Accordingly, narratives as we understand them aim for a coherent account of political events and goals and of the political landscape as a whole—though they do not necessarily provide one. To the extent that they do not, they must be modified or replaced by ones that do. In this respect, they function as scaffolds for the human mind as it constructs a more or less complete model of reality. News coverage and commentary ought therefore to supply both relatively disinterested presentations of events, as well as attempts to extract meaning from events based on prevailing political narratives—attempts which can be validated or invalidated on the basis of relevant information.

Significantly, reportage and commentary that is pre-processed by demagogues differs from healthy forms of narrative assimilation in two respects. First, rather than taking up the challenge posed by complicating or confounding information, those who deploy demagogic narratives reveal themselves as impervious and even hostile to such information. Second, the manner by which the demagogue pre-processes information capitalizes on passions felt by his following, rendering them less capable of reasoned, cognitively-open political reflection. Rather than either seeking to appease outrage or redirect it to achieve a legitimate political end, the demagogue seizes upon it to maximize his own purchase with audiences. Thus, insofar the demagogue controls the terms his political narrative, he can also justify actions within his narrative which would be unconscionable in the absence of such a narrative.

Diagnosis and Possible Remedies

As evidenced by the foregoing discussion, a pliant public is a necessary, but not a sufficient, cause of demagoguery as we understand it. Demagogues are primarily self-caused, ambitious individuals who perceive a political culture ripe for a personality who will vindicate that culture. If heeded, our proposed remedy, though perhaps not completely achievable, can improve public discourse by degree. Politicians, news and social media or “information elites,” and the public at large—each of these play a role in shaping public discourse. We believe information elites, as the gatekeepers of information, are especially well-positioned to safeguard against the emergence of demagogues. In determining how to shape and inform narratives, journalists and mass communicators must appreciate the gravity of their professional responsibility to communicate new information in a way that does justice to its complexity and interpretability. Reforming public discourse as it currently stands will require rearticulating an ethic of political communication that signals a self-conscious awareness of the dangers posed by demagoguery.

To this end, we propose two points of guidance, both rooted in the idea that truth, though elusive, is ultimately distinguishable from falsehood. First, information elites must attain greater self-awareness regarding the temptations they will face to impose demagogic narratives on the information they report and interpret. These temptations are themselves imposed by brutal market realities: Website traffic and high viewership have become important criteria for what counts as important and relevant in the news. Thus, consumer-dependent structures induce commentators to conform all reports—even irrelevant or confounding ones—to narratives projected to have purchase with a calculated viewership. While we recognize the need on the part of news and social media companies to fund and expand their enterprises, we think developing an industry-wide ethic which pressures journalists to diligently reject demonstrably false narratives could counteract the corroding effects of a relatively “free-market” approach to truth in journalism.

A second and perhaps taller order is for reporters and commentators to develop an internal compass for the explanatory power of narratives. Almost instinctively, partisan media outlets seek stories which vindicate their respective narratives. Though such narratives are sometimes validated, incidents like Cov-Cath suggest that stories which seem too good to be true usually are. This is not to say such incidents therefore refute the narrative in question. After all, white male Trump supporters have bullied racial minorities and have comported themselves in a basically deplorable way too many times to warrant discounting their actions as aberrations from a norm. Yet by the same token, it cannot be assumed by news and social-media contributors that a given sample of white males will fit this narrative. In general, contingency circumscribes the descriptive power of narratives—a fact the acknowledgement of which civil, and meaningful, public discourse depends on.

Charles Zug is a PhD candidate in the department of government at the University of Texas at Austin. His scholarly training is in public law, political theory, and American politics, and his dissertation is on demagoguery and American constitutionalism. His scholarly work has been published in Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, The Australian Journal of Politics & History, and Perspectives on Political Science. He has written commentary on political and Constitutional issues for several publications, including The Washington Post and The Austin American-Statesman.

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