What’s the point of writing about politics?
Love or money, I suppose. For most of us, it’s the first one that counts. Today, the majority of writing about politics takes place on Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg’s content farms. And if you’re three hours deep into a Twitter war, it’s probably not because you’re getting paid to set the record straight. It’s because you care enough about whatever controversy the internet has thrown into your face that you’re willing to spend a day anxiously refreshing your phone, waiting to see if victory is yours.
Or it’s because you’re building a brand. Yes, media organizations, both legacy and new, are struggling to keep afloat. But there’s still money to be made—oh so much money—by connecting with a devoted audience. It’s the hidden logic that drives American political culture: why Tucker Carlson and Rachel Maddow trade the top spot in cable news back and forth, why the New York Times is becoming the suburban liberal’s Breitbart News, why so many of the writers you love (or hate) are moving to Substack. You’re rewarded for finding your tribe and proving—again, and again, and again—that you’re loyal to the cause.
Which gets to the problem with writing about politics. Max Weber’s famous division of political life into an ethics of conviction and an ethics of responsibility is, annoyingly, still with us. You can be a prophet declaiming the truth without regard for the consequences, or a politician choosing battles with an eye to building alliances. But you can’t be both.
The twist today is that the American political infotainment machine has turned the ethics of conviction into a source of profits. It’s Patreon politics, a trick that allows you to pretend that signaling membership in a group counts as real political work. The question is whether you think a system of commodified tribalization leaves us better off—and if not, what you can do to push against it.
This issue of Dissent is our way of fighting back. It’s a sequel to a 2015 issue we called “Arguments on the Left” that showcased major debates in our corner of the political world. Six years later, we’re back for more. Patreon politics assumes that the only thing standing between you and a better world is the bad faith of the other side. Though in no way comprehensive, the essays in this issue illustrate how much remains up for debate on the left. Instead of pretending to have all the answers, they show the vitality of our movement—democratic socialism without guarantees.
And, to me, they also provide a lesson in how to write about politics. Because every faction on the left today—whether it’s baby boomers who have traded SDS for MSNBC, or DSA’s latest zoomer recruit—is in the minority. If you’re going to spend all your time preaching to the converted, it’s worth asking yourself a question.
What’s the point?
Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.