Politics is a team sport—and so, we have all learned, is social media. For most of the last century, well-intentioned political theorists lamented that a bureaucratized and media-drenched society had turned democracy into a game where a handful of players competed in front of a passive audience. The same basic dynamic still applies today, except now we have a lot more opportunities to boo or 👏 from the sidelines.
There’s a lot to appreciate about this change. The discrediting of our pundit class, for one. It feels like every time I go online some blue checkmark has found a new way to self-immolate. The internet might be destroying my brain, but it has done a lot worse to Bret “The Bedbug” Stephens, and the rest of us get to watch.
Then there’s the pleasure that comes from witnessing someone who knows how to use their online powers for good. Though it’s hard to picture a Donald Trump presidency without Twitter, it’s even tougher to see how Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign would have caught fire without the oxygen (and funding) that comes with social media stardom. And even if likes and retweets are a simulacrum of solidarity, they’re still better than feeling like you’re alone.
I just wish it added up to more. There’s no undoing the internet, and it might be impossible to complain about it today without sounding like a crank. (“Old Millennial Yells at Cloud,” my internal monologue is telling me.) But there should be a way to keep the extremely online life in proportion. It’s easy to make fun of the account with single-digit followers frantically retweeting Jennifer Rubin. But what separates that sad egg from Rubin, except that she’s getting paid to waste everyone’s time? And if you think the #Resistance crew isn’t helping—that nobody is persuaded, and nobody remembers—how certain can you be that the accounts you like aren’t doing something similar, except with funnier jokes and better takes?
The point isn’t that the left should log off en masse. As long as the internet is going to be a front in the culture war, we can’t afford to disarm. But with the 2020 campaign season about to break the national psyche, it’s worth remembering that good politics don’t protect you from the pathologies that infect the rest of the culture—the stuff that makes us meaner, dumber, and all around worse than the people we want to be. Before dividing into teams, we need places where we can ask why we’re playing this game in the first place.
Which is a long way of saying welcome to the new issue of Dissent. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter.
Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.