5. Split states

The contrast I’ve been outlining between text and streaming media probably sounds familiar, maybe even obvious. Similar contrasts have been made before. Tocqueville, for example, wrote in the same vein when he contrasted the aristocratic and democratic styles of literature. Democrats, he predicted, would write more excitedly and less accurately, and they would take a much greater interest in the ordinary person and his ordinariness. Tocqueville doubted there was any point in lamenting the change; it would happen whether or not critics regretted it.

That’s probably true of this shift, too. I doubt exhortation will raise the number of readers. How will the shift alter politics? Here I intend to sail off the map.

The psychoanalyst Melanie Klein proposed, years ago, that people waver between two ways of thinking about one another. In split-off states, people perceive themselves and those they are attached to either as all good or all bad. In what she calls the “depressive position,” by contrast, people feel mixed emotions about both themselves and others. Although it may not sound like it, the depressive position is an achievement. Once you admit that some part of you hates some part of a person that you also love, you have to shoulder new burdens of worry and guilt. Will the person you love become angry with you? Will you hurt them? Ambivalence, according to Klein, is a state of high potential energy. Under pressure it’s apt to break down into the more primitive but less conflictual all-good or all-bad feelings. It’s easier to alternate between omnipotence and euphoria, on the one hand, and persecution and rage, on the other, than to balance melancholically between them.

Because conflicting texts can be read as it were simultaneously, they help readers to reach the depressive position with regard to politicians and their policies. It’s possible with texts to judge for oneself—that is, to suspend judgment while considering both the good and the bad. Streamed reports, in contrast, may only be experienced in sequence: the good and the bad are always separated in time. The perceptions succeed one another without synthesis.

In a tacit acknowledgment of this deficit, the streamed media have developed genres that put representatives of rival political camps in dialogue. But I don’t think these shows overcome the problem. They seem rather to aggravate the tendency to take sides. Television’s interest in fact checking, this past election season, had to me the flavor of a rear-guard action—or, worse, of an ideological fakeout.

Here my analysis runs out of steam. I think we are living through a shift in our political culture, and I’ve tried to describe it. But I don’t have any idea what to do about it.