Things haven’t got more political during the Trump era; they are always political and always will be.
People who want to quietly get on with making money, going to brunch, and ignoring the bloody business of sustaining the system might tell you that the Biden years will be less ‘political’. That’s bullshit.
I think there are two major categories of public behaviours — those that have explicitly political content and those that have implicitly political content. People who airily dismiss their actions or even their entire selves as ‘apolitical’ are making a political choice, they simply do not want to own that political choice honestly. Instead, they prefer to abrogate that responsibility and leave the big questions of right, wrong, and policy to others.
The Trump-era was uncomfortable for the abrogators because they could not lean on their beloved ‘norms’, the unwritten but seemingly ironclad rules, that ensured that all the bloody business of politics is done with a sheen of civility and politeness. It is not that Presidents and Prime Ministers bomb other countries that really bothers the abrogators, but rather that the process is not done ‘properly’ or explained in finely-turned rhetoric.
The abrogators found and find Trump most objectionable because he puts children in cages and doesn’t bother to hide it. The cages and the family separation was there before, but previous presidents simply had the good grace to prevent it from intruding into the quiet and pleasantly disposed lives of the abrogators. They do not wish to know about the parts of capitalism that require a certain number of people to go without, nor the bits of the borders, prisons, and other machinery of state power with are violent to those that do not look like the abrogators. The poor and the dispossessed cannot be abrogators because politics presses itself against their faces every day.
The catalyst for writing this short essay was this question and answer from an interview with the Venture Capitalist, Hunter Walk:
Alex Kantrowitz: I just published a newsletter talking about how, during the Trump presidency, tech products turned political. Companies used to say their platforms were neutral, and they can’t anymore. Do you agree with that premise?
Hunter Walk: I’d separate it into two camps. Is society political right now? Are we being challenged by this last administration and what America is going through right now to take a stance on a values basis for what we believe in? Separate from that is can tech embrace or set apart from politics when tech is no longer an underdog?
The former I think is where a lot of the heat is because that’s where the passion — the “I don’t want my company to do business with a government department that’s separating families” — is. A bunch of questions about what is the role of a company and should it have a political viewpoint, so on and so forth. But I think a lot of this also has to do with the technology industry essentially being the driver of economic growth and innovation for America. And so you have an industry that’s incredibly powerful and doesn’t always want to acknowledge or realize that.
But in reality, that’s naïve. Tech is now an industry with a lot of power, and that power attracts the attention of government and regulators. So I don’t think that’s going anywhere. Are we in a heightened moment where the decisions you make as a company are seen through partisan lenses? Yeah. I think we’re probably at a 10 out of 10 scale on that right now, and I’m not sure if that persists into the future in the same way. But politics and tech are going to be linked so long as technology is driving the economy.
There’s a principle in media training called “rejecting the premise”, which means choosing to answer the question you want to answer when you don’t like the phrasing of the one put to you. I reject the premise of Kantrowitz’s question even though he didn’t ask it to me.
Technology has always been political. It was political in the industrial revolution and it is political now. It is simply that older technology, while it had explicit political implications when it was new, now seems to be implicit to us. Things like electricity, cars, or the mobile phone has stamped themselves so thoroughly on our societies that it is hard to imagine a time when these things were not ubiquitous.
Both of my living grandparents were born before any of those innovations — the car, electricity in homes, and the telephone — were accessible to everyone and they grew up in a political environment where the general attitude towards politicians, especially from the media, was one of deference. It was a technology that changed that. As with The Royal Family, politicians had their mystery removed by television. Television was explicitly political and so is social media.
As for Walk’s phrase, “Is society political right now?” that barely merits a response. The word ‘society’ is political, as Margaret Thatcher would no doubt have told you at length, and there is no such thing as a society without politics, whether that’s the society present in a whole country or one that springs up on a forum or within a specific social media bubble.
The kicker of Walk’s answer — “But politics and tech are going to be linked so long as technology is driving the economy.” — has the same issue. Politics and technology are going to be linked so long as technology exists, politicians exist, and humans in general exist.
I would offer a similar complaint about this part of Walk’s answer too — “Are we in a heightened moment where the decisions you make as a company are seen through partisan lenses? Yeah. I think we’re probably at a 10 out of 10 scale on that right now…” — because it is almost an abrogator’s answer. Companies are never apolitical and their decisions are never apolitical either. Industries do not exist in a vacuum. In a capitalist system, the larger a company grows, the larger the desires of its owners to interact with and attempt to influence the political system become.
Life under Biden will not be less political, nor would life in the UK if Boris Johnson was replaced with some more ‘polite’ Conservative. David Cameron was a more convention-bound politician and he took Britain into a referendum that shattered a consensus of decades and subjected the nation to a prolonged period of ideologically-inspired austerity. If politeness conceals the political from you then you are, I’m afraid, a rube.