The American Experience vs. The American Perception
Comment-section musings, and outsiders' views of the U.S. political culture.
Last week, we here at BernardGoldberg.com switched from a Wordpress-based platform over to Substack, the increasingly popular newsletter platform. Things look a bit different style-wise, and readers should notice some speed and search efficiencies, but from a content perspective, little has changed. Every column, audio and video commentary, and Q&A Bernie has put out since 2009 can still be found right here. The same goes for all of my columns.
What’s gone now (or at least sits by its lonesome somewhere in the Quantum Realm) is the old Disqus-based comment section that appeared below each post on the old site. Substack has its own area for comments, which a number of you have already been using for a while, being that Bernie’s been running his membership parallel, through Substack and Patreon, for some time. In other words, last week’s change saw us move from three platforms to two. (We explained why here, if anyone’s interested.)
There are a lot of memories from that decade-old comment section, and most of them amount to some really ridiculous, overly-heated, double-standard-heavy, hopelessly partisan mud-slinging.
As a conservative during the Obama years, most of my columns back then were critical of the political left, and were at least in general alignment with a number of prominent conservative thinkers, as well as most of this website’s readers (driven here in large part by Bernie’s regular appearances on the O’Reilly Factor) who regularly dropped their thoughts in the comment section. Committed lefty-commenters, on the other hand, not only hated pretty much everything Bernie and I wrote, but reliably twisted themselves into rhetorical and ideological pretzels to insist that we were elitists and racists who hated old and poor people (and probably even puppies).
Sure, it was frustrating and tedious at times, but the good thing about writing from a position of honesty, sincerity, and independence is that it ultimately doesn’t matter how others choose to perceive you. Unlike a lot of political writers, my commentary has never been my profession. I enjoy having a voice on this platform and others, but I’ve never been in it for money, and I’ve never been under any pressure to boost web-clicks.
Just free, genuine, intellectually-consistent thoughts. Take ‘em or leave ‘em.
As a conservative during Trump’s term, most of my columns back then were critical of the political right, because of the exodus of long-preached conservative principles, standards, and policy-positions from the Republican party and right-wing media… all in self-serving deference to the whims of the personality-cult leader who’d taken over the GOP. That exodus expanded to many comment-section regulars, several of whom decided that my refusal to go with the flow, and instead maintain and promote the same beliefs I’d held prior to a certain escalator-ride at Trump Tower in 2015, made me a political traitor and “useful idiot” for the far left. And truth be told, though the “far left” never warmed to me, I did seem to earn some of that proverbial “strange new respect” from the relatively small contingent of left-leaning folks who continued to come here, despite not moving any closer to them politically or ideologically.
Again, the good thing about writing from a position of honesty, sincerity, and independence is that it ultimately doesn’t matter how others choose to perceive you. I’m not here (nor have I ever been) to hold my finger to the wind, and leech onto some political trend or movement for my personal benefit.
As a conservative during the Biden years, I genuinely believed, going into 2021, that most of my columns would be critical of the left again. Thanks to Donald Trump, the Democrats had taken back the House, Senate, and presidency (including turning once reliably red Georgia and Arizona blue) — the worst GOP electoral defeat in over 70 years. And after two months of the Big Lie, and the deadly January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, I was hoping the party, right-wing media, and Republican base would finally decide it was time to detach themselves (even if casually) from the man who had cost them so much, including his unforgivable denial of our country’s peaceful transfer of power.
What’s become clear, however, is that the American right, in large part, isn’t done self-mutilating for Trump. And so I’m not done writing about that self-mutilation, and calling for a better path forward, even as I continue to denounce the left for the serious economic and cultural damage coming from its ranks.
The good thing about writing from a position of honesty, sincerity, and independence is that it ultimately doesn’t matter how others choose to perceive you. But with this iteration, let me add a caveat to that statement: I do think there’s something important to be gained through others’ perception, not specifically of people like me (I figured that out a long time ago), but of American politics and American culture as a whole… and understanding where that perception comes from.
Going back to the old comment section, one thing that’s been surprising to me over the past six years has been the slow revelation that a significant portion of the longtime commenters — right-wing folks who I’ve watched transition from good-natured, somewhat reasonable conservatives to conspiracy-embracing, hair-on-fire, MAGA-faithfuls (who believe that everything that’s gone down in America on Biden’s watch is irrefutable proof that the United States is just a pronoun or illegal immigrant away from complete collapse) — is how few of them actually… well, live in America.
I’ve of course always understood what the word “World” meant in World Wide Web (painfully so when the site became a favorite target of Russian bots during the 2016 election-cycle), but I’d just kind of assumed (in some cases for years) that pretty much everyone who commented here, and was passionate about American politics, was part of my country’s internal, domestic debate. I figured they had personally witnessed and even suffered under the “American carnage” they’ve so emphatically decried.
I believed this even as the pictures they painted of America were largely unrecognizable to me — a lifelong American living in fly-over country, who’s been involved in American politics, and who’s traveled to every corner of this great nation. I supposed I just wrote it off to reflexive hyperbole.
But that wasn’t the case. It’s turned out (sometimes as the result of some badgering on my part) that several of them live up in Canada or down in Central America, and most aren’t American citizens. While they’re certainly more than welcome to comment here, and air their views, it’s important to consider that their perception of the United States doesn’t come from the American experience but rather the media. And judging by the positions and narratives they readily put forth (and sometimes by their own admission), it’s specifically my country’s right-wing media.
Why does this matter? To me, there’s a huge difference between living in a country’s culture, and under its rule of law, versus just being shown or told about it... especially when that showing and telling is coming from sources that target and tailor their messaging to a relatively small, fairly specific audience.
I’ve made this point before, but I’ll do it again: if your broad views on Japanese culture are derived almost entirely from watching hours upon hours of Japanese game shows, those views are probably going to be pretty far off-base (which is kind of a shame since some of what I’ve seen makes me want to move there)…
And I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but much of the right-wing and left-wing media share a lot more in common with Japanese game-shows than a lot of people would like to admit (especially in recent years). It’s excitement. It’s outlandish. It’s visceral. It’s conflict. It’s entertainment.
But let’s try a closer comparison, or better yet an exercise…
If you live in the United States, ask yourself just how much you know about Canadian culture, specifically the country’s political culture. If you’re like me, you know their prime minister is Justin Trudeau (a liberal pretty-boy who likes to play dress-up), you know the late Rob Ford was one hell of a party-animal, you know the country had a trucker dispute over a covid mandates a while back, and you know that the on-again off-again Keystone Pipeline starts there. You probably know a few other things as well, but I’m guessing you get my point. By and large, if you haven’t lived or at least spent a ton of time there, you don’t know a whole lot.
Would you know more if you watched a lot of right-wing or left-wing Canadian news-entertainment (something equivalent to Fox News or MSNBC in this country) or visited a lot of hyper-partisan Canadian websites?
Probably, at least in the realm of political battles. You’d know the talking points. You’d know which political figures are saying what about which other political figures. You’d know what fiery rhetoric about which wedge issues is being tossed back and forth to gin up political bases and political-media audiences. You might even learn a little about issues of actual substance. After all, such outlets typically aren’t fabricating stories (though that happens at times) so much as they’re manipulating those stories for their respective audiences.
But that manipulation — whether it be through exaggeration, bad-faith interpretation, omission, or something else — is the problem. Through such a filter, how accurate or representative of a picture do you think you, as an American, would get of Canada’s broader state and culture?
Would you feel comfortable discounting the views of people who actually live in Canada, and are immersed in that culture every day (and in many cases, have been for their entire lives)?
Would you feel comfortable framing Canadian voters as know-nothings if they didn’t vote for the Canadian politicians you wanted them to vote for?
Would you feel comfortable insisting that Canadians are disconnected from, or ignorant to, what’s really going on in their country?
I mean, you certainly wouldn’t be preaching to Canadians the magnificence of Canadian nationalism, would you? Because that would be an acknowledgement that anything else you say about their country’s politics should be immediately rejected by them as “globalist” interference, thus making you look like an absolute imbecile.
What you may reasonably feel comfortable doing, however, is dismissing concerns (even dire ones) over things like Canadian institutions, whether they’re related to governance or some other domestic component of society. Because why would it be a concern to you — someone who doesn’t live there? Right?
I mean, as an American, there’s plenty of stuff that would bother (and even mortify) me if it happened here, but wouldn’t really get me all that worked up if it happened in another country.
For example, I’m not sure I’d lose much sleep if Justin Trudeau lied for two months about an election he lost, tried (but ultimately failed) to overturn that election, and caused several hundred of his supporters to storm the Centre Block (a place I’d never heard of until five minutes ago when I looked it up) and assault Mounties while chanting “Hang Chrystia Freeland!”
Would I think it was terrible? Of course (as I’m sure most Canadians did when it happened here). But being a purely domestic issue for Canada — an institutional one for that country to deal with, I can’t imagine getting too emotionally invested in it.
Likewise, I don’t care a whole lot about Canada’s national debt, no matter how many trillions are added to it. It’s not like I or my children (or their future children) are the ones on the hook for it. And while other countries’ fiscal situations can (and do) absolutely affect the United States, they don’t carry with it the direct impact they do internally.
Trudeau stealing top secret government documents to show off to friends at his house? Booooooring. Wake me up when you’ve got something exciting, like Tom Green podcast-slamming Bryan Adams over something the singer said about transgender rights. That’s where the sizzle’s at, baby — the front lines of the culture war.
Okay, I’ve gone a little long (and gotten a little silly) on this point, but to wrap it up: the more layers of disconnect between the American experience and the American perception, the fuzzier the picture.
None of this is to say, of course, that foreigners are the only ones being led by the nose by America’s media-driven, performative politics. Millions of Americans — the people these outlets are primarily targeting — clearly are as well, as evidenced by ratings, clicks, and listenership (not to mention the talking points). There’s a significant, very lucrative, domestic market for it… and that’s why these media organizations are the way they are. Political consumers want their biases confirmed, they want their perceived opponents further vilified, and they want their outrages fed. Such things often don’t come about organically, in their everyday lives (aka their American experience), but there are plenty of opportunists out there — in various forms of the media — who eagerly and reliably fill that void and stoke more disconnect with the broader national picture.
Still, it’s important to keep in mind that even the highest-rated cable news programs in the United States are only watched by a tiny slice of the country’s population: roughly 1%. That number gets larger, of course, when you add in other networks, radio shows, and websites that follow the big boys’ lead.
But the bigger problem in that regard is the disproportionate influence those audiences have on high-ranking elected leaders in this country. Far too many politicians are in politics these days to be a celebrity, and they pay much more attention to political-media consumers (who they view as a fan-base) than they do their actual constituents. It’s another layer of disconnect — the perception over the experience — and a topic I’ll save for another time.
Reasonably objective people who’ve read my work over the years should at bare minimum recognize that I follow U.S. politics closely, am embedded in U.S. culture (far outside of the Beltway and big media hubs), am not beholden or devoted to any political party or leader, and do my best to inform myself on the topics I write about. Today, when I turn on certain popular cable-news networks, or pull up certain popular political websites, what I see are Japanese game-shows.
The American experience matters, and far more stock should be put in it.