Can we assess the 2024 U.S. election (in the era of big data) through the eyes of Hannah Arendt? Divided America and the Undetectable Truth

by He Xiao, University of Bristol Law School,

Starting from the 1970s, journalist, novelist, and playwright, George Packer portrayed four facets of America and four ways of narrating the American story in his magazine article How America Fractured into Four Parts. The term ‘Free America’ refers to the rise of neoliberalism stemming from the conservative movement of the 1970s, incorporating elements of elitist traditionalism and anti-communism theories. Riding on the dissatisfaction with stagflation in the 1970s, it became the mainstream of the Republican Party, securing dominance with Reagan’s charismatic leadership. On the other hand, the narrative of ‘Smart America’, prevalent among the top ten percent of salaried professionals in the America, is characterized by being beneficiaries of information technology, modernization, and globalization. Despite sharing common interests in elitism and embracing capitalism, the attitude of Smart America towards government intervention is more flexible, aiming for government to ensure equal opportunities for everyone to achieve social mobility.

Real America’s supporters express strong dissatisfaction with the monopoly era brought about by Free America’s dismantling of unions and changes in anti-monopoly policies, which adversely affected the middle class and workers during the financial crisis. This discontent has fuelled a potent populist movement, ultimately giving rise to a blend emphasizing white identity, Christianity, and nationalism. From Palin to Donald Trump taking office, the influence of Real America has been growing, even impacting Smart America and Free America.

Packer believes that Real America is primarily opposed to the identity defined by graduate schools and professions, which characterizes the intelligent America supporters. The profound mutual misunderstanding and hostility between Smart America and Real America, reflected in Trump’s strong lead from the 2016 election to the present, seem to have led both sides to overlook the close connection between Real America and Free America. This connection can be glimpsed from the deep ties between Palin and the McCain family and can also be clearly seen in the composition of the Trump family’s wealth.

According to Packer’s clues ‘Free America’ has disrupted the country, ‘Real America’ has become the victim, and ‘Smart America,’ as beneficiaries of the marginal wealth under the order of Free America, is dissatisfied with the former’s greed and lack of restraint while constantly guarding against the latter. So why can’t the followers of Real America recognize that they are opposing the rules set by ‘Free America,’ and how are they being guided by the messenger of Free America, Donald Trump, to direct their firepower towards Smart America? Is it truly due to the limited education level as Smart America might believe?

In a classic scene from a TV drama  Newsroom, the main character remains silent to protect a colleague, aspiring to be a modern-day Don Quixote. During detention, he criticizes a working-class man with a history of domestic violence and alcoholism, standing on a moral high ground, highlighting the lack of manners and idealism in the latter. In that show, the representative of Free America, the owner of the television station, is portrayed as an open-minded capitalist supporting media freedom reform. This not only prompts reflection on how the classless society described by Arendt is portrayed in an era of extensive development in big data and self-media but also emphasizes that, compared to the mysterious monopoly in financial politics by Free America, the arrogance of Smart America is more visible in this age, making it easier to provoke anger and resonance among the followers of Real America.

Although the current era is difficult to explain as a time of social class disintegration as Arendt witnessed in The Origins of Totalitarianism, to some extent, it has become an era with a solidification of wealth disparity. However, with the development of self-media, the mass society is gradually taking shape, as the class differences in terms of the right to speak and comment on the internet are not so apparent. The precise algorithm recommendation mechanism has ironically given rise to the homogenization of content, which may be traced back to the weakening of traditional social bonds, as Arendt pointed out, leading to individuals becoming isolated and alienated. In today’s era, this kind of online mass society has fostered a dependence on identification with online peers. Not understanding internet trends may lead to social pressure from ridicule by others, and Trump’s propaganda, often radical and more likely to trigger algorithmic push, can be seen by more people. Edited clips depicting Trump’s antics provide more material for the algorithmic push mechanism. On the other hand, Smart America, represented by the Democratic Party, often struggles to provide entertainment material to social media due to its inability to shed the burden of elitism. Instead, followers of Smart America insist on emphasizing that MAGAs lack discernment so they are easily to be deceived Trump.

Arendt argued for the early importance of political transparency in ‘Lying in Politics,’ but achieving it in contemporary times has become exceedingly challenging, primarily due to the increasing complexity of what constitutes lying. The rise of short videos has made it convenient to narrow or even eliminate the distinction among fact, truth, truthfulness, and truthiness[1]. I believe that facts can be further broken down into conduct, circumstances, and results. The crucial element that bridges the first two with the last one, the causal link, is what makes facts transition into truth. It’s also the part of the process most susceptible to the influence of narrative and interpretation. In today’s information society driven by the technological revolution, presenting all the circumstances and results has become more challenging for various reasons. For instance, the decline of local media has resulted in information homogenization, and the information bubble created by algorithmic big data and short videos makes it difficult to present the complete logical chain within limited time.

What’s even more challenging is the mutual distrust between the public and the government, which is an inevitable outcome of the conflicting narratives within the four Americas, leading to questioning the causation presented by each other. This, to some extent, has given rise to a prevalence of factual causation based on a simple “but for test” and the subsequent emergence of anti-intellectualism, anti-elitism, and conspiracy theories. Trump’s propaganda, for example, took advantage of this by continuously reinforcing these simple causal relationships (such as “if there were no immigrants, the American people wouldn’t be unemployed”), depriving the public of opportunities for deep logical reasoning in their daily lives and creating a form of “truthiness.”

The academic community or the entire elite group did not acknowledge these simple causal relationships but repeatedly emphasized that they were not “truth” but a form of “truthiness,” further intensifying the public’s resistance to elitism. For some members of the public, factual causation is indeed a form of “truth” to some extent, but the politicians creating this “truth” lack truthfulness because there are deeper levels of causation at play which they intentionally hide them from the audience. Therefore, it is the government’s responsibility to disclose other causation, or at least, to some extent, achieve truthfulness.

Critical Youth and the Future

And it is worth noting is that the primary audience for short videos, namely young Americans aged 35 and above, in Packer’s opinion, many of whom are followers of the fourth narrative, “Unfair/Just America.” Their perspective differs from previous generations of Americans. Packer believes that in their eyes, America is not on an upward trajectory. Examples of America slowly improving, from the abolition of slavery to Obama’s election, do not resonate with the life experiences of these young people. What captures their attention are events like Floyd’s death and Epstein’s sordid island. Conventional beliefs held by the older generation of Americans, such as knowledge is power, democracy and capitalism being the best systems, and even the idea that America is a nation of immigrants, no longer appeal to these rebellious young individuals. The cognitive foundation of “America has never achieved justice” supports these disillusioned young people as they immerse themselves in critical theories and identity politics.

Regarding the possibility of reconciliation among these four Americas, it is somewhat disheartening that the solution implied by Packer is remarkably similar to the object of his criticism – Free America: facts and truths are not as crucial; the key lies in telling compelling stories that cater to individuals’ moral imaginings. This also brings to mind Arendt’s in-depth exploration of the perplexing question of why, during the Vietnam War, there was a severe lack of understanding about the Asian situation from government leadership to think tanks and the military, yet the deception of the public did not cease, portraying it as a just war.

When internal contradictions become unmanageable, a common external enemy becomes a perfect vessel for telling compelling stories. In this case, that vessel is China, which, due to its socialist history, can trigger Free America’s anti-communist tradition. It can also harbour the resentment of Real America over the industrial shift inherited from the honeymoon period of China and America, which contributed to the unemployment crisis. Moreover, China’s Cultural Revolution history evokes fear in Smart America, born out of concerns for educational equity and social mobility. Even the severe labour-capital conflicts and wealth disparities in present-day China can be used to justify the pursuit of justice by Just America. This provides Trump with a prerequisite identified by Arendt for an authoritarian regime: an apparently cohesive and all-encompassing ideology. At this level, the division and discord among the four Americas can be entirely masked by theoretical weapons extracted from Cold War ideologies: as long as the evil China is eliminated, the radiant America can thrive once again.

However, the question is, who represents China? The internal divisions in China, compared to the America, are equally if not more complex and multifaceted. After the initiation of economic reforms, one could argue that a ‘Smart China’ emerged, similar to how certain Smart America supporters, through the restructuring of state-owned enterprises, accumulated considerable wealth and essentially constructed a ‘Free China’. Among the vast population of ‘Real China’ followers, how many individuals harbour a male-centric mindset rooted in resentment, projecting gender-based discrimination onto affluent women who have accumulated wealth? Additionally, how many supporters advocating for a ‘Just China’ are actually elite males returning from abroad seeking to rebuild gender dominance after experiencing racial discrimination overseas?[2]

As we enter the beginning of the Web 3.0 era, with the growing empowerment of individuals over their own information underpinned by blockchain technology and the inevitable push towards decentralization, the question arises: who will seize the initiative in the battle to establish a mass society? Instead of asking whether it is China or America, it might be more pertinent to ask whether it is capital or the people. After all, the recent developments in the Epstein case received little attention in the mainstream media in China.

[1] Truthiness is the acceptance of a statement as true based on personal intuition rather than evidence, logic, or facts. It has been a prominent topic in discussions about U.S. politics due to concerns about increased propaganda and a decline in fact-based reporting.

[2] Founder of the prominent Chinese nationalist website Observer, Li Shimor, and members of the Fudan China Research Center are mostly highly educated Chinese males who have studied abroad. Some even retain foreign citizenship.

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