What we commonly call “concern trolling” in online discussion has far deeper rhetorical roots in the public sphere. In many ways, it’s a style that was honed to near-perfection by centrist liberal intellectuals and academics in the 1960s, the sort that were brilliantly vivisected by Garry Wills in Nixon Agonistes. These were the men and women (mostly men) who were in their own view outside of and beyond ideology. They might favor a particular policy or course of action, but most of them claimed to be making a series of serially independent reasoned judgments, taking each issue on its merits, according to its facts. This was not just a personal preference. They argued that this approach was the essence of academic professionalism, of expert participation in public debate, and even the only right way to be a proper citizen in democratic and community deliberation. Journalists (in the U.S., not so much elsewhere) also commonly adopted this basic posture, that they were obliged to have no priors or assumptions, to treat everything they covered in a neutral, dispassionate manner that deferred to the facts of a given event or issue.
Intellectuals, scholars, experts, pundits or journalists who had strong or distinctive points of view were either bracketed off as a splinter movement (“New Journalism”) or disparaged as ideologues who approached issues and problems with a prior politics that led to a selective, biased understanding of the issues at hand and the facts of the matter. Intellectual and cultural historians, literary scholars and others who study the history of public debate in the United States with a long view are aware of just how different the resulting structure of public discourse in American life was after 1960 from the period between 1880 and 1950. It really was a shift: in the prior era of high modernism, intellectuals and experts didn’t hesitate to advocate policies and programs directly, for the most part–for good and ill.
Despite the supposed rejection of “objectivity” as a goal or evaluative marker in the social sciences, many experts and scholars have held on to the performative affect of the no-ideology intellectual continuously since the 1970s. In public writing, that increasingly meant that intellectuals and pundits only advocated ideas and proposals that came from someone else, from research or data or pilot programs etc. that resulted from the direct agency of some other expert, some other civic or institutional leader. Somewhere else and someone else. The pundit became a window to some distant light, transparent to its illumination but having no direct responsibility for incandescence. And increasingly, the light was directed towards those the pundit considered in darkness, in a gesture of olympian magnaminity. “Were I you,” he (almost always a he, almost always white) says, “I would look seriously at this finding, this study, this other expert, this situation. For were I you, I would act differently than you do, once I saw this finding, this study, this other expertise. Indeed, if you only will live in the light I cast in your direction, you might in fact be lucky enough to be me. That’s what I would be, were I you: I’d be me. Unbiased, generous, unhampered by ideology, just making up my own mind about everything rationally and without any priors right until the moment I come across it.”
Once upon a time, that noxious, phony performance was substantially confined to the op-ed pages of the New York Times and other major dailies, to the televisual punditry, to a small sector of public-facing academic social science, to a very particular subset of civic organizations. Bit by bit, however, it slipped into the wild, and now it infects our everyday public discourse across social media, public culture, civic institutions and conventional mainstream journalism.
In practice? Some examples of what this dissemination of deferral means:
1) Most of the public conversation between educated elites about electoral preferences studiously avoids the responsibility of actually having electoral preferences of one’s own that arise out of one’s own values and commitments. Instead, arguments about various candidates and issues are deferred onto some other “them” who have actual preferences who need to be appeased, mobilized or enlisted. So, for example, few people in these public conversations directly advocate for Joe Biden’s candidacy because they really like his positions or his specific qualities as a leader, but instead argue that Biden must be favored because he is the favored candidate of social groups who are not present in the conversation. Their (alleged) reasons for favoring him cannot be debated or discussed, only described, because they are not there to speak to them, and even if they were there, are presumed to not be willing to discuss their reasoning.
2) Much of the leadership within civic and academic institutions and often businesses as well advocates for particular policies or changes not because the leadership directly believe in or support such policies, but because the policies are “best practices” or “shared norms” that originated somewhere else. There is a quality of immaculate conception in these kinds of explanations, in fact: the policies adopted often have no specific place of birth and no initial author, but seem instead to have been adopted everywhere at once but nowhere also, with no sense that they are rivalrous to or critical of the norms they are set to displace.
3) Technocratic politicians and Silicon Valley companies (mostly) cleave to policies and products that have been produced almost through a competitive bidding process: they describe a problem they have identified and that they seek to provide some some of ameliorating solution for. The advocated solution doesn’t arise out of the political values or philosophy of the leader and their staff: the root value is to solve problems, what Evgeny Morozov calls “solutionism”. The solution is framed as neutral, as containing no values or agenda. (And hence, opposing the solution is held to be a corrupt investment in the continuation of the initial problem, because why else would you stand in the way of fixing a problem?) Once again, the people responsible for implementing or selling solutions are placed a sanitary step away from the conceptualization of and advocacy for a solution.
I think this is all tied to the much more abstract, multivalent erosion of 19th and 20th Century conceptions of publics and citizenship in the direction of the constellation of ideas and practices that we often call “neoliberalism”. The advantages of this deferral of direct responsibility for advocacy are obvious for individuals and institutions. David Brooks or Bret Stephens can throw up their hands and say that they’re not responsible for gross errors of fact or tendentious constructions of argument, because they’re only serving as a messenger for what is said and claimed by others that they believe their readers should know about. Institutions can shield themselves against risk and liability if they are only conforming to or compliant with decisions and practices adopted elsewhere. The failure of solutions can be blamed on the subcontractor that supplied them or simply on the intractability of the problem itself without putting any values or beliefs in danger.
The costs I think are also plain. Chief among them is that this deepens the isolation of elites from a wider civic culture, because all of these moves position elites and their institutions as the chess players on a board populated by other groups, other people, other communities but bearing no responsibility for either setting the rules of the game nor for the outcomes of play. We can scarcely begin to think successfully about what other worlds are possible when we absent ourselves and the direct power we actually have from the world we actually inhabit.