I had a history teacher once who said that there are certain moments when you feel the fists of history tightening around you. And I think 9/11 was a moment for me when I realized that: Whether or not I was interested in politics, it was going to be interested in me. So that was when I really started paying attention in a deeper way and trying to understand and figure things out. And I was doing this blog because I thought a lot about politics, and I wanted to talk to people about it, and blogging was a way to do that. I thought I would be a political staffer of some kind, work on the Hill or on campaigns. It was only later that it became clear that my path in politics was going to be in writing and in journalism, not working for candidates. Because I actually hated doing that.
Why did you hate that? You worked on Howard Dean’s campaign, right?
I was an intern on Howard Dean’s campaign. Nothing against Howard Dean, who I respect greatly. And supporting candidates is, obviously, essential to make change in the system. But it just wasn’t my way. On campaigns, what you had to do was fall in line behind whatever some candidate said, thought or did. I was interested in trying to understand problems and solutions, and wanted to be able to honestly investigate, find conclusions, convey them to people and work toward them. I would be on the campaign, and they’d come out with a policy. And some other candidate would come out with a plan that I thought was better. And you can’t say, “Well, you know, John Kerry’s or John Edwards’s plan is really the way to go.” [Laughs.] But — and I cannot stress enough, I was an intern on this campaign. Nobody gave a s--- what I thought. I was in the field office sending bumper stickers to people.
In your book, you talk about the dangers of polarization, but obviously the media has had a large role in amplifying certain voices and increasing that polarization.
Something that I thought a lot about when starting Vox was that we wanted to make this argument that what's most important isn't always what's new. But we also wanted to explain the news. And those two things have some amount of conflict to them. The more you're tied to the news cycle, the harder it is to actually step away from that. And then, that begins being driven by social media and Donald Trump and trolls and other players and powers that make pretty bad decisions about what we should all be focusing on. Then all of a sudden you might be explaining news that would be better if you were simply ignoring in favor of other important topics. But that's really hard to do when everybody else is covering something, and so it looks weird to your audience if you don't cover it.
I've come to think a lot about the way we are trapped and manipulated by an incoherent definition of "newsworthiness." And the way that we think in journalism that our power comes from covering things positively or negatively. But it actually comes from amplifying things. A lot of our power is just what we shine the spotlight on. And if other people understand how to make us shine the spotlight on the worst actors and things and controversies then, even if we're doing good work about those bad actors and bad things and bad controversies, we might be adding to the toxicity of the system. So for me, a lot of my work was just trying to figure out ways that we can do good journalism adapting to the moment and the technology and how media manipulators are actually operating.
You’ve pointed out that because of broken systems of accountability we can’t get bipartisan support for even really big challenges, like the impeachment process now.
There is a high school civics theory that the way American government is structured is competition between branches. You’ll still find that today is high school civics textbooks. And it just isn’t true. The way our government today is structured is competition between parties — two parties. And they compete across branches and enlist themselves in the other branches to help. So Donald Trump is being impeached by Democrats, functionally. And he’s enlisted congressional Republicans to help. And Mitch McConnell has been very clear that he is going to do everything he can to help Donald Trump out. The system is not built to work under those conditions. But that is how it works.
At the beginning of every single policy argument I've ever covered, I'll sit in these rooms with people on the left and people on the right and people in the middle and people on the far left and Libertarians, and there's a lot of agreement, ways to make almost anything a bit better for most people. And then, by the end of a highly public process, it's just a party-line vote. It's incredibly polarizing. Polarization makes you afraid of what the other party will do. And all of that zone of compromise is gone. We're like Lucy with the football, where every time we restart, we think it's going to be different. You know, Barack Obama with his massive grass-roots army and the aftermath of a financial crisis and his once-in-a-generation set of political talents. Well, surely, he can bring the country together. Okay, maybe not. Well, Donald Trump, this disruptive force. A wrecking ball to the system. A populist Republican who will inaugurate this new era. Surely, he'll change it. And then, no, he becomes the most polarizing president ever. And now either Joe Biden is going to heal our souls or Bernie Sanders is going to set off a political revolution. You know, name your theory.
At some point, we need an answer for why we seem to end up in the same place. It starts to become clear that if you just throw more people at the same system, they’re going to have more or less the same outcome. And so, the long generational project is somehow changing the system.
On a personal level, wWhy did you need to write a book on polarization?
What I was trying to do for myself, as a reporter and somebody who tries to understand these things, was rebuild a model of politics almost from the ground up. A model robust enough to explain Obama and Trump’s presidencies — how they’re connected to each other, and how they are symptoms and subject to these broader forces that are also affecting the media, affecting how we run campaigns, affecting even how we speak to and treat and love each other.
And so, the impetus was: I don’t understand this. I don’t understand why this is working this way. And for me, the great gift of journalism is being able to then say, “Okay, I’m going to try to figure it out.”
This interview has been edited and condensed. KK Ottesen’s latest book is “Activist: Portraits of Courage.”