For simplicity’s sake, it was tempting for me to disregard Andrew Breitbart as just a bully. (Though, as we’re coming to recognize, even schoolyard bullies have long lasting negative impacts on their victims.) But the fact of the matter is his mean-spirited and brash style of activism lead to the undeserved downfall of real people.
Andrew Sullivan, in a remembrance of Breitbart, asked his readers to remember Breitbart as a human being who did have a mean streak, but was still a real person. I’m inclined to do so, but in doing so we must remember the biggest impression he made in public life. You don’t have to be a liberal or Breitbart’s enemy to recognize how much harm that legacy left on political discourse and in the mainstream normalization of hatred in America. Ta-Nehisi Coates has a wonderful entry that fleshes out this point.
I don’t think Breitbart was the cause for the incendiary political atmosphere that we have and that we’ve had. He was definitely a passionate opportunist who took advantage of it. I would say, though, that his legacy is responsible for amplifying this kind of atmosphere. He was successful with the amplification by revolutionizing the echo chamber that did have a real political effect on local and state level elections in recent years. His innovative use of social media and aggressive PR (in addition to his nastiness) fed a base of people who are impervious to anything but ego-stroking and soaking up only what they want to hear. The more you hear It, the more you become convinced of It.
Before I go any further, I do not care about Breitbart’s ideological rigidity or his reactionary ideology. With few exceptions, I do not argue with people’s hardline political beliefs. My political stance is as cemented in most areas, and that kind of arguing I’ve found to be exercises in futility. When I do argue with people who are diametrically opposite of me, I don’t do it to change their perspective – rather, it’s for my enjoyment and to sharpen my cognitive fitness. I feel like I’m largely resistant to the liberal/conservative paradigm that’s taken over the American political system and that’s why I tend to view it from an outside perspective, which frustrates folks who want to peg me as a “liberal”, “Progressive” or whatever the slight-of-the-day is. I don’t expect this to change until this system collapses on itself, which brings me to my next point.
Andrew Breitbart’s style of argument and his style of aggressive promotion and his tendency toward lying, and his young death, could serve as a lesson to the country’s political discourse. The rise in nastiness coupled with arguments based on untruths, rather than facts, has mirrored Breitbart’s rise as a right-wing superstar. The reactionary response to shoddily edited videos, mass cognitive dissonance regarding politicians, “activist judges,” and the like have been on a meteoric rise in this country’s discourse. There were hints of the unadulterated rage before, but it was usually contained on the fringe of mainstream politics. Breitbart helped open that flood gate and now, as we’ve seen in the contraception debate, it’s causing a backlash from everyone else who is demonstrably affected by his kind of argument and action.
Breitbart’s death could similarly mirror the death of this sort of politics.
I’m not saying it will. It’s just as possible that it will continue, and in fact heighten. Breitbart had an enormous amount of stress that he put on himself, and that high-strung nastiness, could have been the catalyst that hastened the death of his heart. There are a few ways I can see American political discourse playing out alongside the passing of Breitbart.
A.) the discourse slows; people take a deep breath and return to an at least tangentially truth-based kind of discourse that will sustain the American system, b.) the Breitbart-style of discourse will bring the American system to a hastened end or c.) the Breitbart-style will live on, but it will forever be a predatory, unhealthy system for everyone involved. I cannot see how option c.) can be a sustainable system, but who knows.
A second note here: I’m a big fan of the Golden Rule. Do to others as you would like others to do to you. It’s good playground wisdom that would do adults well to carry into their lives. I believe that under normal circumstances, this rule would force people to put themselves in others shoes and a more civilized, equitable relation can arise from this.
I said “normal circumstances.” There are not-so-normal circumstances, however. Breitbart represented a form of a not-so-normal circumstance. In scanning his obits, most notably in my mind from Matt Taibbi, I get the impression that he wanted others to do to him as he did to others. It was a destructive sort of desire. But, that’s the kind of legacy that Breitbart leaves behind. Those who would like to see the American system live on would do well to see Breitbart as a kind of harbinger.