politics is coming to America, courtesy of a new Democratic initiative called Citizen Strong. Announcing their existence in Bloomberg this week, Citizen Strong claims to have assembled an army of 17,000 amateur secret police who have spent months looking for damaging material on dozens of vulnerable Republicans in Congress and state legislatures. The information – presumably embarrassing at least, career ending at worst – will be unleashed on them just in time for the midterms.
Though this kind of dirt-digging is as old as politics itself, the direction the Democrats are taking opposition research through Citizen Strong reveals how it has been re-energised and refashioned by the communications technology of the early 21st century. Black Mirror politics seeks to uncover, undermine and destroy enemy targets rather than to persuade and inspire potential voters. It is the unholy fusion of Lee Atwater strategies, advanced public shaming techniques and Winston Smith’s job at the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
To understand where it came from, it’s necessary to travel back to November 8 2016, the day Trump won the presidency.
Like almost every other Democrat in America, John Burton, a former treasury official in the Obama White House, came to New York that night to celebrate the election of Hillary Clinton with some old friends. In fact, they had very little to celebrate that evening. Burton, who now worked for JP Morgan (where else?) was, according to Bloomberg, ‘racked with guilt that he hadn’t done his part to stop Trump.’
There’s a whole book waiting to be written on the intense psychic fallout of Trump’s victory on liberals. Naive as it is to admit this now, I thought in the days after Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 that his presidency might turn out to be the great catharsis America needed. The radical shock of having a reality television star in the Oval Office would focus minds. I was excited by the prospect of a new Democratic politics: less focused on symbols, gestures and celebrity; more policies focused on healing the divides and bridging the inequalities that led over 60 million Americans to vote for Trump. Political elders like Mark Lilla and Thomas Frank urged the Democrats to change direction and try to understand why Trump won.
But that reckoning never occurred. Trump and the decades-long processes that underlay his victory were to be opposed, not understood. Why reach out to voters in the sloblands when you can conjure fantasy armies of election-tainting Russian bots instead? Say what you will about the surreal, almost Dadaist character of Donald Trump, as a candidate in 2016 he offered voters a clear story (‘the American Dream is dead’) and clear policies: on trade and jobs, on immigration, on foreign policy. Hillary Clinton did not campaign about the issues people really cared about in that election. She attacked Trump’s personality and anybody who considered voting for him. Why campaign in Wisconsin when Lena Dunham is ready to leave the country if you lose?
Black Mirror politics is the answer to the question posed to Democrats by the age of Trump. The culture war tactics of finding and sharing moral violations in order to ostracise the enemy are a continuation of a style that began in 2016. The incredible battle over the Kavanaugh appointment is more of the same. ‘When they go low, we go high’ already seems like a distant, bemusing memory. It’s all much easier to do than having any policies. In this new era the Democrats are prepared to go low – lower than Trump – in order to win.
John Burton has spent the past twenty three months since that night in November galvanising the bewilderment and guilt of his fellow Democrats into action. Citizen Strong and its 17,000 sleuths have zealously scoured the records of Republicans all over America, culling and distributing information into negative, campaign-shaping stories. Other strategies are even more direct:
‘Burton has snapped up 203 domains of incumbent Republicans that will soon bear the fruit of his researchers’ efforts. Voters searching for information on Representatives Mike Bost of Illinois and Dave Schweikert of Arizona will discover their fondness for staying at Ritz-Carltons and the Waldorf Astoria, a perilous habit in light of Trump’s attacks on the Washington “Swamp.”’
Political black ops used to be the domain of well-connected, well-remunerated operatives like Lee Atwater and Roger Stone. Other than John Burton, Citizen Strong has a mere three full-time employees, backed by ‘dark money’ donors (quick, somebody call Jane Mayer!). The 17,000 amateur detectives digging the dirt on Republicans are all volunteers. Burton explained to Bloomberg how new sources of information make it possible:
‘“There’s so much just sitting out there that’s been made available through sunshine laws, through states posting personal financial disclosures and putting lobbyist disclosures online, and through social media,” Burton says. “There’s just a ton of content, far more than there was when I was starting out 10 years ago.”’
Will Citizen Strong have any impact on the midterms? After all, Trump was elected and Kavanaugh was appointed, even in the face of similar mudslinging. Machiavelli argued that the prince who prospers through acts of cruelty and wickedness ‘must always keep a knife at hand.’ The problem with weaponsing the information that circulates on social networks – formalising the shaming practices that are those networks daily spectacle in the process – is that it unleashes waves of partisan fury that are impossible to control. Machiavelli’s prince must keep the knife at hand because once cruelty is normalised he is as likely to be a victim as he is to be an executioner.
The Black Mirror episode ‘Nosedive’ depicted a world in which people can rate each other from one to five stars for every interaction they have. People with high ratings receive socioeconomic benefits while people with low ratings are despised outcasts. It is a world of soft, syrupy authoritarianism dominated by an overwhelming sameness of thought and approach. The system is made possible because the privacy of this world’s citizens has been abolished, replaced by a grating, joyless day and night transparency. Reading about Burton and Citizen Strong is rather like watching someone make sketches for a future like this. For Burton and his operatives everything is fair game. What kind of politicians will we have if they have no private life, no hinterland?
The answer, as always, is that we will have the ones we deserve.