The ratings are down for political programming. Good. It has been a difficult few years for the media industry, with newspapers being raided by vulture capitalists, once-great websites being gutted by private equity firms and the President of the United States referring to journalists as “enemies of the people,” rhetoric that inevitably led to disturbed people trying to kill them.
The news media is the least trusted institution in the United States (other than Congress, of course), which is a bad sign when your entire reason for being is to inform, and to be trusted by, the public. It’s a rough time all around.
But one thing that has been going well for the media the last few years? Ratings. Say what you will about the former president — and there is a lot you can say, he’s a pretty terrible person — but he was correct when he boasted that his tenure in the White House was terrific for news organizations. During the Trump era, ratings were up, pageviews were up, subscriptions were up. Now, a lot of those things went up because everything was so awful: It certainly was strange when Trump boasted that his coronavirus briefings did such great ratings, considering most people were tuning in to find out if the government was doing anything to stop hundreds of thousands of people from dying. (It wasn’t.) But it is undeniable that, when Donald Trump was President, people were consuming news at an incredible pace. It was the boom time for politics media.
But Donald Trump is not President anymore, and he has been replaced by someone who has explicitly stated that one of his primary goals is to turn the temperature down on politics in this country, to make politics, in his words, “more boring.” This is a lofty goal, an important one, I’d argue: That politics have become so fraught is destructive in both the short- and long-term and a direct result of Trump’s inherent combativeness. He wanted us all to fight, so we have been fighting. President Joe Biden is trying to change that. And while he certainly hasn’t turned this into a bipartisan country where everyone is holding hands and jumping into lagoons together, it is undeniable that the temperature has been turned down a bit. The President isn’t the central figure of every second of American life right now. It has been … sort of nice?
And you can see the effects already. The Washington Post reported that traffic to its website fell 26 percent from January to February, and that The New York Times lost 17 percent. Numbers have not yet come in for March, but there’s every reason to think they’ll be even lower, particularly as we all start to come out of our homes and rejoin the world, and all the things that make it wonderful, once again. The fact is, people are paying less attention to politics right now than they have over the last five years. The Trump Presidency turned us all into news junkies, if just to make sure there weren’t bombs about to rain on our heads or some new disease ready to kill us. (Or just to see what crazy-ass thing he’d done or said this time.) This is the comedown. This is what it should be. This is the reminder that politics aren’t supposed to soak up so much psychic energy.
This is not to say politics have become less important, far from it. Every day is a reminder that politics is a part of everything, from school shootings to police brutality to economic inequality. But it is not healthy, for a democracy or its citizens, for politics to become so obsessive and all-encompassing. It is an axiom that news happens when something is broken, not when it’s working correctly. (No one leads a newscast with “everything is going just fine, nothing to worry about.”) The primary reason there was so much political news over the last five years was because everything was broken. Much is still broken. But it’s OK, as the people in charge try to fix it, to step back and think about something else. I can’t be the only one that has unsubscribed from a whole bunch of political newsletters in the last two months.
There’s a good argument to be made that politicians like Biden, ones that are well known but not particularly radical, people who make it clear their primary goal is just to make the trains run on time, will benefit from this. Andrew Yang, currently leading the polls in the race for New York City mayor, would seem well-positioned in this regard. As Nate Silver pointed out, Yang is the most well-known of the candidates for mayor, and the one who most projects a certain technocratic competence, and for a populace largely burned out on politics right now, that might be enough. Now, that could lead to its own problems, of course: If he wins, Andrew Yang could, you know, end up being a lousy mayor. But he seems to have the right idea: Ignore the political obsessives, who are clearly against him, and just play to the “normies.” There’s a lot more of those these days.
This all goes in cycles, of course, and as the 2022 races rev up, we’ll all start paying closer attention again. But it is reasonable to want to look elsewhere right now. The world is a vast, wonderful place. Politics matter. But they are not everything. For the last few years, though, they have been. The sane thing, the human thing, is to ease off the gas a little bit. The problems of the world will all be there waiting for you. It’s not strange, or irresponsible, to watch less cable news. It’s imminently healthy. It’s good for you.