How The Attention Economy Helped Ruin Politics
We exist within an economic and cultural system that empowers attention-seeking grifters. In this trade-off between attention and integrity, a healthy democracy is the ultimate casualty.
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“You have people increasingly coming to Washington, whose objective in staying in office is to make noise, not to make law.”
In an interview broadcast on C-SPAN this week, Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) perfectly described the attention economy consuming our political reality.
Romney cited Rep. Jim Jordan’s (R-OH) failed Speakership bid as an example of this: “We’re looking at electing a person who would be second in line to the presidency who’s never passed a bill, but he’s certainly well known because he’s able to make a lot of noise. And that’s the currency of the realm these days in politics…”
Romney, who recently announced his retirement, is right. But these actions aren’t happening in a vacuum. They’re happening within an economic and cultural system that empowers attention-seeking grifters.
To understand why this behavior exists, we have to analyze the incentive structures. For people with no principles, the choice between doing what’s right and what gets attention is an easy one. In a world where every click, like, and share translates to currency, the attention economy has emerged as the new gold rush for politicians, influencers, and media organizations alike.
At its core, the attention economy is the commodification of human attention. Amid an overabundance of information, our focus becomes the most valuable resource. Platforms, advertisers, and especially politicians battle for this limited resource, often employing sensationalism, controversy, and outright lies to capture it.
Politicians, particularly within the Republican Party, have seized on the dynamics of the attention economy. This phenomenon isn’t new, but when it comes to politics, reward systems have increasingly been impacted by technological advances. Like TV before it, the internet and social media made the amoral pursuit of any kind of attention the way to gain fundraising and support.
In more sane times, political success hinged on policy, diplomacy, and public service. Today, it's about clout and social media engagement. Retail politics has been replaced by online virality.
This shameless pursuit of attention leads to money and power, turning politics into a lucrative grift. When public service becomes performance art, policy is traded for spectacle and truth is replaced with disinformation. The result is an eroded democracy.
A Clout-Chasing Republican Party
This shift has led politicians, especially within the Republican Party, to prioritize attention over integrity. Controversial statements, chaos, divisive policies, and even outright lies are not just tolerated but celebrated if they dominate the news cycle.
A recent example of this can be seen in Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC), who led the ousting of Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). Gaetz and Mace reveled in the attention in the aftermath of the chaos they helped unleash. They made countless media appearances and fundraised off their move.
Nancy Mace went further the week after McCarthy’s ousting, wearing a massive letter “A” on her shirt as she walked around the Capitol. Mace told reporters, “I’m wearing the Scarlet Letter after the week that I just had last week, being a woman up here and being demonized for my vote and for my voice.”
Of course, anyone familiar with the story of “The Scarlet Letter” knows the “A” is the mark of adultery. So, the stunt really makes no sense unless you consider what the “A” really stands for in Mace’s case: Attention.
It’s important to note that former feigned moderate Nancy Mace’s district was recently redrawn, making her constituency more red. So her ousting of McCarthy and these other stunts are merely her way of garnering more attention, fundraising, and telling her new base she’s full MAGA.
University College London Associate Professor in Global Politics Brian Klaas reacted to Mace’s stunt in a post on X:
“I am telling you: the modern GOP is not a series of politicians trying to govern and help solve problems to improve lives. These are *political influencers* hoping to get attention, so they can accumulate more money and power.”
Jordan, Gaetz, and Mace aren’t the only figures prioritizing being a political influencer over being an effective lawmaker. Republicans like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), Lauren Boebert (R-CO), and others share this same priority.
These Republicans are drawing from a familiar playbook that you could argue was created by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA) during the “Republican Revolution” of the 90s and was innovated on by Donald Trump in 2016.
Gingrich used spectacle to create made-for-TV moments that captured America’s attention. This helped Republicans break what many saw as permanent Democratic House control in 1994. Trump was the perfect vessel to carry on that legacy in the 21st Century.
The Donald Trump Playbook
“Politics itself has become more of a performance art.” Romney continued in his interview on C-SPAN. “President Trump, for instance, what is he good at? His background was performing.”
The relentless pursuit of attention, often at the cost of truth and morality, is Donald Trump’s modus operandi. Trump took on the belief that any attention is good attention. His frequent Twitter tirades, inflammatory remarks, and ability to consistently steer media narratives showcased a deep, and dangerous, understanding of the attention economy.
In 2015, Donald Trump made increasingly inflammatory comments, from calling Mexican immigrants rapists to calling for a ban on Muslims, to garner attention for his campaign.
Trump incisively exploited the flaws in human psychology, pre-existing divisions within the American people, and the darkest corners of the American psyche. This is a tactic other Republican 2024 candidates are using today.
Baseless claims about election fraud, derogatory remarks about adversaries, or sensational policy announcements were all tools in his arsenal once he became President. Trump's strategy was transparent: keep the spotlight firmly on himself, irrespective of truth, decorum, or the consequences of his words.
These attention-seeking tactics, of course, backfired, leading to a historically corrupt presidency that culminated in a violent insurrection at the Capitol - a presidency I documented every single day of in my column on Rantt. But here we are, once again, witnessing Trump utilize those same tactics to return as the frontrunner in the 2024 GOP primary.
The problem goes beyond Trump. The Republican Party, recognizing the potency of Trump's tactics, has increasingly integrated this approach into its playbook. The result is a political landscape where truth is malleable, policies are secondary to theatrics, and our democratic institutions are under threat.
The Broader Implications
The attention economy's influence on politics isn't just about the changing tactics of politicians. It's about the erosion of democratic values. When truth becomes relative, when policies that actually help people are overshadowed by theatrics, and when the goal is attention rather than genuine public service, democracy is at risk.
This approach has ripple effects. It diminishes the role of informed debate and compromises the electorate's ability to make well-informed decisions. Substance is undermined in favor of unhinged ridiculousness.
In the end, the attention economy, unchecked, doesn't just change how politicians operate; it has changed the very nature of politics itself. As we grapple with its implications, one thing is clear: in the trade-off between attention and integrity, a healthy democracy is the ultimate casualty.
The challenge ahead is not just for politicians to navigate this new landscape responsibly but for the public to demand better, for media to act as defenders of democracy, and for everyone to recognize the long-term implications of this short-term pursuit of attention.