Remember the anonymous Op-Ed from within the Trump administration? We’re hardly talking about it any more, and indeed so many “major” stories from just a few weeks ago seem to be slipping from our grasp. Why?
The naïve hypothesis is that we keep turning our attention to the very latest events because so much is happening so quickly. But there have been periods in the past when a lot was happening, such as the financial crisis of a decade ago, and the news cycle seemed “stickier” then. So this can’t be the entire story.
An alternate theory is that there are actually very few “true events” happening, but there is lots of froth on the surface. Maybe there is only one “big event” happening, one major transformation underway: a change in the willingness of American political leaders to break with previous norms. If the change is mostly in one direction, then maybe it’s enough to debate only the most recent news.
That may sound abstract, so here is a concrete analogy. Let’s say you are on a sinking ship. You might focus more on the current water level than on where it was in the recent past, except maybe to help you estimate the rate of flooding. In more technical terms, talking about the event of the day is a “sufficient statistic” for talking about the last two years.
The shorter news cycle also may result from greater political polarization. If people don’t frame events in a common way, then a discussion of those events might not last very long. Conversation will return very quickly to the underlying differences in worldviews, and discussion of any particular event will get trampled by a much larger philosophical debate. It does seem like we have been repeating the same general arguments about Trump, populism, gender and governing philosophy for some time now, and we are not about to stop.
Possibly the shorter news cycles are also a result of greater general disillusionment with politics and especially with elites, a theme outlined in Martin Gurri’s forthcoming book “The Revolt of the Public.” The really fun stuff might instead be watching mixed martial arts, debating social norms about gender and browsing the Instagram feeds of your friends.
Finally, maybe we’re all just better at digesting news events more quickly. Perhaps every possible observation, insight and argument gets put on Facebook and Twitter within a day or two, and much of this material is archived. What’s the point of repeating these debates every few months?