When Cosmopolitanism Isn’t All It Seems

At a park in Culver City, California, about a mile from the Sony Studios, two old friends and I debated whether President Donald Trump would be reelected. As members of the self-described “donor class,” they wanted me to weigh in on which Democrat I thought had the best chance. I answered that I didn’t see any good choice and pointed to some recent opinion polling to back me up, but they were adamant that a Democrat would win in 2020. The future will tell, of course, but the point is this: we were having a civil conversation, neither demonizing nor persuasive, but were simply speaking past each other.

There was little I could do to persuade these Democratic donors of my significantly more dismal outlook, one formed in part due to my newly vested credentials as a resident of America’s heartland in Central Illinois and in part due to my scholarship, which focuses on political communication, journalism, and new technology. It struck me that their optimism was both perhaps ill-founded but also extremely provincial, a product of Democratic donor class groupthink, and that it lacked any sort of reckoning with other understandings of geography, culture, and information environments.

Arnold Kling suggests in The Three Languages of Politics that there are two essential modes of discourse, persuasion and demonization, and he argues that the problem with today’s discourse is that it focuses far more on demonization than persuasion. To Kling, contemporary political discourse amid the looming spectres of hyper partisanship and toxic social media has meant the loss of listening to the other sides’ “presentations of facts and logic,” and therefore, a dearth of ability to “assemble facts and logic that would influence [others]to change their minds.”

In trying to grapple with this breakdown in public discourse, Kling reconsiders his three axes for framing political discussion: oppression, barbarism, and coercion, and asks whether we might need to add populism as a fourth axis to explain discourse along an elite/anti-elite divide, but he rejects this for a lack of normative clarity. In that park in Culver City, California, in range of Sony Studios, a professor and two donor-class Democratic Angelenos politely disagreeing but also refusing to modify their positions could hardly be described as elite/anti-elite discourse, but it still resulted in an unresolvable standoff over contemporary politics.

Kling should be less willing to reject his populism axis, but he might want to recast it as one that separates cosmopolitans and locals. Yet I am not speaking about the material, geographic divide between beltway and heartland, Hollywood and heartland, or the urban/rural divides that so often become reliable rhetorical tropes for demonization. The specific geography itself is not deterministic—but rather, it’s how people position themselves relative to the places they are in—as part of a bigger world, or one that is consumed by self-contained, self-interested questions. In 1957, sociologist Robert Merton conducted a study of how mass media functions via interpersonal influence within a small town. He juxtaposed “locals” to “cosmopolitans”; “locals” were parochial and fundamentally self-interested to the exclusion of the nation and society around them, while cosmopolitans were “ecumenical,” seeing themselves as connected to the problems in society at large, looking outward.[1] This framing has become somewhat muddled in later research, with scholars preferring to consider perceptions of similarities and differences from the perspective of an “in-group” and an “out-group”; however, thinking about cosmopolitanism as a form of open-mindedness is a way to consider people’s orientation toward learning about others beyond demographic definitions such as race, class, partisanship, or whether one lives in a big, cosmopolitan city.

Many of the problems that exist in contemporary discourse have less to do with our modes of persuasion and more to do with the inability to move past pre-existing identities or beliefs, which Kling discusses as stemming from confirmation bias and asymmetric insight. My sense is that we are stuck in this battle between cosmopolitanism and localism/parochialism because those who identify as the most cosmopolitan are often the most likely to be narrow-minded and judgmental. To wit, the much-pilloried progressive avocado toast-eaters living in large cities have a wide vantage from which to understand the world—good educations, the ability to travel, access to a range of information—but they are hamstrung by localism. Group think that demonizes those who do not have these experiences, or worse, one that patronizes those who do not share these values, becomes deeply problematic if the goal is improving public discourse.

Journalists need to be particularly on guard for localism, for many of the reasons that Kling expresses, including their lack of credibility. As I argue in my forthcoming book, Rich, White, and Blue: What the Decline of Journalism Means for America (Columbia), journalists in big cities can be tremendously parochial despite living in a cosmopolitan locale if they are unable to see beyond their own perspectives and consider the perspectives of those unlike them. Consider the worst example: the post-2016 “Trump Safari” wherein national journalists visited rural, white America to figure out how populism and nationalism surged. This was best exposed in the case of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which Politico profiled a year after the election, quoting a resident who used a racial slur to refer to NFL players and portraying residents as as delusional for believing the president’s promises about bringing back mining and manufacturing.[2]

Politico, the most beltway of the beltway publications, had taken a very, very narrow view on the archetypal Trump voter, and it took the Pittsburgh City Paper to point this out, noting in a response that Hillary Clinton actually won by a sliver—1 percent—in the larger Cambria County of which it is part. And contrary to this national narrative pushed by Politico and other news outlets, wealthy suburbs in the area were more Trumptown than Johnstown.[3] Outside of Pittsburgh, in Adams Township, also home to good restaurants and country clubs, Trump won by a 39 percent margin. How tremendously parochial of national journalists, some of the best and brightest journalists in the country, to demonize a set of voters that arguably was far less representative of Trump’s actual base.

As journalism declines, it is local journalism that is most threatened. Without economies of scale in a digital marketplace that values ever-growing audiences or highly concentrated, wealthy ones, local newspapers are particularly vulnerable. This does not mean that some sort of authentic localism is in danger, but it does mean that national news outlets are best positioned for survival in today’s topsy turvy world for media economics. The national journalists who by and large still play the primary role in original content generation (e.g. reporting) for our larger public conversation are the ones that will be left to do the work of communicating across differences not just in geography but also across cultural differences and perspectives.

While Republicans like to tar mainstream media as “liberal elites,” ironically, according to Kling’s understanding, it may be that journalists are actually acting more like conservatives when they paint those unlike themselves as barbaric. Kling notes that conservatives often view political life as a “moral struggle to preserve civilization, in which people with other points of view are on the side of barbarism.” Many journalists today are more likely to consider barbarians those unlike them, but the reality is that most journalists working in New York and Washington are less like most Americans—and other journalists—than ever before. There are also more journalists working in big metropolitan areas than ever before, but that does not make them cosmopolitans, and in fact, these media bubbles may reinforce their parochialism.[4]

In Washington, journalists are ten times more concentrated than journalists in other areas, and they also make far more than most journalists, about $100,000 per year versus the $44,000 per year journalists make on average elsewhere in the United States.[5] Over 90 percent of journalists have college educations, while only 25 percent of Americans overall do,[6] and the perverse logics of the intern economy make it easier for those with privilege to take advantage of journalism internships. Elite journalists are elites, though not all journalists are elites, and this means that to do their job well, they must be cosmopolitan thinkers rather than provincial ones.

Kling blames traditional media’s current incentive structures, which prioritize outrage over deliberation, for the state of public discourse today, arguing, “Today, the media lack the credibility to create a major shift in public opinion, and instead the major outlets just act to harden opinions on their respective sides.” National journalists need to acknowledge their differences from most people in the United States and need to own up to them as news becomes a national rather than local industry.

To be able to ever hope for credibility or a shared public conversation, journalists need to be aware of their provincialism, and either lean into this as a desired perspective or compensate for it by turning toward others with more cosmopolitan views outside the standard understanding of cosmopolitanism.My “cosmopolitan” friends living in Los Angeles couldn’t see beyond the bright, shiny studio lights of their parochialism, but their limitations are fairly inconsequential for the rest of U.S. public discourse. Not so for journalists, who must seek out the views of provincials without demonizing them if they wish to retain credibility and influence; neither is a given in light of partisanship, social media, and the current state of media economics.


[1] Robert K. Merton, “Local and Cosmopolitan Influentials,” in Perspectives on the American Community, ed.Ronald L.Warren (Chicago:Rand McNally, 1966), 251-265.

[2] Michael Kruse, “Johnstown Never Believed Trump Would Help. They Still Love Him Anyway.”Politico, Nov. 11, 2017,https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/11/08/donald-trump-johnstown-pennsylvania-supporters-215800

[3] Ryan Deto, “Johnstown’s Progressives Are Sick of National Media Painting Them Solely as Trump Country,” Pittsburgh City Paper, Nov. 10, 2017, https://www.pghcitypaper.com/Blogh/archives/2017/11/10/johnstown-progressives-are-sick-of-national-media-painting-them-solely-as-trump-country

[4] Jack Shafer and Tucker Doherty, “The Media Bubbles is Real and Worse than You Think,” Politico, April 4, 2017, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/04/25/media-bubble-real-journalism-jobs-east-coast-215048

[5] https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes273022.htm#st

[6] Heather Bryant, “Talking About Journalism’s Class Problem,” Medium, Oct. 27, 2017, https://medium.com/@HBCompass/talking-about-journalisms-class-problem-c962659cee37

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Arnold Kling has devoted years to observing and participating in American political discourse. Such as it is. He writes that all too often, Americans seek to demonize those with whom they disagree, rather than trying first to understand what they are saying in their own terms. Social media does not help us to do better, he argues, but one thing that could is surprisingly simple: “If you think that the problem with political discourse is caused entirely by the other side,” he writes, “then look in the mirror instead.”

Response Essays

  • Jonathan Rauch offers a “friendly amendment” to Arnold Kling’s argument: We must amend our weakening civic institutions. He recommends direct social action, including but not limited to various organizations that seek to start conversation across political divides; strengthening institutions that don’t line up neatly with partisan politics, but that serve good purposes anyway; and—perhaps controversially—re-engineering our social media environment.

  • Nikki Usher turns her attention to American journalism, which often sets the tone for our political conversations. She finds that with the decline of local journalism, journalists have an increasingly cohesive and uniform view—one that sees itself as cosmopolitan, but that is really parochial to Washington, DC. Journalists nowadays often stumble in covering other areas of the country, which increases the importance of Arnold Kling’s populist/cosmopolitan divide.

  • Donald Downs considers that free speech requires a concern for the personhood and well-being of others—and the concern to avoid offense can also be stifling. He characterizes this as a tension between chutzpah and “due doubt” of one’s own beliefs, and he argues for the importance of civility understood in a special way: Civility is not mere politeness in politics, he argues; it is a key part of the role that we must all play as citizens, regardless of political disagreements.