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How Twitter Explains the Civil War (and Vice Versa)

The attack inside the U.S. Capitol building was unexpected and shocking. Images of the bloody encounter circulated widely, inundating newspapers and other media, causing a sensation. The politician responsible was soon out of office but his supporters continued to back him unreservedly, touting what his detractors called a crime as proof of his mettle.

The year was 1856. A member of Congress had just beaten another near to death. Preston Brooks, a representative from South Carolina, brutally caned the antislavery Massachusetts senator, Charles Sumner, as he sat at his desk on the Senate floor. It would take two years for Sumner to recover. Brooks resigned under the threat of censure only to be resoundingly reelected. Five years later, Union and Confederate armies were massing.

That the shocking spectacle of political violence inside the halls of Congress brings to mind the events of January 6 suggests why people keep reaching for the Civil War to describe the current state of American politics. Historical analogies are tricky and often superficial. But if you go past familiar textbook narratives to look at the deep roots of Sumner’s violent encounter with Brooks, you can find surprisingly familiar social changes that might offer some useful lessons.

In the decades leading up to the war, the United States underwent a profound communications revolution that altered how Americans connected with one another. It was a historical development that bears uncanny resemblance to our current moment. The Twitterfication of public life and other broader changes to the mediascape are again fostering strange and dangerous political shifts. Although Internet 2.0 differs in countless ways from its antebellum media ancestors, it illustrates how media that were once novel—newspapers, lithographs, sheet music, and other kinds of mass print—could upend traditional politics and create space for the new configurations that make violent ruptures possible, maybe inevitable. In other words, a generation into the internet age, we’re well placed to see key patterns of political disordering in a another period.

How did new print media upend politics? Mainly in two ways, both of which seem also to be happening today. First, they curtailed political leaders’ control over what got talked about in public. That is, they sapped politicians’ power to set the agenda. Second, new media scrambled the existing channels of information flow, forcing politicians to recalibrate how they pitched themselves to different constituencies. The result was a breakdown of the system of party coalitions that had underwritten, for thirty agonizing years, slavery’s expansion across the Deep South.

Read entire article at Substack