Inter Alia #14: My Political Blog Hangover and the Virtues of Finitude

February 5, 2009 | 6 2 min read

Among its many peculiar achievements, the Internet seems to have pushed the old “observer effect” – wherein by paying attention to a process we alter its outcome – into the realm of magical thinking. Back during election season, I remember, I had assembled a little rosary of blogs I’d cycle through every day – or, let’s be honest, every hour: Nate Silver, TPM, Politico, RealClearPolitics…as though the existence of the daily cavalcade of kerfuffles depended on me being around to bear witness.

Eventually, the endless news cycle would be revealed as the engine of ephemera I already suspected it was. Mr. Silver’s uncannily good number-crunching had Obama on a cruise course to victory from mid-September onward. I could have done something worthwhile with my time; I could have…I don’t know…read a book. Instead, what did I do? Nate Silver, TPM, Politico

Since the election, however, I’ve found that most of these sites give me a headache. The expanded version of Politico, in particular, seems to have diced the news cycle to such a fine consistency that, by the time I get to them in the afternoon, the morning’s chunky controversies are so much dust in the wind.

So which of the political blogs do I still read? To my surprise, it’s The Atlantic’s. I’ve singled these guys out before, but I’d like to cast my interpretive net a little wider. That feels as worthwhile now as it did back in July (a veritable eternity, in the blogosphere) seems to me to point to some of the overlooked ingredients of good online writing.

First, I like that The Atlantic focuses on a certain subject – in this case, politics – but not too narrowly. Digressions are encouraged, in a way that keeps the conversation tethered to the wider culture, and accessible to newcomers. This turns out to be a tricky middle ground to occupy; it’s something we’re still working on at The Millions. Still, it seems possible to write about a given passion while still addressing a general-interest audience. (The New York Review of Books has been doing it for almost half a century.)

Another thing I admire about The Atlantic’s blog offerings is the plurality – not to say preponderance – of voices. Jeffrey Goldberg, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ross Douthat, Andrew Sullivan et al offer a broad range of insights and provocations. Still, unlike the tentacular Huffington Post, this eighteen-armed blog monster feels refreshingly vincible. A mere half hour of my attention exhausts it. And in the everything-all-the-time world of the web, such limitation may prove to be a precious commodity.

This is, of course, a somewhat self-serving post: We at The Millions have a vested interest in figuring out how the successful websites became so. (And my lifelong love affair with print continues; you will have to pry my weekly New Yorker from my cold, proverbial fingers.) Still, trying to figure out why we like what we like may help preempt the “slow decline and emerging blind spots” Max, among others, has warned us about. Now if someone could just figure out how to make online journalism profitable…

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. Well said. Personally, I took a politics detox after the election and haven't gone back to the political blogs that I checked so obsessively. My rotation was similar to yours, though I only now occasionally check Sullivan. Still feeling burnt out from it all, and where is the good news to be found? Nowhere, it seems.

    And you're right about Huffington Post. I check HuffPo often for its links, but the site really is a mess. Half of it is just a gossip rag, the original content is usually not worthwhile, and the overall organization is awful. They still link to some good pieces, but it's almost by sheer inertia that it seems to get by — throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. They're probably exactly what Walter Isaacson is raging against in his recent Time piece about the future of journalism, which HuffPo linked to without a bit of irony.,8599,1877191,00.html

  2. There was plenty of anxiousness before the election and surfing the Internet feeds right off of it. What you wrote is probably how many people feel today.

  3. Nicely put – I'm wondering what, exactly, I gained from obsessively poring over all of political commentary during the election. That time could have been spent knocking on a few more doors and registering a few more voters.

    Like you, I stopped following most of the political chatter on November 5, with the exception of a few of the Atlantic Monthly blogs – although I'm not sure about their 'finite' quality. I'm getting overwhelmed by the sheer frequency of the posts and, as much as I admire Andrew Sullivan's scope and perspective, fifty-plus items per day can't good for either the writer or the audience . . . I hope the twitter/aggregator trend will soon rebound, leading many bloggers back to longer forms that dig a little deeper.

  4. Well, I totally resonate with your point, but the fact is anything could have happened anywhere along the way that would have changed the outcome.

    But even if that weren't true, I still wouldn't have changed my blog-obsessive behavior last year. Because unlike the previous poster, I know exactly what I gained…loads and loads of pleasure.

  5. Weirdly I completely agree. I read all those blogs daily pre-election. But now that the election is over I read the guys at Atlantic pretty exclusively. I have removed RCP, Pollster and 538from my favorites list. I didn;t read the daily dish daily until the election was over. I just subscribed to Coates and I check out Douthat everyday as well (he usually only updates once or twice a day tops so he's easy to skip for days and catch up quickly). I have wondered why this is but I think now that the election is over I can't tolerate partisan hacks as easily. The atlantic just has a calmer more sensible air to it in its articles and it's bloggers. Plus they are all very polite and I like that.

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