A war is never over until both sides say it is, which is probably why the current state of American politics more closely resembles a really bad night in Mogadishu than it does the kind of high-minded debate we like to imagine Roman senators having. This has always been true, and anybody who doubts it might do well to remember why it is that Alexander Hamilton met Aaron Burr on the dueling green. The extent and character of our civic arguments have changed over the years to meet the unique demands and opportunities of the political landscape, but in the age of the Internet and new media, one person did more than most to redefine the rules of engagement in American politics: Andrew Breitbart.
Breitbart was a conservative media mogul, which is an understatement on all three words of that description. He got his start in the mid-1990s as an early devotee of the Drudge Report, the Internet’s first big new media presence, where he made a name for himself aggregating content from other sources, and by crafting conservative outlets a) for those hungry for news, opinion and that grey zone where the two cross over and b) for those convinced that the mainstream media was not just biased toward the political left, but was in active collusion with it. Breitbart appreciated early on how the Internet was changing the news cycle, and that there was more news in any given day than one person could possibly take in. This, in turn, led to a rising appetite for news streams that drew from multiple sources and that spoke to a particular angle.
He built a succession of successful online media outlets, including Breitbart.com, BigHollywood.com, BigGovernment.com, BigJournalism.com, BigPeace.com and Breitbart.tv. Much of his content was aimed at skewering establishments that leaned left, which paved the way for his frequent appearances on Fox News and elsewhere as a talking head.
Besides building a large and loyal audience, Breitbart’s particular brand of self-styled conservative activist media produced major political results. He played a direct role in the 2009 undercover video controversy that essentially shut down ACORN, a collection of community-based organizations that advocated for low- and middle-income families, but that had also routinely endorsed Democratic political causes. His 2010 video coverage of USDA official Shirley Sherrod speaking at an NAACP fundraising dinner forced her ouster over supposedly racist comments she made. And in 2011, Breitbart broke the sexting scandal that would ultimately force Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-NY, to resign in disgrace.
Breitbart actively courted controversy and relished making enemies, even within conservative circles. He became a darling of the Tea Party, to the disgruntlement of the GOP establishment. And he rankled social conservatives with his staunch support of GOProud, a group of gay conservatives that wished to represent at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
By 2012, Breitbart had become as much of an institution as those he had tried to up-end, and it seemed that he would continue to reshape political media for decades. But that was cut short when, on March 1, he collapsed while on a walk in Brentwood. Breitbart was rushed to the hospital, where was pronounced dead of natural causes. He is survived by his wife and four children.
Breitbart’s untimely passing was a huge blow for conservative media. At the time of his death, each of the GOP presidential front-runners made a point to remember Breitbart, and to lionize his work. Newt Gingrich perhaps summed it up best when he called Breitbart the most innovative pioneer in conservative activist social media in America.
But it did not come without cost. Breitbart’s media tactics drew heavy criticism, and potential legal action, especially for the way in which his ACORN and Sherrod videos were edited. He was routinely excoriated by the big media outlets he jousted with, but also through the same grassroots, social media channels that he so brilliantly used himself. Breitbart became a lightning rod for the non-stop shouting match between liberals and conservatives that has come to dominate American politics today. He would not have had it any other way.
Breitbart’s singular dedication to fueling political conflict illustrates the exhausting and internecine new reality of U.S. politics and media. For this new guard of professional combatants, eternal conflict is a good thing, allies are more valuable than friends, and everyone else gets to watch and listen, whether they want to or not. For such a life, there may only be one fitting epitaph: morituri te salutant.