In a heartwarming opinion piece today at the New York Times, Thomas Edsall laments the internet’s toxic effect on what it calls “democracy” — a term that, if I understand the piece correctly, is to be defined as a political system in which two political parties, and a few other “dominant organizations” (here, the Times clears its throat and points to itself), control all access to communication and political power.
Let’s have a look at the thing, from top to bottom. It begins by complaining that, in this frightening new era,
As the forces of reaction outpace movements predicated on the ideal of progress…
We’ve certainly been doing what we can — and now even the Times admits we’re winning. Let’s savor the moment, comrades.
… and as traditional norms of political competition are tossed aside…
Or, to put it another way, “as daylight finally shines on the corruption of Party machinery…”
… it’s clear that the internet and social media have succeeded in doing what many feared and some hoped they would.
Or, perhaps, what some feared and many hoped….
They have disrupted and destroyed institutional constraints on what can be said, where and when it can be said, and who can say it.
Fantastic. The mask is off. All we see here is the will to power.
Let us pause for a moment, to imagine that you, dear reader, have something to say. If so, would you like to be able to say it? Would you like to say it in print, in public, or online? Would you like to be able to say it now? Would you like to be able say it yourself?
Should these choices be yours? Not according to Thomas Edsall. They should be subject to the approval of “institutions” — such as the editorial board of the New York Times.
According to Matthew Hindman, a professor of media (who must, I suppose, be worried that the Devil will take him):
“… someone looking at the United States would have to be worried about democratic failure or transitioning to a hybrid regime.”
Such a regime, in his view, would keep the trappings of democracy, including seemingly free elections, while leaders would control the election process, the media, and the scope of free debate.
One of the chief absurdities of popular government in general is the notion that somehow, a nebulous “will of the people” emerges and takes form and flesh. It never does any such thing, because it can do no such thing. What happens, rather, is that the struggle for power becomes a competition among what Sir Henry Sumner Maine called “the Wire-pullers” (take a moment here to read this, from Sir Henry himself).
Consider the Democratic Party’s electoral process last year. Look at how enormously unpopular Hillary Clinton was, even among Democrats. Why was she the candidate? For one reason only: because she had been anointed by her party’s wire-pullers, who not only declined to offer any serious alternative, but also engaged in strenuous and often unethical machinations to make sure that her principal opponent was hammered down. Moreover, the only reason anyone got to hear about any of that was because the internet made it possible .
So: if “leaders” control the election process, that’s bad, but if the Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the New York Times, and Thomas Edsall do so, that’s good.
(Furthermore, how is fully open debate, unfettered by “institutional constraints”, less free, rather than more so?)
Next we hear from Nathaniel Persily, a law professor at Stanford, who, speaking of the Trump movement, makes the same lament:
… this sort of campaign is only successful in a context in which certain established institutions — particularly the mainstream media and political party organizations — have lost their power around much of the world.”
Have lost their what? Ah yes. Power. Sorry, old chap.
They are right to be worried. Here is Samuel Issacharoff (who is, to ensure diversity of opinion, another law professor, this time from NYU):
We are witnessing a period of deep challenge to the core claims of democracy to be the superior form of political organization of civilized peoples…
Indeed we are, and for very good reasons that were very well understood, right up to (and, it is important to note, during) this nation’s founding. Democracy had, throughout all of recorded history, a very bad track record indeed, for very good reasons. It requires some very particular conditions to work at all, and they are all conditions that the West has systematically destroyed.
The current moment of democratic uncertainty draws from four central institutional challenges, each one a compromise of how democracy was consolidated over the past few centuries. First, the accelerated decline of political parties and other institutional forms of engagement; second, the weakness of the legislative branches; third, the loss of a sense of social cohesion; and fourth, the decline in democratic state competence.
“Loss of a sense of social cohesion”, you say? I wonder how that could have happened. And a “decline in democratic state competence”, even as the West, relentlessly expanding its franchise while flinging open its borders, became more and more democratic? An impenetrable mystery.
Professor Issacharoff continues:
“Technology has overtaken one of the basic functions you needed political parties for in the past, communication with voters,” he said. “Social media has changed all of that, candidates now have direct access through email, blogs and Twitter,” along with Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and other platforms.
Imagine that! Candidates having direct access to the people. It’s so awfully… democratic.
A little further on, Mr. Edsall asks: who benefits more from all of this, the left or the right? That leads us to this gem:
There is good reason to think that the disruptive forces at work in the United States — as they expand the universe of the politically engaged and open the debate to millions who previously paid little or no attention — may do more to damage the left than strengthen it. In other words, just as the use of negative campaign ads and campaign finance loopholes to channel suspect contributions eventually became routine, so too will be the use of social media to confuse and mislead the electorate.
In other words, when the electorate are confused and misled, it’s bad for the left. This, presumably, is because the left is the home of reason and truth. (You may disagree, of course. But only within approved institutional constraints.)
What’s interesting about this piece, and its curious implicit definition of “democracy”, is that the authors clearly realize how fraught with peril actual democracy is, and so they acknowledge that, rather than sovereignty resting with “the people” — which, as thinkers from Plato to the Founders well understood, is a buttered slide to disaster, chaos, and tyranny — it must in fact rest elsewhere. What’s got them all so chapped is that it they think it should rest with them, and they can tell they’re losing their grip on it. It’s the oldest story in the world.
There’s more. Read the rest here.