Progressivism, Not the Internet, Threatens Democracy

Nathaniel Persily, a professor at Stanford Law School, wonders whether democracy can survive the internet. The immediate impulse for his question is the election of Donald Trump, who used social media to get around the established institutions, principally the mainstream media, that mediate between candidates and citizens. In particular, Persily fears that fake news circulating in social media empowers demagogues, of which a prime example in his mind no doubt is Donald Trump himself.

The essay is an exemplar of progressivism, because it puts its faith in institutions dominated by progressives to safeguard democracy rather than the Constitution. But to one who is not a progressive, Persily’s fears are unwarranted and his solutions are a source of concern. Begin with fake news. It is not a phenomenon of the internet.  Political campaigns in the early republic were vicious because of outrageous and often false charges in the partisan press.  Adams was said to be a monarchist focused on establishing a dynasty with his son;  Jefferson was accused of being an atheist. He was also alleged to have sired children with one of his slaves. That last bit of dramatic  information would have been labelled as fake news at the time by the self-designated great and good—the real fact checkers of any age–, but it appears to have been true. It is unclear how much effect fake news had on the election results back then, but Persily admits he cannot show fake news has large effects now either.

Persily’s definition of fake news that should concern us  is also very convenient for the progressive cause. He is only worried about fake news whose only purpose is to make money rather than satirical news, like the Daily Show. But these satires might be thought to have even more effect on political opinions than fake news, given their television presence. And they convey falsehoods as well, making a consistent caricature of conservative arguments.

Persily does not even address the complaint that his favored institution to guide democracy– the established news media– was and is biased in favor of left-liberals. But there is enormous evidence of this. Reporters in the mainstream media are as uniformly left-liberal as law professors. And that means the way they frame issues is usually in the left-liberal direction. Indeed, even if one thinks that fake news is dangerous, the bias of the mainstream media helps fake news thrive, because many people have good reason not to trust the media.  And hoping that Google and Facebook will take an active role in policing the news is likely to drive people to alternative sites, if as expected these institutions show political bias themselves.

Fortunately, it is the Constitution, even as weakened as it is by progressivism, that makes it hard for demagogues to destroy democracy. As I have argued before, the checks and balances have been constraining Donald Trump, as they have all Presidents.  The Constitution would work a lot better, if progressives had not given the federal government almost limitless power. That power gives more incentives for demagogues to run and less resources for democracy to resist them, because even the conscientious citizen has so much more difficulty watching over the actions of his rulers.

Reader Discussion

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on May 05, 2017 at 09:32:56 am

Prof. McGinnis has written a superb dissection of the current Progressivist bete noire, "fake news." But in one of his allusions to Early-Narional Era fake news, he casually accepts one of the greatest unexamined assumptions of too many historians, the Jefferson-Hemings Legend. For a learned corrective, I urge all to read the late Lance Banning's dissent to this conventional assumption published in the Summer 2001 Claremont Review of Books, entitled "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: Case Closed?".

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James E Viator
on May 05, 2017 at 11:29:07 am

"And hoping that Google and Facebook will take an active role in policing the news is likely to drive people to alternative sites, if as expected these institutions show political bias themselves. "

Sorry, Professor, that ship has already sailed. A snapshot of sources of today's articles on the "Google News" news aggregator site:
Washington Post 7, CNN 5, The Hill 4, FOX, Yahoo News, NBCNews, CNBC - 3 each, and Wall Street Journal, Reuters, LA Times, NPR, BBC, Salon, Time, and NY Daily News - one each.
Summary - 34 articles, 5 of which are from sources which tilt right, 29 from sources which tilt left.

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David Brittelli
on May 05, 2017 at 12:03:36 pm

One can only wonder where McGinniss places the fake news placed online by a thousand anti-Clinton Russian government paid writers during the 2016 campaign. Stories such as "pizzagate" and others on her being about to die of hidden illness. These are only going to multiply because, after all, they contributed to Trump's success. He says: ".... Trump, who used social media to get around the established institutions, principally the mainstream media..." Well, yes, with the help of Putin and his army of online fake news's effect on the election.

You state here that fake news: "is not a phenomenon of the internet. " But this Russian influence we have seen is exactly that!

Your criticism of progressives for not emphasizing the Constitution over democracy is laughable to me. The Constitution was written for the purpose of establishing a democracy, or are we have mistakenly believed this all our lives? So this old conscientious citizen is most likely wasting her time with this comment.

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Barbara Wickwire
on May 05, 2017 at 14:49:26 pm

I'm concerned that massive indebtedness is a greater threat to democracy than either progressivism or the internet.

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Scott R. Lucado
on May 05, 2017 at 16:13:27 pm

To Ms. Wickwire;
The Constitution establishes a Federal Republic, not a democracy. So, you have been wrong all of your life. Maybe you should consider what else you might be wrong about.

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Dee Orem
on May 05, 2017 at 18:50:45 pm


What are we to make of the latest news that the "golden shower" dossier proffered by an ex-British Intelligence Agent was ACTUALLY FUNDED BY THE RUSSIANS.

Yep, those pesky Russkies are all over the place and may have even been hiding under the beds of Clinton campaign staff during the recent election.

Better check under you bed and see if some Russkies are there.
Bedchecks actually help someone get real!

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on May 05, 2017 at 20:18:43 pm

The Russian/Trump connection has been completely unproven and even disproven, and yet your sources obviously keep feeding the narrative. That's what we call Fake News, and you've fallen for it.

I would grant that Progressives and Conservatives have a vastly different view of the Constitution. however, Conservatives largely derive their ideals from the original meaning of the Constitution. They use it to form policy and theory.

The Left views the Constitution far differently, and I would say most of their political ideals are post-Constitutional. They focus on pushing unhistorical narratives over the second amendment, limit First Amendment freedoms of those they do not like, and misshape the 14th Amendment to protect any new 'class' of people they care to define.

To the Conservatives, the Limits the Constitution places on the Government are born of the principals of self government and freedom. To the Progressive, they are guidelines subject to legal game-theory and often obstructions to their social engineering schemes.

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Steve Johnson
on May 05, 2017 at 23:21:15 pm

Today's "progressivism" should be called excessivism... and it does threaten democracy.

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on May 06, 2017 at 07:45:59 am

what democracy is McGinnis taking about, the Constitution I know says nothing about democracy. We continue to have a Republic and it is high time these so called scholars get that through their thick head sill full of mush.

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Fred Friar
on May 07, 2017 at 05:43:35 am

Investor Business Daily posted a summary of media comments on the starvation and misery in Venezuela. The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today. All reporters discussed the misery and hunger, which they blamed on the drop in oil prices, drought, but not one of these newspapers included the word "socialism", in any form. I found that remarkably telling.

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Drennan Lindsay
on May 08, 2017 at 22:31:58 pm

This strikes me as faulty logic:
a) Persily favors strengthening the mainstream media
b) Persily is a Progressive
c) Progressives have weakened the constitution
d) Therefore, any argument in favor of strengthening the media is (1) Progressive, and (2) something that implicitly weakens the Constitution.

The critique here has little to do with the substance of Persily’s claims – just because the NYT or whoever is too liberal for your taste does not imply that any news invented by malicious hackers is better. The article (and the ambit of many of the people connected to it) is to try to work to reduce biases in the mainstream media. To argue that that is not possible is, well, akin to arguing that it’s not possible for law schools to be anything other than monolithically liberal.

And to the business about the constitution vs. democracy – it seems reasonable to ask whether something is a threat to democracy, and have that considered as a reasonable question, without having to engage in a debate about whether the US is properly a democracy or a republic. Surely democracy is valued enough that one would want to preserve it, in some form, against threats, no?

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on May 10, 2017 at 23:38:35 pm

I rarely comment on comments on my posts, but this one attributes to me an argument I never made. I certainly do not say, imply or believe that strengthening the media weakens the Constitution. Indeed, my point is that the Constitution, not some particular media structure, offers the best protection for democracy.

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John O. McGinnis

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