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Social Media Suggests a Deeper Threat to Democracy Than Russia: Us

Let’s stipulate that the Russians tried to influence the election by putting politically divisive advertisements on social media. What explains the moral panic about these actions?

Their advertisements were relatively few in number. They were also quite crude, some analogizing Hillary to Satan, others lauding the Black Panthers for stopping the KKK. They were hardly likely to influence anyone who has the least political or civic ballast.

But their crudeness and insubstantiality is precisely what disquiets. Many other political advertisements on social media are of comparable quality and yet wholly American. And if those who put up these ads have reason to think they are influential, democracy does not seem resemble what it is cracked up to be. This suggests that voters may swing an election based on matters irrelevant to our nation’s future. Worse still, they may be turned out to vote not from the concern for the public good or even their own self-interest, but on the basis of seething personal or tribal hatreds.

Of course, any review of American history shows that presidential elections were often dominated by irrelevancies and sleights of hand. Democratic Republicans accused Adams of plotting to restore the British monarchy. William Henry Harrison ran on his humble origins in a log cabin, when in reality he was to the manor born. Anyone who listens to campaign songs, which were important ways of reaching the voters in the nineteenth century (I recommend this CD) might well be astonished by their inanities and casual slanders.

More modern campaigns are not much different. For irrelevancies, there is the earnest debate by John Kennedy and Richard Nixon on Quemoy and Matsu. For crude slanders, we have Joseph Biden’s speech in 2012 saying to African-Americans that Republicans “would put them back in chains.” The birther campaign against Obama shows that this approach to politics does not end with an election.

So in one sense, what much of social media reveals about democracy is nothing a serious student did not already know. But the relentlessness of social media’s political stupidies and slanders makes it harder for even the casual observer to ignore the real time ugliness of much of the democratic process that now envelops us. An emperor may have no clothes, but democracy does not seem to have a cloak of serious argument, at least not one that reaches the ill-informed voters who are often nevertheless decisive.

Focusing blame on the Russians avoids the more profound questions of political theory that the record of social media influence raises. It is not only that many voters are not well informed because they have better things to do with their time. Many of them seem to be motivated by hatred of other citizens rather than love of their country.

For those of who think that the voting for President is a blunt instrument that makes for good government only when constrained by strong rights and mediated by civic associations and the power of more local polities, none of this comes as a surprise. But unfortunately, in modern times, many have defined our regime by faith in the national majoritarian decisions of the American people. It is easier to get furious at foreigners than to become apostates to that creed.

Reader Discussion

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on September 14, 2018 at 11:19:57 am

John:

Nice piece and when taken together with Samuelson's piece above makes for an interesting analysis of trends / causes of our current political alienation.

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gabe
on September 17, 2018 at 16:45:41 pm

Can’t fault this analysis much. Ok, I’ll cite two quibbles.

First, it’s not true that the Russian posts were all crude. A NYT story showed four such posts juxtaposed with four (presumably authentic) American posts. Many of the Russian posts were quite subtle. But they were also quite similar to the other non-suspect posts. In short, the nefarious Russians appeared to have engaged in free speech. The standard arguments we offer in defense of free speech would seem to defend the Russian speech.

(And now that we’ve concluded that corporations are people entitled to rights of speech and religion, I have to wonder that Russians couldn’t simply buy US corporations and engage in this speech legally.)

The Russian tactics demonstrate two facts:

1. Democracy has many advantages relative to authoritarianism, but it’s soft underbelly is the manipulation of public opinion. The public in authoritarian regimes may become dissatisfied with their leaders, but this dissatisfaction must reach a boiling point before it threatens a regime. In the US, the dissatisfaction can be decisive if it shifts the vote margins in three swing states.

2. People’s voting (and buying, and dating, and …) behavior is influenced by apparent irrelevancies. Thus, while we can perhaps make the argument that in general democracy picks good candidates, the better justification for democracy is this: Democracy best permits people who much bear the consequences of a government to influence the choice of that government. The people may do so well or stupidly, but it’s their burden, so it’s their call. If they choose poorly, they can perhaps learn better for the next time.

Second:

For those of who think that the voting for President is a blunt instrument that makes for good government only when constrained by strong rights and mediated by civic associations and the power of more local polities, none of this comes as a surprise.

Perhaps not. But it does call into doubt the merits of the Unified Executive theory. Trump is a firm believer in that theory, seeking to command Justice Department prosecutions and the Federal Reserve Open Market operations, among other things. But as Woodward’s Fear and the recent NYT editorial illustrate, that the Executive Branch is far less unified than many conservative theorists would espouse.

Do “mediating” forces lose their value when they occur within the Executive Branch?

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nobody.really

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