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.