Can Mass Democracy Work?
The internet is changing how we relate to politics—and threatening democracy itself.
On last week’s episode of the pod, I threw out a question that has been bugging me for some time. But since that question ended up leading off the subscriber-only section of the show, it didn’t fully scratch my itch. Shadi and Osita responded to my provocation, but I want more. So I’m throwing it out here for you as a Monday Note, dear readers, in a hope to stimulate discussion.
The topic of discussion with Osita was ostensibly Ron DeSantis and whether he is a bigger or lesser threat to the republic than Donald Trump. But we soon switched gears to talk about the Republican Party itself as an institution.
The diagnosis that we collectively swatted around—I won’t ascribe it to Osita alone, as his views are more complex than what I'll briefly outline here—is that the GOP itself is rotten in no small part because our constitutional system encourages the rot. From the primary system to the electoral college, the game is rigged to encourage more extreme political entrepreneurs to emerge on top—in both parties. More moderate voices—the median voter—struggles to be adequately represented in our system.
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Furthermore, insofar as “red” voters feel like they’re losing fights where the popular vote decides the outcome, there’s a tendency among Republicans to lionize the Constitution’s counter-majoritarianism. The GOP had already over time come to embrace a populist rural politics that feeds off of distrust of urban populations. That longstanding embrace is today driving anti-democratic rhetoric and behavior among the more radical politicians on the Right.
It's a deep problem, but it's one that could at least theoretically be tackled through institutional reform.
There are plenty of ways to quibble with this diagnosis—tune in to hear us go back and forth on this. But the conversation got me thinking in a different, more expansive direction. Let’s leave aside for the moment which side of the partisan divide is more radical and more anti-democratic. Might that be too narrow an analysis? Could it be, instead, that our social media-fueled hyper-democratic age is in fact making the country itself more and more ungovernable?
The great hope for the internet is that it would reveal to us our common humanity, and by setting up something like a global public commons with access for everyone, would allow us to face, understand, and tackle the biggest challenges together. To say that the internet hasn’t lived up to its expectations is an understatement.
Indeed, it’s increasingly difficult to remember that early optimism as we struggle to navigate today's intense online polarization. We talk less and less about “trolls” being a few malevolent individuals who, through their toxic tactics, disrupt the potential for civic debate. Instead we are coming to realize that the relative anonymity of the internet—not necessarily having your full identity obscured, but just being able to attack another person in real time without actually having to look them in the eye—has unleashed a tribal logic that we seem unable to overcome. We instinctively know that allowing those from other tribes into our comfortable intellectual and ideological bubbles risks overheated conflict. So we avoid mixing, and our divides deepen as a result.
Many attempts have been made to foster in-person trans-partisan dialogue. My former colleague David Blankenhorn founded one of the more prominent such efforts, Braver Angels. He understood that getting people to disagree in person could lower the temperature. But the problem was, and remains, one of scale. Our lives are increasingly lived online, and our politics are shaped by this unhappy fact. You can depolarize groups when you sit them around the table, and you might be able to start building coalitions in that setting. But I haven’t seen much evidence yet that people are abandoning cyberspace for the old comforts of meatspace. Most of our debates persist online.
Not only is the internet arguably making us more tribal, it is also making us more political. Shadi just wrote about a facet of this phenomenon in the Atlantic, pivoting in part off a study that seems to have found that liberals are more unhappy due to their political beliefs. The speculation in the study is that the world is at best slow to change (if not completely resistant to it), and so progressives are particularly depressed about the lack of progress they find around them. Shadi focuses on outcomes, and advocates that we oughtn’t let politics dominate our lives in order to remain happy. But what struck me was not the effect—depression—but the underlying dynamic. We are all political now, probably more so than at any previous moment in history.
If polarization is a fact of modern political life, and we are all much more politically engaged than we ever have been in the past, this has implications for democracy. Yes, our primary system encourages political entrepreneurs to cater to the whims of the most radical and committed voters who go out of their ways to turn up for these arcane party rituals. But I can’t help but wonder if the disaffected “median voter,” sitting at home and tending to everyday concerns, is becoming an outmoded concept. If we are all becoming so political to the point where it’s affecting aggregate psychological outcomes enough to be measurable by social scientists, isn’t it fair to speculate that our entire political life is becoming a large primary system that’s vulnerable to demagogic political entrepreneurs? Doesn’t my description above capture something recognizable about Donald Trump’s rise to power?
Democracy as we know it is representative democracy, not direct democracy. A tension between the two has always existed, but has been easy enough to resolve in practice—as long as voters didn’t pay too close attention.
The key to representative democracy working is that it allowed for the manufacture of a plausible, manageable consensus among a limited number of individuals. Lawmakers might squabble, and even resort to violence at times, but it was all part of a regulated ritual. Voters would tune in once an electoral cycle and approve or disapprove of a politician’s performance (often with little grounding in objective fact). But they weren’t so bothered that they were not being consulted for each and every decision that was taken. It gave space for something we might call political leadership—for politicians to take a stance they believed was right, trusting that they would in time be vindicated before the voting public.
It seems to me that the very concept of representation itself is likely to come under increasing stress under a more active, activist polity. Not only is political leadership likely to be a casualty, but pandering to voters is likely to become even more pronounced. Transfixed as we might be by the Dominion revelations that have shown Fox News executives and TV personalities cowering before Donald Trump, it’s important to remember that even the Great Trump himself cannot reliably shape his voters’ attitudes and preferences. Recall his attempts to (rightly) make his Operation Warp Speed vaccine development initiative into a political winner for the Republican Party. They have fallen flat on their face.
The problem is that direct democracy has not yet been tried at scale. I fear it may not be workable. Shadi and I started this podcast out of a belief that it’s absolutely imperative that we as a society interrogate deep differences between ourselves, in large part because there is no alternative. Deep difference is unavoidable. I have, however, always maintained that for a society to cohere, some kind of sense of common purpose will have to be found. It seems to me that there cannot be a purely agonistic polity. Enthusiastic reformers have long been transfixed by people power—masses coming together to assert themselves against oppressive rule. And many have as a result come to conclude that expanding political engagement will cure many of the problems that modern polities face. I have instinctively always been suspicious of that tendency, fixating more on the dangers of mobs than on the wisdom of crowds.
Admittedly, what I’ve written above is not a fully-formed thesis, or even a well shaped analysis. It’s just a set of persistent concerns that I can’t shake. It's more of a provocation than anything else.
So, dear readers, have at it. Where do I go off the rails? Hit me up in the comments.
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