Essay

Democracy and despotism in a digital age.

Midway into President Trump’s first term it is clear the United States is experiencing, to some as yet uncertain degree, regime change. Somewhat understandably, the causes and consequences of the current change, and the crisis that brought it about, are not well known. The time is ripe for a new digital publication that can make matters clearer as events unfold.

It is still unfashionable to claim that the elite within both major political parties lost their legitimacy by bungling American supremacy and coming out stronger and more secure—until the citizenry began to turn against them, at least. Two years ago it was heresy. What will it be next year?

These questions now instinctively arouse new sentiments about changes in technology unfolding even faster than our political future. There is no question that the Trump phenomenon, and the dramatic shift in America’s political consciousness away from steady-state conventional consensus, are inexplicable without reference to the incessant, everyday impact of the internet on what we do and what we see as possible.

But one of the deepest sources of confusion about the course of the present struggle is whether the online ferment better favors a recovery of the republic or a radical departure toward more futuristic or atavistic arrangements.

Disillusionment with the bipartisan and global elite, and the sprawling apparatus of communication and criticism through which they wield control, is not just heady stuff. It acts, in the parlance of online culture, like one of the pills from The Matrix, after which the consumer is awakened to the vastness of true reality and will never be the same.

The Disenchantment of Democracy

Today’s encounter with reality calls into question not just today’s lingering rule by bipartisan and global elites but the totemic value of democracy—the form of government the elites say will be destroyed if they are forced to relinquish their rule. Even people who sincerely place axiomatic value on democracy understand there is a powerful tension latent in the fact that many of these elites hold offices that are not elective, or strongly approve of exercising rule in unelected fashion so long as the correct people fill the right offices.

Many liberals are discovering the virtue of illiberalism, and many conservatives are turning away from mere conservatism. Studies today show young people in growing numbers are now disillusioned with democracy and place more interest or confidence in socialism, communism, or far-right ideologies. Elections around the world—Brazil’s is just the latest—suggest that more and more people, regardless of the particulars of their national character, are willing to sacrifice freedom to fight corruption.

Bred over long and painful decades, the conviction is deepening that “democracy” is inadequate to the current crisis because it could not stop the people who fostered that crisis from gaining and keeping power.

The response from on high has been a state of high alert. The elites who rule the democracies, no matter how undemocratically, know that, in a mirror image of monarchy and monarchs during the Age of Revolutions, if democracy loses its charm, they will lose their heads, or at least their perches. Warring partisan elites accuse one another of anti-democratic tactics, unwilling to admit that both they and their constituents care much more about victory than democracy. That alone ought to arouse some suspicion that mere democracy is not quite as sacrosanct a value as we think. Meanwhile, like their counterparts in politics, media elites failed to process the depth and seriousness of the connected crises of confidence in democracy and the elites ruling the democracies. But because the media needs to move units, it now openly frets that democracy may actually be dying.

And while the suspicion is deepening that democracy was never all it was cracked up to be, there is no doubt that, especially in the United States, some sense of the sacred still does cling to all things democratic. Although the word democracy does not appear in either the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, people still generally recognize that, while in some fundamental ways we have moved far afield from the republic of the Founding into bureaucracy and technocracy, in other ways we have become far more democratic than the Americans at our origins. These movements have long been understood conceptually by many millions of Americans not only to be sound, but as drawing us ever closer toward a more perfect union. But in very recent years America has changed fundamentally, and not in the sense Barack Obama famously used. The context in which we live, day to day, minute to minute, has been transformed, and that change is rapidly, mercilessly changing the content of our political and psychological lives.

It is a technological transformation—unprecedented in its particulars, but hardly the first such shift in American history. Democracy and the elites who rule the democracies are both in a crisis of disenchantment of their authority because the move from pre-digital to digital life has altered Americans’ direct personal experience in ways corrosive to that authority. Democracy has always been subject to challenges, as have the elites who came to consolidate rule over the world’s most advanced democracies. But because the kind of democratic life and elites we have become accustomed to are so deeply the product of the technological environment preceding digital technology, the challenges we have grown accustomed to processing have been different in kind from the ones digital tech now presents.

The authority of the democracies and their elites, and the staying power it has conferred, has drawn strength from the fact that the technological environment made true alternatives so imaginary, so implausible, or so difficult to widely establish. Both democracy and the elites the democracies produced were better suited than their challengers to the pre-digital environment that shaped the way Americans and so many others perceived and processed reality. That electric environment gave rise to a political and economic culture prizing industry, imagery, and imagination. It was an era in which seances and the occult, world government and international institutions, total war and total markets, mass murder and mass audiences, and absolute freedoms and hedonistic principles all resonated together with great intimacy and natural cohesion. It was an era that found its culmination and embodiment in Bono, the worldwide spokesperson for total unity and harmony, and a sacred reconciliation of democracy with the elites ruling the democracies, that was electric through and through.

Notably, in just a few years, Bono went from perhaps the most prestigious, respected, and beloved celebrity imagineer to an out-of-touch has-been whose stiff album of inessential new cuts had invaded your iPhone and could not be deleted. It is Bono’s face, sunglasses and all, that gazes beatifically out of the cover of the infamous January/February 2013 issue of the MIT Technology Review, emblazoned with all-knowing headlines such as “Bono: Data Can Fight Poverty and Corruption” and, most telling of all, “A More Perfect Union: The Definitive Account of How the Obama Campaign Used Big Data to Redefine Politics.” Today, Bono is now reduced to waving the EU flag onstage, urging—in almost the same language as a newly chastened and perhaps bewildered Francis Fukuyama—a new democratic pride in the electric-age institutions of unity and togetherness. The weakness of these very institutions, the pride of the elites ruling their restive democracies, betokens the collapse of both the authoritative framework that catapulted Bono to cultural supremacy and the psychological and technological environment from which that framework itself arose.

And it is all that data—or to be more precise, all that digital technology, ever more definitive of our quotidian reality—that has done the deed. To the imagineers for whom the collapse of their supremacy was simply unthinkable, tech has now become a menace. Siva Vaidhyanathan of the University of Virginia’s Center for Media and Citizenship argues in Antisocial Media that companies like Facebook are harming democracy worldwide, joining a long list of critics who say the business models of greedy and manipulative insta-billionaires, and not the digital shift itself, are to blame. More canny observers go further. Yuval Noah Harari, in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, warns—a bit late—that just because the imagineers created digital tech does not mean digital tech loves them. No matter how much the elites believed digital had at last perfected the electric Age of Aquarius, digital cared nothing, it turned out, for the ostensible power of their cosmic dreams.

Lincoln’s Lens

In America’s collective memory, shattered dreams and wrenching change instantly calls forth the Civil War. To no surprise, that is exactly the memory dominating political rhetoric and the political imagination today. But, importantly, the “irrepressible conflict” showcases exactly how titanic shifts in technology precipitate changes in regime, reopening fundamental questions about the value of democracy and the character of the elite.

While roots of the war reached back to slavery, the political problem posed to the Founding regime by the content of slavery only reached crisis proportions when the technological context of American life precipitously changed. Influential historians of American politics have missed important opportunities to stress this point. Richard Hofstadter, to take one prominent example, described in his 1971 edited volume on American violence “the pathology of a nation growing at a speed that defied control . . . impatient with authority . . . and above all cursed by an ancient and gloomy wrong,” namely slavery. Daniel Walker Howe quotes Hofstadter approvingly in his 2007 Pulitzer prize-winning What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, but, like Hofstadter, does not draw out the fundamental point that slavery provoked a crisis in the authority of the American regime because technological advancement suddenly made the transformation of the United States into a slaveocracy a genuine possibility. This transformation was partly a matter of applied science: in twenty years, the production of cotton roughly quadrupled; in fifty years, the slave population did. But more broadly and deeply, the thinkability of national slavery was a consequence of the dawning electric age.

Anti-slavery statesmen knew this as early as the Mexican War. On July 22, 1848, Maine Senator Hannibal Hamlin—Abraham Lincoln’s future Vice President—stood to oppose the Compromise Bill that would have opened the door to slavery in territorial governments throughout the conquered West. “The public mind will be startled through all the North; it will thrill through all the country like an electric shock,” he warned:

“This is a new principle in the doctrines of slavery propagandism. It is not the doctrine of the founders of the republic. Democracy has been called progressive, but my word for it, she goes along in the old-fashioned stage-coach style, while this doctrine of slavery propagandism has mounted the railroad cars, if it has not assumed the speed of electricity . . . it in fact abrogates the laws of the free and gives instead the power of servitude. This is a doctrine of a later day.”

Hamlin, like all in Washington and well beyond, had asked what God had wrought just four years earlier as Alexander Graham Bell wired that line of Scripture in the first Morse code message transmitted on American soil, officially opening the Baltimore-Washington telegraph line.

The genius of the Founding was in its crafting of a political structure that obeyed a certain tempo—that of the stagecoach, in Hamlin’s formulation, or of what Assumption College political theorist Greg Weiner calls “Madison’s Metronome.” The Founding, on Weiner’s account, hinged on the insight of James Madison that a fundamental problem of politics in the early modern age—the age of the printing press—was the velocity of passion in the body politic. Here Hobbes, if not Locke, would agree. But Madison’s “temporal republicanism,” in contrast to Hobbes’ concentration of all communicative initiative, celestial and temporal, under the monarchical authority of the Sovereign, built the Constitutional regime on foundations that were firmer in the age of print than mere democracy—even, or indeed especially, in a democracy of letters, with every citizen a pamphleteer, and the Revolution itself announced by published Declaration.

Pure democracy was not to be trusted because it was not of sacred or even inherent value. The chaotic and unstable direct democracy of ancient Athens proved that much—something Aristotle (about whom more later) knew well. And the age of print made the problems of pure democracy worse, both in its scale and its speed. In the arrival of the electric age, Hamlin and others recognized not just a new phase of American life, but a recasting of the very ground on which the future of the American regime would have to be contested—and, indeed, as events would prove, rebuilt.

Which brings us to Lincoln himself. As President, Lincoln recognized that the War, and the slavery question, would have to be settled one way or the other on the terms set by the electric age. Any return to the political content of the Founding, any new birth of freedom, would have to be prudentially accomplished in a manner that squared with the context of what electricity had wrought. He perfectly understood the power of the telegraph, and its role in deciding how technological advancement would transform America’s regime and its elite.

In the darkest days of 1863, Lincoln sat anxiously in the telegraph room of the War Department, waiting for the victory news he needed to issue his delayed Emancipation Proclamation. At last the news came; then it went out. The National Archives recalls the event:

“A veritable galaxy of leading literary figures gathered in the Music Hall in Boston to take notice of the climax of the fight that New England abolitionists had led for more than a generation. Among those present were John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Francis Parkman, and Josiah Quincy. Toward the close of the meeting, Ralph Waldo Emerson read his “Boston Hymn” to the audience. In the evening, a large crowd gathered at Tremont Temple to await the news that the President had signed the Proclamation. Among the speakers were Judge Thomas Russell, Anna Dickinson, Leonard Grimes, William Wells Brown, and Frederick Douglass. Finally, it was announced that “It is coming over the wire,” and pandemonium broke out!”

As the nineteenth century yielded to the twentieth, democracies and their elites would soon see just how much pandemonium would come over the world’s electric wires. But for a time, at a pivotal moment, Lincoln restored the American regime—not just to survive the maelstrom of the electric age, but to thrive in it.

In no small part, the eradication of slavery to men on American soil set perhaps the firmest foundation for freedom in the electric age. But in so doing, it helped confirm a psychological environment of tremendous optimism and idealism in America concerning the ostensibly inherent virtue and benefit of technological advancement and, eventually, sheer technological change.

A second crisis, however, arose around the next great advancement of the electric age. The market’s conquest of the night, through the nationwide spread of the incandescent bulb, for the first time made labor of all sorts possible, and all manner of pleasure readily profitable, around the clock. Not surprisingly (as Thomas Pynchon dramatizes in his epic novel Against the Day), this was the era when socialism, anarchism, and eventually communism first gained a serious bottom-up following in the New World. This was also the era, perhaps predictably, of the rise of bipartisan Progressivism—the new political science that claimed only its experts could be trusted to save democratic life from itself. The authority of that claim has lasted to date almost exactly one hundred years. Now, the old electric consensus—first Lincoln’s, then the Progressives’—has been thrown into crisis by the leap from electric to digital age.

What would Lincoln say?

For Lincoln, the key was not the abstraction of democracy but the concreteness of liberty—liberty concretized by the reality of our equal humanity. Our shared nature sets a politically foundational rule: in the just regime, whatever its type, the only permissible slavery for human beings is found in kneeling before God. However natural temporal mastery may be, because we are human, it is inherently unjust. In this sense, Lincoln urged, our laws must serve the republic, not the other way around; the republic itself was a structure built to preserve the “liberty for all” at the root cause of “our great prosperity.”

Natural Right and Technology

This assessment of the concrete reality of things has an uneven pedigree in the history of Western thought. Thomas Jefferson averred that his expression of it in the Declaration was “intended to be an expression of the American mind,” neither original in thought or feeling nor derivative of another work. But the “harmonizing sentiments” of Jefferson’s “day” were absent from centuries past. Harry Jaffa suggested that, for the clearest presentation of the Jeffersonian assessment, we must go back to Aristotle. In fact, in our assessment of the problem of democracy, it is to Aristotle that we should now return.

Too often in contemporary life, Jaffa warns, political thinkers “ignore what Aristotle says about all of natural right being changeable.” Aristotle, a Macedonian foreigner exiled from ancient Athens, was no ideologue of democracy, even though he criticized the un-democratic regime Plato describes in the Laws for depriving most people of their happiness. Jaffa recalls “that, according to Aristotle, a city with more than 10,000 citizens would be too large.” In his political and ethical writing, Aristotle insists that the city cannot scale beyond a certain size, in the same way that it is possible “to be friendly with many in the civic sense” but not to be friends with “a large number of people.” Yet at the same time, in supporting the practical and natural strength of in ruling within bounds and thereby promoting what the Constitution calls the general welfare, Aristotle invites the conclusion that a people can multiply to a size too large for a city, and that rulers and laws will therefore breach the natural bounds of temporal authority if they attempt to govern them contrary to this concrete reality. “Law for an ancient city and for a modern state,” as Jaffa writes—“whether the 4 million inhabitants of the 13 original American states, or the 280 million of the 21st-century America—must of necessity be very different. It must be very different as to the ways and means by which it is formed, yet altogether the same for the human ends that it must serve.” This is to say, the just regime must serve the ways of life which, in their very existence, illustrate what no government can seek to alter or attack without making humans slaves of someone or something other than God. Through that original political sin, a regime becomes the enemy of the well-being natural to humans.

By these lights, if the Founding expresses an Aristotelian mindset in its focus on the natural bounds of rule, it does so all the more in its demonstration that different regimes in dramatically different contexts, including demographic and geographic ones, may yet all repair to essentially the same natural standard in discerning and providing justice. But Aristotle articulates the foundation of what has endured in Jefferson’s expression of the American mind in an important additional way. The practical wisdom of Aristotelian forbearance toward prudential changes in natural right according to concrete environmental conditions arises at root from Aristotle’s presentation in speech of the nature of causes and effects.

Again working from experienced assessment to logical discernment, Aristotle makes two key points. First, types of causes are simultaneous. Horseshoes, to take a simple example, are caused by the hammering of the blacksmith as well as by the substance of which the horseshoe is made. Second, environmental conditions work as causes. Horseshoes are not just the effect of hammering blacksmiths and iron ore but of the shared psychological and technological context of life as a particular peoples live it out. One big upshot of this sort of cause and effect was popularized in Abraham Maslow’s so-called Law of the Instrument: “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Aristotle, however, goes further, calling upon people to investigate what mental and scientific contexts they share that might have caused their relationship with a particular tool to take on such immense significance.

This thought process can be judiciously extended to more complex artefacts than tools. Surely few would object, for instance, to the general idea that what we communicate is shaped by how we can communicate. This is in fact the upshot of Jefferson’s own notion of expressing the American mind. The Founding era was one wherein technological and psychological conditions—shaped specifically by certain strains of the Enlightenment—had formed an environment of fervent yet gentlemanly ecumenicism concerning questions of ordered liberty. Not only was the private library of classic texts the epitome of the Anglo-American gentleman, shaping his view of the world; so too was the pamphlet the epitome of the Anglo-American commoner, who shared broad familiarity with the issues and stakes surrounding the relationship between government and the governed. Jefferson stressed that the Declaration was written to epitomize, in style and substance, the context of political knowledge and sentiment shared by Americans both common and elite.

In that, Jefferson continued the long Western tradition of political thought. Socrates, shaped by the milieu of his oral culture, philosophized orally. Reading philosophy, he warned, was akin to interrogating a statue. Aristotle, in an environment moving from oral to written culture, taught that the expertise of the well-read youth could not match the prudential knowledge derived from long life experience.

The point, of course, is not that justice is in some radical sense “relative” to where and when a people live, but that the structures of regimes and of governance are inexorably shaped by the mental and scientific environments wherein a people in turn is shaped. While the practical task of harmonizing right and rule with human nature is therefore one that must be taken up anew when a people’s shared contexts substantially change, the goal, and the most basic measures of justice, remain the same.

A New Birth of Justice

Which brings us back to the fitful changes now unfolding, under ever-accelerating digital conditions, in the American regime. The outcome is yet in doubt. It is sometimes even unclear exactly who is on what side of the struggle and to what degree. Writing in the Claremont Review of Books shortly before Hillary Clinton lost to President Trump, Angelo Codevilla proposed that “regardless of the election’s outcome, the republic established by America’s Founders is probably gone.” Though the character of governance depends on that of those who govern, “the overriding question,” Codevilla surmised, was “how eager the American people are to reject the bipartisan class that has ruled this country contrary to its majority’s convictions.” As both parties embraced “the ruling class’s headlong rush in what most considered disastrous directions, Americans lost faith in the Constitution’s power to restrain the wrecking of their way of life.” While ideological and social commitments doubtless fueled that elite consensus, it is now becoming clear that so much of what holds the identity of the ruling class together is itself the product of its rise to power in a shared context that digital technology is destroying.

The Aquarian vision of universal friendship and equal empowerment—churned out for decades in a global echo chamber of mass media, pop music, and cheap entertainment—has hit a brick wall online, and an invisible one at that. The ruling class just did not see it coming. Because they created the internet, they imagined, it would be their friend, protecting and advancing their privilege and their values. It has not. Instead the internet has torn back the curtain—on the financial corruption, the fake news, and, through the MeToo movement and other means, the fundamental interchangeability and replaceability of the pre-digital elite. If these are the fruits of “democracy,” what now can be said in democracy’s defense? In the face of this question, the democracies’ elite labors feverishly to flip the script: democracy is sacred, they insist, in the language of a hundred years ago, and only we experts, no matter how profane, can save it.

In respect to which regimes have fared best in continuity and justice over the course of Western culture’s great waves of technological change, the fate of the American regime naturally draws more attention than that of Europe. How the US handles the rise of artificial intelligence, social credit, and the other hallmarks of digital tech will make a fateful impact on both the American people and the world.

Americans’ options, even amid the current confusion, are limited—constrained by how the great shift in communications and experience shapes and conditions how we act and what remains thinkable. The American people, however, are more accustomed to times of testing than we sometimes appear. Unbroken, the Union has survived the advent of the political pamphlet, the mass market newspaper, the telegraph, radio, television, and the internet—a feat few if any other regimes of comparable size and influence can claim.

In the process, we may have incorporated forms of governance deeply at odds with a republican form of government. But we remain deeply averse to continuing on with enterprises and institutions that don’t work—and don’t square with the plain truth about what makes livable a life worth living. In setting to work afresh in a digital age, governance—whether by citizens, institutions, robots, or all three—will need to be brought once again into closer accord with the instincts and longings that still define our national character. The foundational insight of the West is that the only form of slavery compatible with human dignity is servility before God. From this insight stems the distinctly Western idea of justice. Its repugnance toward reducing any human being to earthly servility runs deep in the American mind and the American heart, and it will not go down without a fight.

is Editor-at-Large at The American Mind. A fellow at the Center for the Study of Digital Life and contributing editor at American Affairs, he is the author of The Art of Being Free (2017, St. Martin's).

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