The future of America depends on abandoning the illusion of neutrality.
The Law vs. The Borg
We have a duty to wield federal power against Big Tech.
The American Right is facing an unprecedented set of challenges from an unprecedented position of weakness. Conservatives have lost influence in the executive agencies of government, in the institutions of culture, in public schools, and in universities. Sectors once supposedly values-neutral, like professional sports, have taken a decidedly progressive turn. Many of those once considered safely aligned with conservatives, like the military and corporate America, have gone woke.
The profit motive, long relied on to keep corporations out of the culture wars, has been replaced by the compliance motive, extending from regulatory risk aversion to defensive and competitive virtue signaling. Putting a BLM banner on the company homepage distracts from scrutiny over outsourcing policies, worker compensation, or the use of Chinese slaves. Corporations have decided that cheap shows of solidarity are a profitable alternative to real reform on the issues that actually matter.
Big Tech platforms, which arose in the highly-regarded, permissive environment of American innovation, now distort and control access to information at a scale never witnessed before in modern society. Private power controls the primary points of news, engagement, market access, and political speech for billions of people—including a democratically elected president of the United States.
The deepening divide between the Right and the regime is not, as some might have us believe, a product of superficial misunderstandings. It is not a conflict “over the size of government and taxes,” as Claremont board president Tom Klingenstein has underscored. Rather, this is a foundational conflict in worldviews. It is a battle over the American way of life, with one side hell-bent on using its outsized institutional authority to enforce the supremacy of their own systems.
In the face of this, the Right must stop feigning helplessness. This is especially true with regard to the large, multinational corporations, including the country’s Big Tech companies, which are powerful enough to shape politics and culture all over the globe. As primary avenues of commerce, they are dominant enough to set ideological criteria for access to the basic points of capitalism. The Big Tech companies, in particular, are changing how we think, how we see one another, how information flows, how we see ourselves, and even how countries are governed.
Yet many on the Right are still stuck in a limp posture of surrender. Some seem to set great store by the opinions of certain “conservative” policy groups, despite the fact that these groups are paid by Big Tech firms to launder Silicon Valley talking points into free market pablum. Others appear to have mistaken mean tweets and stern lectures at congressional hearings for productive action.
Ultimately, when it comes to Big Tech, much of the Right appears to have forsaken the power offered to them by self-government: to use the law, and to change the law.
Big Tech platforms benefit from a massive government subsidy known as Section 230, one that has been distorted by the courts from a relatively porous immunity to a bulletproof shield. Conservative luminary Justice Clarence Thomas has opined on how to change the law, and there exist dozens of proposals from various Members of Congress to do so. And still, conservatives sit idle and unfocused.
Donald Trump dusted off antitrust enforcement, bringing a lawsuit against Google, and the country’s state attorneys general have been relentless in doing the same. Yet many Capitol Hill Republicans still cringe at the thought of diligently policing markets with the antitrust laws placed there a century ago to do just that.
As Amazon brutalizes small businesses and engages in digital book burning, as Google steamrolls its competitors and manipulates access to information around elections, and as Facebook de-platforms a sitting President and limits national political discourse, Republicans still wring their hands over whether or not applying the law would constitute too much government.
No Other Way
The battle with Big Tech is a battle for sovereignty; it is a question of who rules. Is it the tech tyrants, on their Silicon Valley thrones, dictating to us how we should speak, think, and engage in the market, and in the public square? Or is it us, the people, acting through our self-government, who get to set these terms?
The Right must now recall what government is for. Very often, innovation outpaces lawmaking. This is by design: it makes our country nimble and inventive. It’s the job of the inventor to invent—but it is the job of the policy maker to put up the guardrails where they become warranted, and to enforce the laws where they apply. This is not “big government.” It is prudent and pragmatic lawmaking.
So many of the challenges facing the Right require states to act, or local communities to stand up and be counted, or even conservative business leaders to develop our own infrastructure. In other words, not everything about our present peril can be solved at the federal level. But the question of Big Tech most certainly can—in fact, it must be.
The Left has shown no compunction about giving itself authority over every area of public and private life. Indeed, leftists would rather empower the Big Tech platforms to further punish their political enemies than break their hold on the marketplace to allow competitors in.
The question for conservatives is whether they will meet their adversaries on the field of politics and use self-government to preserve a place in which to stand. If not, we will remain ideologically paralyzed, soothing ourselves as the false prophets did in Jeremiah’s day—speaking “peace, peace,” when there is no peace to be found.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.