Two of the most significant points of agreement between the nationalist right and the progressive left these days are that American democracy is at the brink of collapse and, relatedly, that citizens lack access to the reliable information needed to participate in that democracy.
This is especially bad because while the troubles we’re having with elections and news are real, the efforts by the nationalists and progressives in these areas are very much at the heart of the problem.
While I don’t doubt the sincerity of the alarm of most on the left and the right, the appeal of this attitude must include the possibility of obtaining power and exercising it against one’s political enemies. If we could just get control away from the bad people who have power over elections and information now, not only could we throw off their own yoke, we could make sure that the bad people would never pose a threat again.
No serious radical would ever think of compromise on matters so essential as elections and the flow of information, which is why the actions and strategies by the nationalists and progressives in these areas are far more serious dangers to the constitutional order than any of the threats, real or perceived, they claim to be combatting.
Whether Donald Trump actually believes he lost the 2020 election probably varies from day to day, much as his understanding of his own net worth does. But he obviously believes that Democrats tried to steal the election, as do millions of Republicans, only a third of whom polls suggest would trust the results of the 2024 election if a Democrat wins again. As Democrats are quick to point out, and correct in so doing, there is no basis for this belief. But that doesn’t stop those Republicans from feeling that way. Some are genuine kooks who believe that a massive criminal enterprise is to blame. But most, when pressed, will eventually retreat to complaints far beyond “democracy,” griping about the way social media and the mainstream media worked against their interests.
They wish a government under nationalist control could gain dominion over the press and social media and force those companies to be neutral, in the sense that soon-to-be Twitter owner Elon Musk thus defined: “which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left equally.” No real definition, effective or literal, of neutrality could reliably meet that test. A politically neutral Twitter would most upset the groups and individuals that were most often at odds with the company’s policies, not in any even distribution. We wouldn’t measure the neutrality of courts based on parity between convictions and acquittals. But Musk has hit here on the yearning for equity rather than equality for the media on the nationalist right.
Nationalists now seek for social media the equivalent of the Fairness Doctrine, the bane of the right when conservatives were driving the bus. Florida’s court-entangled social media law, for example, would require platforms to treat all political speech the same way. If one candidate’s supporters were posting hateful epithets and issuing vulgar threats against opponents, platforms would be obliged to treat them the same as the other candidate’s supporters talking about roads, schools, and tax rates.
The far left and far right have imitative language about the mainstream press, now derided at both extremes as the “corporate media.” Since long before Noam Chomsky’s and Edward Herman’s 1968 Manufacturing Consent, the basic assumption on the progressive left has been that the news business is right-wing because capitalism is inherently so. The corporate media indoctrinates Americans to be war-loving, closed-minded consumerists, thereby preventing a workers’ paradise from being achieved. People want the opposite of what they demand, the theory goes, but are tricked into demanding it.
This sounds preposterous to Americans on the right, which has an even longer and more intense contempt for the mainstream press. Especially on the fringes, though, it has become fanatical. The joke is that this fanaticism has come decades after the end of the three-network media monopoly on television and at a time when it has never been easier to find news with a rightward bent. But there is a mirror-image attitude to Chomsky’s on the right today: American corporations aren’t becoming woke, climate alarmed and social-justice obsessed because Americans, especially the college-educated ones who are the rising junior executives in these firms, think that way. Those corporations and media platforms are manufacturing a new consensus to destroy traditional values.
Cultural views, attitudes, political preferences that either side disagrees with must be illegitimate and either the product of manipulation or outright theft because both the nationalists and the progressives deeply believe that if only the masses really understood, their side would be swept into power, from whence they could drain the evil of the opposing side like lymph from the ailing body of the nation. They rationalize their maniacal obsession with gaining control over elections and media on the grounds that only an illegitimate system could produce the result of the other, inherently illegitimate, side being in charge.
When the Department of Homeland Security offered up its Disinformation Governance Board last week or when former President Barack Obama called for tightening regulations on social media companies, it reflected the same thinking expressed by Musk and the nationalists that the posts and messages on these sites constitute the “public square.” That’s the idea behind the increasingly popular idea to treat the companies as public utilities, like water and electricity, deemed too important to govern themselves.
But Twitter is not the “public square,” nor is Facebook, nor are all of the social media outlets combined. The public square would be a place where people of opposing views come to debate and discuss the issues of the day. What happens on these sites is the opposite: like-minded people gather to affirm each other’s views and unite to attack the extremists on the other side. This produces a ratchet effect in which the opposing sides propel each other into new paroxysms of outrage and lowered standards of conduct to meet the latest threat to our way of life. These are rallies, not debates, and the decline of even basic governance in the past two decades is powerful evidence.
In explaining how Germany so badly misplayed its efforts to keep the United States out of World War I, historian Barbara Tuchman described the news and information consumption habits of Kaiser Willhelm II, with his courtiers “providing him with his own morning paper in a special imperial edition of one, made up of carefully excerpted items from the world press, printed in gold. Willhelm was interested in gold-plated news only.”
The nationalists and the progressives are a bunch of little kaisers, daily reveling in their own gold-plated news feeds, all being drawn deeper into a flattering surreality. What the rest of us should worry about is that as they’re poking their pickelhaubes around in some very sensitive places—like free speech and the fair conduct of elections—we are the ones who will end up getting the spike.
Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor of The Dispatch and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.