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America’s Problem Isn’t Too Little Democracy. It’s Too Much. 

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America’s Problem Isn’t Too Little Democracy. It’s Too Much. 

How the online mob is shattering the system the Founders designed.


June 26, 2018

Democracy’s lamentations sometimes seem deafening these days. “Democracy is dying,” proclaimed a recent article in Foreign Policy—and another in the Guardian, and yet another in Quartz. We’ve reached “the end of democracy,” avows a new book—as well as an op-ed in the Washington Post.

But what if these perspectives have it all backwards? What if our problem isn’t too little democracy, but too much?

There’s no doubt that democracy in the United States appears on shaky ground. That’s not because 2016 marked the first time in American historythat the presidency was captured by a candidate with no political or military experience. It’s not even because Donald Trump did so despite losing the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots, with his adversary garnering the most votes ever cast for a losing presidential candidate.

It’s because the 2016 election revealed new vulnerabilities in our democracy, generated by social media’s explosion and utilized by Russia and Russian-linked actorspossibly including Trump’s team itself. And it’s also because the aftermath of that election has laid bare a Congress so polarized, gridlocked and downright incapacitated that it has proved unable even to keep our government from shutting down and has consistently failed to fulfill its responsibility to exercise meaningful oversight of the executive branch.

What ails us? The current vogue is to place the blame on the inadequacies of our incarnation of democracy. The brilliant Yascha Mounk, for example, argues that the American people may think they’re living in a democracy, but—unbeknownst to them—it’s really all a charade. On Mounk’s account, Americans speak at town halls, organize on behalf of candidates and cast ballots; but, because the game’s been rigged by the powerful, all of that activity doesn’t really matter compared to the influence of the well-placed and well-heeled. In the words of two political scientists quoted favorably by Mounk, what we think of as democracy in action really amounts to “a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

Some suggest that democracy’s insufficiencies are global, and the defining problem of our times. In his magisterial account of democracy’s fading allure in Hungary and Poland, Roger Cohen echoes earlier scholars in seeing democracy now eclipsed by “competitive authoritarianism, a form of European single-party rule that retains a veneer of democracy while skewing the contest sufficiently to ensure it is likely to yield only one result.”

But while these commentators are right that the cracks are there, the cause is the very opposite of what they claim, at least when it comes to America. The problem isn’t that democracy is in short supply in the United States. It’s that technology has helped to unleash hyper-democratization—a shift away from the mediated, checked republic that America’s founders carefully crafted toward an impulsive, unleashed direct democracy that’s indulging the worst impulses of our most extreme elements.

To put it bluntly, we’re increasingly ruled by an online mob. And it’s a mob getting besieged with misinformation.

Recognizing the perils of hyper-democratization starts with a look back to James Madison, the master craftsman of our system of government. InFederalist Paper No. 14, Madison emphasized the “true distinction” between a democracy and a republic: “It is, that in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents.”

America has long thrived not as a direct democracy but as a mediated republic, in at least two senses. In the formal structure of our government, we’ve elected leaders who represented our interests but didn’t necessarily represent us, day to day and word for word. These presidents and members of Congress, thanks to the lengths of their terms and even devices like the now-reviled Electoral College, stood between the populace that our founders feared would be inflamed by “irregular passion” and the decisions for our country that demanded cooler heads.

The second aspect of our mediated republic has involved the critical flows of information to our citizenry. In this respect, Americans have reaped the benefits of similarly situated intermediaries who’ve kept the most inaccurate facts and manipulative voices from infecting public discourse: responsible newspaper editors, respected television news anchors and others who acted as gatekeepers, fact-checking to avoid the spread of “fake news” and sidelining extremists inclined toward demagoguery. This hasn’t been a perfect system, of course: Especially before the rise of objective journalism, political parties heavily influenced the dissemination of information; and there’s a downside to a system in which a single commentator like Walter Cronkite can sway much of the nation by deciding that he’s against a particular war. But, for all of the imperfections of earlier information flows to the American people, there have been at least some checks on the most outrageous claims and views making their way to the masses—even if those checks had their own angles and infirmities.

In multiple senses we’ve thus enjoyed mediation: a refinement by intermediaries of what information and views reach us as citizens and, in turn, a refinement of what those who represent us in Washington do in response to the opinions held by the public at large. Indeed, these phenomena have been at least somewhat related: Representatives have had the freedom to insert their own judgments in part because information flows to the people didn’t reflect the most extreme, inflammatory voices.

Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are changing all of that. Wildly inaccurate facts—sometimes deliberately inaccurate facts—spread like wildfire online, faster than the truth, according to a new study. They combine with extremist voices to degrade political dialogue, bypassing and drowning out the traditional mediators of newspaper and television. In response to direct agitation and incendiary calls to action online, the inflamed citizenry makes known directly its demands of its political leadership through hashtag campaigns, Facebook groups and YouTube views—acts of what Eitan Hersh calls “political hobbyism,” making its participants feel engaged (through tweeting, commenting and “liking”) rather than actually beingengaged (by debating fellow citizens, canvassing for political candidates and—most importantly—voting). And the political leadership responds without interposing more reflective judgment, lest that leadership be swiftly denounced across social media. This rush by lawmakers to preempt criticism happens at ever more rapid speeds, and seems to be less and less dependent on actual facts on the ground.

What you end up with is a vicious mix of misinformation, vitriol and impulsiveness that seems to be shaking the foundations of our republic.

The fight earlier this year over whether to “#ReleaseTheMemo” epitomized this dangerous dynamic. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees represent mediated, republican governance in a microcosm. They see classified intelligence that can’t be shared with all 308 million Americans, or even all 535 members of Congress. They assess, on behalf of the rest of us, whether the executive branch’s collection and use of that intelligence comport with the law. And, when they spot problems, they ask tough questions and demand reforms. The committees thus were built to stand between the masses and the complex decisions on sensitive intelligence collection that should be immune to public or political whim.

That decadeslong arrangement suddenly disintegrated as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, key Republican allies on the Hill and Trump took to Twitter to push for the public release of a classified memo that would be offered without context to the American people in an attempt to convince them of Justice Department improprieties. Once the debate over sensitive intelligence collection had been shifted to the public square, it didn’t take long for others to capitalize on the very passions our founders warned can infect direct democracy, with Russian trolls and bots fueling the #ReleaseTheMemo campaign and lacing it with inaccuracies and mischaracterizations that directly reached millions of Americans.

This was today’s lack of mediation replete with all of its dangers: politicians no longer trying to ask what their constituencies should want but instead responding to and even inflaming what they happened to want in a politically charged moment; and the American people getting flooded with deliberate untruths and intentionally polarizing messages. This was more than just the hyperpartisanship that’s been brewing for decades; it was the complete breakdown of mediation both in information flow and in governance—and it represented a rapid acceleration of that recent trend, an escalation even from the eye-opening foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election.

This, it seems, is no longer the republic Madison and his fellow founders bequeathed to us. It is, in effect, direct democracy. It’s hyper-democratization, driven by technologies that are democratizing for good but also for ill. And it suggests that too much democracy, not too little, may be at the root of today’s big challenges.

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Joshua A. Geltzer is executive director and visiting professor of law at Georgetown’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection. He previously served as senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council.

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