1. Introduction — Democracy, Influence, and Protection of the State
Arianna Huffington ran a session at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2009, in which she argued that the net would bring participatory democracy and informed self-government to America, to an extent not seen anywhere on Earth since the Athenian Agora and The Golden Age of Pericles. While this would be an outcome to be greatly welcomed, it was never certain. Indeed, a well-functioning democracy was never certain even in Athens. The Golden Age of Athens lasted less than 25 years. Athens was then sold out by the serial traitor, Alcibiades, who sold Athens out to Sparta, and who later betrayed Sparta to the Persians. Had there been anyone more powerful than the Persians, no doubt Alcibiades would have found a way to betray Persia.
As will be clear below, I now believe that the internet has damaged civil discourse and the role of the Agora, the marketplace for ideas. However, the Greek Agora did have a mechanism for protecting democracy, based on little shards of broken pottery, ostraca. Every year the population of Athens voted. The most popular, powerful people in the city could be banned for a period of 5 years or longer. Citizens wrote the names of dangerously popular, dangerously influential people on shards of pottery, and the “winners” were sent away, or ostracized. They were not ostracized for crimes they had committed, or even for crimes that they were likely to commit. They were ostracized for their oversized influence and their ability to subvert democracy through the strength of their personality.
2. My Pessimism about Democracy in the Age of the Net
I was more pessimistic than Arianna, believing at the time that there were two alternatives for the impact of the net on American democracy, each equally likely:
· Achieving an idealized participatory democracy assumes that the electorate will enjoy fair access to information and that it will gain true comprehension, and that it will not be influenced by the relative ease of preparing soundbites for one position or another. Perhaps the net would make all literate Americans informed, and perhaps the best candidate, with the best platform, with a plan to deliver the greatest good for the country, would be assured election.
· Alternatively, candidates with the darkest message, with the simplest delivery, appealing to the basest instincts of their voters, would lead us to fascism.
Thus, I concluded that the net is neither friend nor foe of democracy.
Still, both Arianna and I accepted the idea that the net would provide fair access to all ideas.
3. With the passage of time, it is clear that I was wrong, and insufficiently pessimistic
The net has not delivered fascism, which was my greatest fear, but it has become the most divisive force in the history of American politics. Traditional journalism still believes in pursuit of facts, and in dissemination of truth. That does not mean that traditional journalism is always neutral, and crusading journalists have been a part of the American tradition since before the revolutionary war. But traditional journalists are forced to work very hard to defend their positions, to ferret out the truth. Yes, the Washington Post led the assault on Richard Nixon after Watergate, and yes, the Washington Post had then, as it does now, a liberal editorial board. But the Post and its investigative reports Woodward and Bernstein, had to work very hard to support everything they wrote.
The alternative to traditional journalism, alt-journalism, believes that words are merely tools, and that facts are merely a matter of personal preference, to be selected, discarded, or fabricated depending on their usefulness. And, indeed, now that Bannon has transitioned back from the White House to his prior role in alt-journalism, his view of his mission clearly has very little to do with the objective pursuit of truth”
“I’ve got my hands back on my weapons. I built a f***ing machine at Breitbart. And now I’m about to go back, knowing what I know, and we’re about to rev that machine up. And rev it up we will do.”
Contrast this mission statement with The New York Times motto, “To give the news impartially, without fear or favor’” or that of the Washington Post, “Democracy Dies in Darkness”.
Clearly, Bannon believes that journalism in pursuit of truth is wasted. And, clearly, the man who did more than anyone else to make the Trump presidency possible is going to do whatever he can to use the net to advance it. And, finally, the Trump presidency does not seem to be based on any vision of health care policy, economic policy, or on any other policy other than preserving its own power.
4. What can be done to preserve American democracy?
The ancient Athenians would have known what to do. The most powerful, influential, disruptive forces in the United States today are clearly Steve Bannon and Donald Trump. The ancient Athenians would have banished them from Athens. Are there authors, playwrights, and editors on both the left and right who would also be considered influential and equally disruptive? Probably. And the ancient Athenians would have banished them as well.
Banishment was not based on being right or wrong. Banishment was not based on having political foes without having enough offsetting political friends. Banishment was not based on expressing any single opinion, and was not considered as limiting the right to speak. Banishment was based on an individual’s having strong opposition to what was perceived as excessive influence.
Since it is clear that a majority of Americans believe that President Trump’s tweeting and public statements are disruptive, and that he has the distinction of being the most unpopular president in American history, it is clear that he would have the honor of winning an ostraca vote. It is not clear who else would rank in the top 5, or the top 10, or however many winners we might feel the need to select.
Banishment is more than a little extreme. It’s not clear that you can banish a sitting president, or the current Senate Majority Leader, or the House Minority Leader, although all three might end up winning an ostraca vote.
A more modern solution would be to take away President Trump’s cellphone and ban Steve Bannon from the net if they were ostracized. Perhaps CNN, or MSNBC, or Fox, might lose an anchor as well. We would probably have to leave ostracized politicians in office, but we could limit their access to airtime on radio and television. We would be left with a much more centrist media, and with much more centrist politicians as a direct result.
This doesn’t place limits on freedom of speech. It simply muffles the loudest voices.
The Republic, Western Democracy, and the entire planet, would all be better off.