Democracy, Deliberation, and the Internet

The insidious power of the sophist and demagogue in our 24/7 virtual world.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

For 2500 years a consistent criticism of giving political power to the masses has been the question of competence. To critics like Socrates and Plato, the knowledge of history, philosophy, and facts necessary for governing are beyond the abilities of the average citizen. Hoi polloi had to spend their time making a living rather than studying these disciplines, or they were by nature driven more by their self-interest, appetites, and passions than by the rational search for knowledge of the true and good. Thus from Plato’s Republic to today’s progressive technocrats, some form of technocracy has been preferable to rule by the “low-information” voting masses.

In the last few decades, the explosion of information instantly available on the internet has made this fear of giving political power to the uninformed more urgent in an age of “fake news.” Has the availability of an astonishing volume of information worsened the dangers of ignorance to governing, or has it provided a means of correcting it?

Plato’s student Aristotle, in his critique of his old teacher, points toward one answer to this perennial discomfort with mass democracy and voter ignorance. Responding to Plato’s complaint of the lack of technical and philosophical skills among the people, Aristotle pointed out that what we now call “crowd-sourcing” can still make democratic deliberation effective:

For the many, of whom each individual is not a good man, when they meet together may be better than the few good, if regarded not individually but collectively . . . For each individual among them has a share of excellence and practical wisdom, and when they meet together, just as they become in a manner one man, with many feet, and hands, and senses, so too with regard to their character and thought.” Thus, “although individually they [the masses] may be worse judges than those who have special knowledge, as a body they are as good or better.

In some respects, the internet provides ample evidence of the mechanism at work. A trivial, some might say, example is the P.C. police’s complaints about the Christmas classic “Baby it’s Cold Outside.” This postwar hit, whose lyrics comprise a back-and-forth between a man and woman in which he’s trying to convince her not to leave, has been condemned by progressives for promoting “date rape,” and for being a “trigger” for women who have been sexually assaulted. The comments from the online Wall Street Journal article on the controversy illustrate how the “wisdom of crowds” can be manifested and consumed by millions of people, and come to conclusions superior to those who fancy themselves superior thinkers.

The commentators quickly identified the obvious problems with those advocating for banning the song. One quoted some obscene and vulgar lyrics from a Jay Z song––“Gosh, no misogyny or risk for a woman in this song,” he observed, exposing the usual incoherent politically correct double standard by which innocuous popular songs from 70 years ago are condemned and banned while gangsta-rap lyrics replete with misogyny, violence, and copious amounts of vulgarities like “bitch” and slurs like the so-called “n-word” pass unnoticed. Someone else also hit the hypocrisy of the left’s complaints: “Remember when the left had to remind VP Dan Quayle that Murphy Brown was just a fictional character?” Another respondent pointed out the obvious fact of changes in tastes and standards through time: “All manner of lyrics, books, and television shows won’t pass muster with modern taste and values.” Yet they are historical artifacts that open a window into an earlier time, which can be a learning experience for the open-minded.

Another points out, “Just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you are right.” A necessary reminder of moral common sense. Still another reminds us that each of us has the power to turn off the radio if we’re offended by the lyrics: “Turn the knob on the radio. Free speech trumps offensiveness. You have no right not to be offended. Get over it.” Then there’s the point that “there are more important problems around that will affect more people’s well being [sic] that we should be worried about.” Or we’re provided information that the reporter missed: “The song is sung on the movie [E]lf . . . Really cute, no thought of rape, i think” [sic]. And don’t forget usual comments-section waggery: “Size of mind inversely proportional to size of mouth. And these people can be very LOUD.”

Now, one can fault taking examples from The Wall Street Journal since it represents a more affluent, educated, or conservative sample of readers. But that’s not an issue when you have hundreds of thousands of venues where such conversations take place non-stop. That’s what the internet has brought to the media in this country––enough variety to make sure every demographic has numerous niches that appeal to each, a big improvement over just a few decades ago.

Before cable news, the internet, social media, and talk radio, a large and diverse citizenry had to get its news and editorials from a greatly reduced number of newspapers, AM radio, and three television networks. Unsurprisingly, the creators and deliverers of content became more and more homogenized by class, region, education, and political point of view. We all know what the consequences of that have been: the colonizing of establishment media by an increasingly left-wing Democrat Party, a change evident over forty years ago in the partisan coverage of Vietnam and Watergate.

Cable news, talk radio, and especially the internet weakened that monopoly by restoring and exponentially magnifying the diverse sources that earlier only television, daily newspapers and radio provided. Now millions and millions of people are providing information and opinion, and working as watchdogs subjecting information to scrutiny and analysis. The iconic example of this function took place during the 2004 presidential campaign, when the forged documents Dan Rather and CBS’ used to attack George Bush were exposed within hours of the broadcast by internet sleuths who showed the documents had been created on a word processor unavailable at the time the documents was allegedly composed. The ruin of Rather’s career showed that establishment media’s monopoly on information, and our faith in their skills and integrity, had been broken.

We also may be tempted to find these comments obvious or banal, and so of little value. But as George Orwell said, “We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” What ordinary people find “obvious” is usually common sense, or what Aristotle above calls “practical wisdom,” the knowledge and understanding required for all to successfully manage their daily lives and interactions with others.  But we often discount common sense, for we have turned philosophical conflicts–– over human nature and behavior, or how people should live in order to fulfill their potential as rational human beings, or what social and political orders create the most freedom, justice, and happiness for the most people––into “sciences” that only an elite of credentialed “experts” can master, to whose authority we should defer and not even challenge, lest we expose ourselves as “anti-science.”

This category error of thinking that deliberating and talking about people and their social behavior can be a “science,” or that all policies can be “science-based,” as progressives claim, lies at the heart of modern progressivism’s dream of a technocracy. But when we consider the extent of the surreal lunacy of many of the ideas embraced and promoted today by formally educated people–– such as denying the scientific fact that sex identity is biological–– we can see that of many issues our progressive “brights” think that science supports, in fact are mere bad philosophical ideas reflecting personal or ideological preference rather than a reality supported by empirical evidence. Indeed, traditional wisdom and common sense are frequently a better guide to human reality than the thousands of “studies” turned out by think tanks and universities, significant numbers of which cannot be replicated by other researchers. The crowd-sourcing of the internet has become a useful and efficient way for fulfilling that “first duty” of those who still have their common sense and practical wisdom to counter the pretensions of scientism.

A more serious criticism of the internet wild west of information is the lack of filters (other than Google and social media censors) on raw content that can reach the reader instantly. Yet this problem is essentially similar to another complaint about democracy that arose with its origins. Critics like Plato and Thucydides decried the average citizen’s susceptibility to orators and rhetoricians schooled in the duplicitous arts of persuasion, the power through language to make the bad and false appear the good and true. Those trained in such rhetorical skills will seduce the citizens with appeals to their passions and appetites. Their passions roused by sophists, as Plato says in the Republic, the citizens will get swept up in the excitement, and few will be able “to stand firm against the overwhelming flood of popular opinion,” or will be “carried away by the stream,” and soon “have the notions of good and evil which the public in general––he will do as they do, and as they are, such will he be.”

If these are the dangers of listening to public debates among a few thousand citizens occurring face-to-face in real time, how much more insidious and threatening is our vast virtual world of 24/7 and anonymous abundance not just of words and texts, but of images both real and imaginary, all of which magnify exponentially the power of the sophist and demagogue to shape opinions.

Yet in the end, the responsibility for consuming critically the information available to us lies with the free citizen, in whose hands the success of democratic governments with universal voting rights have always lain. It is as much up to us to use that freedom and resource carefully and responsibly, as it was up to the Athenian citizen to listen warily to the smooth-talking orators.

The larger point is either we are capable of self-rule or we are not. America for over two centuries has been an experiment on the answer to that question. The democratizing and decentralizing of information of the last few decades should improve our ability to engage in political discourse more effectively by loosening controls over who produces or provide information. If it doesn’t, the fault will lie with ourselves, not the internet.

Tags: Internet