“Is democracy dead?” I asked the lowly mail-room clerk.
“It’s wounded,” she said with a shrug, “but not dead.” (More)
“Democracy is always vulnerable to tribalism”
I asked her to explain, and she did:
First, we must be clear on what ‘democracy is dead’ might mean. If the test of democracy’s vitality is whether an investigation of the God-King’s Russia ties will lead to his impeachment or resignation, then yes, democracy is probably dead. He won’t be impeached unless someone finds a tape of him promising to let Vladimir Putin run U.S. foreign policy. When all the facts come out – if that ever happens – this will be what we call a conspiracy of convenience: “where the actors are well positioned to benefit by events, and act in concert to benefit by events, where at least some of the activity is done in secret and/or under cover of disinformation.” That is, Putin and the God-King saw and took advantage of political conditions that neither of them entirely created.
That will not add up to an impeachable offense and, barring death or serious illness, the God-King will serve out his first term. But that doesn’t mean ‘democracy is dead.’ Instead, highlights how democracy has been wounded.
“How so?” I asked.
Democracy is always vulnerable to tribalism. For most of U.S. history, democracy worked very well for the tribe of white Christian men. Most black Americans were owned property for the first third of our history, and suffered under the legal apartheid of Jim Crow laws for another century after that. Most women could not vote for the first two-thirds of our history, and in many states married women couldn’t own property until the early 20th century. Even after that, women were excluded from many colleges and careers until about 50 years ago. And while Christianity was not our official religion, it was certainly our ‘unofficial official’ religion. Public schools made students do Christian Bible readings and recite Christian prayers, and Christian doctrines and symbols dominated our laws and civic spaces.
In fact, if you add wealth to that tribal description, you can reasonably argue that the Progressive Movement was and still is about making democracy work for The Rest of Us: the working poor, people of color, women, and people who are not Christians. By that progressive definition, the rise of the God-King’s White Christian Male tribal ‘populism’ and similar movements across Europe show that democracy is wounded.
Many of those wounds were caused the rise of ‘tribal’ media. That includes both Big Media such as Fox News that target and reinforce specific tribes, Fringe Media that push tribalism even harder, and Social Media with algorithms that encourage tribal self-sorting. Nowadays it’s to live on an information island where every media outlet you trust reinforces what you already believe – even if it’s patently false – and everyone you know follows the same media outlets and believes the same things you believe. If you live on that kind of information island, it’s almost impossible for you to sort fact from fiction. If all of your trusted media sources insist that Hillary Clinton sold 20% of our uranium to Russia, and all of your friends believe that, then why would you doubt it?
Worse, trending topics at Facebook, Twitter, and news aggregators like Memeorandum increasingly drive Big Media reporting, so Big Media is increasingly shaped by Fringe and Social Media. If the media are our windows on the world, those windows are now very vulnerable to bot swarms. The Big Story of the day can be driven not by facts or newsworthiness, but by bots that amplify their programmers’ interests to seem like widespread popular interest. If tens or hundreds of thousands of what seem like people are clicking on, forwarding, and tweeting about Hillary Clinton’s D.C. Pizzeria Sex Ring, or Barack Obama’s Deep State Shadow Government – and both of those myths were hugely trending topics – how can even neutral Big Media outlets ignore those stories?
If the neutral Big Media cover those mythical stories, even to debunk them as myths, that simply adds to the myths’ perceived credibility. “If the New York Times is denying it,” Rusty Buttcrack tweets, “then it must be true.” And if the neutral Big Media refuse to cover those mythical stories, they’re “part of the cover-up.”
I tapped at my Blewberry: “And it’s even worse when the God-King hypes those myths.”
Exactly. So we have increasingly ‘tribal’ news, increasingly driven by bot swarms that simulate popular interest. That makes democracy very vulnerable to propaganda and tribal demagoguery, as the God-King’s election shows.
But I haven’t lost hope. Social Media platforms and aggregators can develop better software to detect and ignore bots. Big Media reporters can learn new skills to ferret out fact and more compellingly distinguish it from fiction. And real people can also create news by taking to the streets, as Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, and even the ‘Fearless Girl’ statue proved.
Democracy is wounded, but it’s overcome harder times than this. Don’t give up.
Image Credit: Crissie Brown (BPICampus.com)
Good day and good nuts