Andrew Sullivan has a lengthy new article in New York Magazine. It’s terrifying. And it’s hard to dismiss.
For Democrats looking at the polls and anticipating a “wave” election if Trump is the GOP nominee, Sullivan’s article should be required reading–a cautionary tale, and a frighteningly hard-headed analysis of how, yes, it could happen here.
A few paragraphs will give you the general tenor of the article, but I really, really urge you to click through and read the whole thing.
Sullivan’s thesis is that America is ripe for tyranny.
In the wake of his most recent primary triumphs, at a time when [Trump] is perilously close to winning enough delegates to grab the Republican nomination outright, I think we must confront this dread and be clear about what this election has already revealed about the fragility of our way of life and the threat late-stage democracy is beginning to pose to itself…..
He considers, at some length, the function of so-called “elites” in a constitutional democracy, the pluses and minuses of “direct democracy,” and the varying diagnoses of contemporary ills.
The evidence suggests that direct democracy, far from being throttled, is actually intensifying its grip on American politics….
Sullivan’s description of the role played by the media in the age of the Internet is particularly perceptive.
What the 21st century added to this picture, it’s now blindingly obvious, was media democracy — in a truly revolutionary form. If late-stage political democracy has taken two centuries to ripen, the media equivalent took around two decades, swiftly erasing almost any elite moderation or control of our democratic discourse. The process had its origins in partisan talk radio at the end of the past century. The rise of the internet — an event so swift and pervasive its political effect is only now beginning to be understood — further democratized every source of information, dramatically expanded each outlet’s readership, and gave everyone a platform. All the old barriers to entry — the cost of print and paper and distribution — crumbled….
The web’s algorithms all but removed any editorial judgment, and the effect soon had cable news abandoning even the pretense of asking “Is this relevant?” or “Do we really need to cover this live?” in the rush toward ratings bonanzas. In the end, all these categories were reduced to one thing: traffic, measured far more accurately than any other medium had ever done before.
And what mainly fuels this is precisely what the Founders feared about democratic culture: feeling, emotion, and narcissism, rather than reason, empiricism, and public-spiritedness. Online debates become personal, emotional, and irresolvable almost as soon as they begin. Godwin’s Law — it’s only a matter of time before a comments section brings up Hitler — is a reflection of the collapse of the reasoned deliberation the Founders saw as indispensable to a functioning republic.
Yes, occasional rational points still fly back and forth, but there are dramatically fewer elite arbiters to establish which of those points is actually true or valid or relevant. We have lost authoritative sources for even a common set of facts. And without such common empirical ground, the emotional component of politics becomes inflamed and reason retreats even further. The more emotive the candidate, the more supporters he or she will get.
Anyone who cares about America, and especially anyone who dismisses the very real threat posed by a Trump candidacy–the very real possibility that he could win– needs to read the entire essay.