Opinion | The Greatest Threat to Democracy Is a Feature of Democracy

Opinion | The Greatest Threat to Democracy Is a Feature of Democracy

It’s been over a month since Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence was searched by the F.B.I. The response to that event from political actors across the ideological spectrum has been predictable — and an example, for better or worse, of what democracy looks like in action.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina recently warned of “riots in the streets” if Mr. Trump should face prosecution for mishandling classified information. Naturally, the former president glommed on to that and similar narratives and has amplified them on Truth Social, his Twitter-like social media platform.

Meanwhile, President Biden, in a speech warning that the Constitution, American values and the rule of law are under siege, said, “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic.”

We may think that these clashes over the Mar-a-Lago search and over the state of our democracy are an aberration, a Trump thing. But they are actually the latest example — increased in intensity by the internet — of something that has been a permanent part of our politics, what we call the paradox of democracy.

Far more than a bundle of laws, norms and institutions, democracy is an open culture of communication that affords people the right to think, speak and act and allows every possible means of persuasion. That makes every democratic society uniquely vulnerable to the consequences of communication. We may not like it, but something like Jan. 6 is always potentially in the offing.

We ought to avoid the naïveté of liberal fantasy, which imagines we can impose reliable guardrails against dangerous or deceptive speech. Indeed, there’s a whole genre of articles and books arguing that social media is destroying democracy. Because of changes to online platforms around a decade ago, wrote Jonathan Haidt recently, “People could spread rumors and half-truths more quickly, and they could more readily sort themselves into homogeneous tribes.”

But this is precisely what an unwieldy democratic culture looks like. Depending on the communications environment, a democracy can foster reliable, respectful norms, or it can devolve into outrageous propaganda, widespread cynicism and vitriolic partisanship.

And when communications devolve into propaganda and partisanship, a democracy can either end with breathtaking speed, as it did in Myanmar last year, when the military overthrew the democratically elected government, or descend more gradually into chaos and authoritarianism, as Russia did under Vladimir Putin.

Nothing forbids voters in a democracy to support an authoritarian or vote itself out of existence (as the ancient Athenian assembly famously did). The history of democracy is full of demagogues exploiting the openness of democratic cultures to turn people against the very system on which their freedom depends. In France, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte leveraged a celebrity name to run for president on a campaign of restoring order in 1848, only to end the Second Republic with a self-coup to become emperor when his term was up.

Our American democracy has lurched in cycles from dissatisfaction to crisis to progress. Citizens have the opportunity to speak out and decide for themselves, and events unfold across the country; it could be a referendum that preserves abortion access in Kansas or a primary defeat for Liz Cheney in Wyoming or a protest movement inspired by a video of the extrajudicial killing of a Black man in Minneapolis or a fanatic attacking an F.B.I. office in Cincinnati after engaging online message boards.

According to one poll, only 21 percent of Republicans think the investigations into Mr. Trump should continue. However they arrived at that opinion, that they hold it at all matters. It gives conservatives not just the political cover to subvert the rule of law but also the power to create their own alternative reality.

Since Mr. Trump’s defeat in 2020, Republicans have embraced the “big lie” and tried to restructure state laws to control future elections. You could say this is a brazen attack on democracy itself, but it’s really a glimpse of democracy shorn of liberal restraints.

It would be much better, of course, if democratic politics yielded to the preferences of measurable public opinion and reflected the will of the people. It would be better still if we were guaranteed protection by our civic and legal institutions, binding the rule of law to society with accountability and fairness.

“Yet the truth is,” as the political communication scholar Zizi Papacharissi has written, “we have always lived in imperfect democracies, and we still do. Democracy is not static. It is not a given, it is not guaranteed, and it is not stable.”

Too many people assume that liberalism and democracy are one and the same. They believe that certain norms, like respect for minority rights and the rule of law, are wired into the political system when, in fact, they are just conventions that matter only to the extent that citizens care about them. If nothing else, the past six years are a reminder that democracy is a contest — and there are no inevitable outcomes or assurances that all sides will play by the rules.

The paradox at the heart of this debate — the idea that democracy contains the ingredients for its own destruction — tells us that free expression and its sometimes troubling consequences are a feature, not a bug. What sometimes changes are novel forms of media, which come along and clear democratic space for all manner of persuasion. Patterns of bias and distortion and propaganda accompany each evolution.

Cinema and radio could furnish the artistic milieu of a vibrant culture in the Weimar Republic of the 1920s, but Nazi concentration of such media in the 1930s under Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels also became the pathway to world war and genocide. While television could bring the public closer to its leaders, the logic of the medium also rewarded the gauzy artifice of political figures as different as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Each time new forms of media emerged, people, inevitably, used them for different ends — to shore up a flourishing democratic society or to destroy it.

For more than a century, knowledge has been created and mediated by elite institutions, particularly by major national TV networks and newspapers, that anchored a discourse driven by norms. But the deluge of social media in the 21st century has collapsed that arrangement and has been used as a tool to undercut our democracy. That is inevitable.

To fortify liberal democracy, leaders will have to defend the rule of law, even if they risk political blowback from devoted Trumpists. The Jan. 6 committee hearings were not in vain: They have established a forensic record of a deliberate effort to undermine a peaceful transfer of power, and the proceedings may have made for good television, leaving more citizens informed about what actually happened. But it’s not enough. In the end, the only way to confront a seditious conspiracy is to prosecute the criminals and defeat the people who support them at the ballot box.

If that means indicting Mr. Trump if there is sufficient evidence for possessing classified documents at his beachside club and lying about it or barring him from political office under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, so be it.

Democracy’s claim to superiority over other political systems is that it offers free expression and the opportunity to confront arbitrary power. Mr. Trump and his supporters are entitled to the former, using all the available means of persuasion at their disposal. They are not, however, welcome to permanent impunity.

The good news is that our system has shown itself to be resilient: Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election were repulsed on Jan. 6, 2021. That’s a victory for American democracy.

But like every democratic victory, it was provisional. As long as there is democracy, there will be demagogy. And the ability to check power remains just that: an opportunity.

If our institutions won’t defend themselves, they perhaps deserve to fail. And if their defenders can’t persuade enough people to support them, they likely will.

Sean Illing (@seanilling), the host of “Vox Conversations,” and Zac Gershberg (@zgersh1), an associate professor of journalism and media studies at Idaho State University, are the authors of “The Paradox of Democracy: Free Speech, Open Media, and Perilous Persuasion.”

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