Although I haven’t written in this blog in years, like many people I’ve been thinking about the recent U.S. presidential election. What I find most interesting is the continuing evolution of effect of the Internet on life in the U.S.
The Internet is destroying the truth.
By this I don’t mean the recently much-discussed issue of fake news, and I don’t mean the way the Internet facilitates the spread of conspiracy theories. These aspects of our lives are not new. We have old phrases to describe them, such as “yellow journalism” and “the paranoid style.” The Internet permits falsehoods to spread faster and live forever, but it does the same for their rebuttals.
What the Internet is doing is something deeper.
The U.S. used to have a set of core truths, taught in schools and promulgated by the media. The U.S. was the land of the free and the home of the brave, the country of manifest destiny and huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the leader of the free world, the place where paths are beaten to the door of the inventor of the better mousetrap. Few people wholly believed these truths, but it was the shared idea that people reacted against.
When people argued that the U.S. was an example for the world, they did so in agreement with these core truths. When they argued that the U.S. was a racist country, or a country with a history of terrible interference in other countries, they did so in explicit opposition to these core truths. During the Cold War Communism was bad because it was not the American way.
People tried to change the country with reference to these core truths. They did not say “we have a different vision for the U.S..” They said “the U.S. is not living up to its ideals.” Both sides of the culture wars in the decades after World War II argued in terms of who was more American. They drew different conclusions about what it means to live in “the land of the free,” but they agreed on that basic idea.
These core truths were maintained by a set of intermediaries between the world at large and individual citizens. Journalists and politicians described the world to most people. There were a limited number of them and they formed a professional class which sought to maintain mutual respect. People who strayed too far from the shared ideas lost access to the platforms that gave them wide audiences.
The changing nature of journalism is well known. Walter Cronkite, the CBS news journalist, once won an opinion poll as “the most trusted man in America.” In a recent opinion poll by Reader’s Digest for the 100 most trusted people in America, the top four people were movie stars; the highest ranked journalist, at number 12, was Robin Roberts, the anchor of a morning show. The main network’s news broadcasts on radio and TV used to reach over 50% of households. They now reach less than 20% of an increasingly aging audience.
While there are several causes for the decline of journalism, the Internet is a large factor. The Internet has displaced the primary revenue source for print journalism, but, more than that, the Internet has profoundly changed society’s intermediaries. The new intermediaries are platforms like Facebook or Twitter which connect people directly to each other. These companies try to fade into the background as much as possible, and make no attempt to present a coherent worldview or to separate truth from falsehood.
I’m not trying to claim that the world before the Internet was a prelapsarian time of truth and fairness. It wasn’t. Especially for people who are not part of the (white, male, straight) majority, the country today is more truthful and more fair than before. What I am claiming is that we no longer have a shared idea of what the country is. We can no longer stand in support of or opposition to the country, because we don’t agree on what it is.
The U.S. is the only major country founded on an idea, rather than being simply a collection of people who happen to live in one place. We must not forget the truth that this way of founding a country led to the near genocide and forced migration of the Native Americans who did happen to live in this place. But what I want to focus on is that basing a country on an idea makes the country uniquely vulnerable: if people no longer believe the idea, then the country has no foundation.
Now let’s talk about the election.
Trump as a presidential candidate was unacceptable to the traditional maintainers of the core truths. Journalists and politicians were mostly united against him. He was rejected by left- and right-wing alike. His victory demonstrates that those people no longer matter. The truth they have been maintaining is no longer shared.
Trump himself is likely to be a terrible president. I say this not because of how he won, and not because he is a racist megalomaniac–many presidents have been that–but because he appears to be profoundly uninterested in the world outside himself. Trump aspires to be a tin-pot dictator, and he would probably be a good one: entertaining and, as dictators go, among the less evil. As the U.S. president many are rightly concerned about his authoritarian aspirations, but those very concerns, and his lack of broad-based support, make his wishes unlikely to be realized. We are forewarned and will resist.
Trump can’t take over the country, but he can destroy it. As a candidate he encouraged divisions: against immigrants, against Muslims, against people who voted for other candidates. All our presidents in living memory have sought to unite the country, to speak to all the people. Trump has shown no signs of that. He is likely to accelerate the process, already well under way, of destroying the shared vision of the country. He is likely to encourage the ongoing process of some people viewing others as being not merely in profound disagreement, but as being actually un-American.
When we no longer agree on what the U.S. means, how long can the U.S. survive? What would a failure of the U.S. look like?
Great civilizations like the Roman Republic or Tang China fell primarily due to internal strife. The U.S. does not employ foreign mercenaries, but it does have what is in essence a military caste of families who serve in the armed forces. Some 80% of the current military come from a family in which a parent or sibling is also in the military. Nearly half the current military comes from just five states. The last president with real military service was George H.W. Bush, who left office more than 20 years ago. The members of the current Congress have the lowest rate of military service ever. (I personally never served; my grandfather and father-in-law did, in a different time.)
This military caste is large and does not have uniform views, but they do tend to share a version of the truth about the country.
The U.S. military has a very strong tradition of civilian control, but the same was true in Rome and Tang China: Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, An Lushan defied the Mandate of Heaven. In the U.S., the military will reject civilian control if they have a strong leader and if enough of the military perceive the government as no longer representing the ideals and traditions of the U.S. Since those ideals and traditions are what I am claiming are falling into disagreement, we are now closer than ever to a military coup.
The most likely scenario would be a demagogic leader with ties to the military who wins a closely contested election with strong military support. Overreaching by the new president causes strong opposition from the professional intermediaries, leading to lawsuits and eventually to impeachment and conviction. The president rejects the conviction and refuses to vacate the office, arguing that the opposition is un-American and that the country can not change leadership while facing significant external threats from the enemy du jour. The military, whose members have lived through many years of severe disagreement about what the country really means, supports him. Chaos ensures, ending in a military dictatorship and the dissolution of the country.
Trump is not that leader, but he is giving us a template for our future collapse. He is increasing the problems that make it more likely.
This probably sounds hyperbolic, and I hope that it is. But don’t fool yourself too much. History has not ended. The future will not be like the past. At nearly 250 years the U.S. has already had a good run as countries go. If we want it to continue, a majority of citizens must actively work to prevent it from failing.
What can we do?
We must spread an understanding of how potentially perilous the situation is. Nothing motivates people like fear. Other than millenarians, people fear the dissolution of society. One of our early great leaders, Benjamin Franklin, put it perfectly: “we must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Our political class is required by elections to respond to the popular view. We must press them to remember that we are all in this together. This is unfortunately a long shot with our modern variant of rotten boroughs, safely held by a single party. California has introduced what I believe are steps toward addressing this: a politically balanced redistricting commission, and top-two primaries that help save candidates in single-party districts from being “primaried”. People who still believe in democracy should support these changes for all states.
The extremely wealthy have enormous influence over our political system. It would be nice to reduce that influence, and I wholeheartedly support efforts to get money out of politics, but that is very difficult. More realistic is to remind the wealthy that their interests will be harmed if society collapses. They do not live in a completely separate world. The country still matters, and they should care about maintaining it.
We must reduce the isolation of the military caste. While mass conscription is not appropriate for today’s world, service is not. We should have a mandatory year of national service, in the military or in programs like the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, for all healthy young people. This is not a new idea, and other countries have tried similar systems. It would be expensive but worth it.
Can these ideas be implemented in the face of opposition?
I think they can. These are incremental changes. While many politicians these days are engaged in a zero-sum game in which the only thing that matters is beating the other side, that is not true of most voters. It doesn’t take a major shift to get people to vote for sensible reforms.
Will these ideas solve the problem?
Of course not. The Internet will still be here, still disintermediating the world and giving each person their own individual truth. We can’t stop that or avoid it. All we can do is set up countervailing forces. The Internet is splitting us apart. We have to keep reminding ourselves and everyone that we have to live together even with those with whom we disagree. Our country is fragile. If we don’t care for it, we will lose it.