On Jan. 6, 2021, a group of self-professed patriots stormed the U.S. Capitol, a building last raided by the British during the War of 1812. Some in the group were spangled with face paint and wore military garb. Some were toting Confederate flags. Many were taking selfies or livestreaming the rebellion. They erected a gallows and smashed up media equipment outside, then roamed the halls of Congress, screaming, “Stop the steal!” Offices were destroyed. A member of the mob was shot and killed. A Capitol Police officer died. It was a remarkable assault on the foundation of American democracy, staged at the very moment a peaceful transfer of power was under way.
We can now add the United States to the list of Athens, Rome, France, Spain, and Peru, among others, as democracies that have experienced a self-coup attempt. The people who invaded the Capitol did so because they believed—truly believed—that then-U.S. President Donald Trump had won a landslide victory in the 2020 presidential election, which subsequently was stolen.
This article is adapted from The Paradox of Democracy: Free Speech, Open Media, and Perilous Persuasion by Zac Gershberg and Sean Illing (University of Chicago Press, 320 pp., $30, June 2022).
Trump had raised over $200 million in the month after the election by alleging voter fraud—what some termed the “Big Lie,” which gained widespread purchase in the United States’ fragmented information space and particularly in conservative media across radio, cable television, and social networking. Dozens of lawsuits echoing these charges struggled to gain standing in U.S. state and federal courts. Trump and his advisors then suggested the possibility that Vice President Mike Pence and Congress could overturn the election on Jan. 6, whereupon the president instructed his supporters to march on the Capitol, telling them to “fight like hell.”
American democracy is fortunate that the insurrection failed; that it happened at all is instructive. The event exposed the paradox at the center of every democratic culture: a free and open communication environment that, because of its openness, invites exploitation and subversion from within. This tension sits at the core of every democracy, and it cannot be resolved or circumnavigated. To put it another way, the essential democratic freedom—the freedom of expression—is both ingrained in and dangerous to democracy.
The belief that democracy is a fixed system with inherent features has led to a lot of confusion. Many still hold what’s often called the “folk theory of democracy”: Ordinary citizens have preferences about what the government ought to do, and they vote for leaders they think will carry out those preferences. The result of this process is a government that serves the majority. And all of this is supposed to take place in a culture of rules and norms that privileges minority rights, respects the rule of law, and welcomes peaceful transitions of power.
But that culture is precisely what we call “liberalism”—it is not democracy as such. Confusion on this point has obscured the nature and demands of democratic life.
Despite its flaws, democracy still affords freedom of expression and the possibility of confronting power in all its forms—that is democracy’s claim to superiority over all other political cultures. But democratic freedom contains the seeds of its own destruction. This is something the ancient Greeks understood long before us, and they even developed two frameworks for free speech that highlighted the problem. Isegoria described the right of citizens to participate in the public debate; parrhesia described the right to say anything one wanted, whenever one wanted, and to whomever one wanted. Isegoria created the political environment of democracy, while parrhesia actualized it.
But the right to say anything opened the door to all manners of subversion, and this has been a challenge to every democracy that has ever existed. The emergence of isegoria in Athens, for instance, was accompanied by the joint rituals of ostracism and tribalism. In today’s language, you might say that Socrates was the first notable citizen to be “canceled” by the same democratic forces that made his speech free in the first place. This is the defining tension of any democratic society.
Citizens, philosophers, and politicians have always fretted about democracy for exactly this reason. While it facilitates a culture in which deliberative discourse and collective judgment are possible, it can also be gamed and exploited, prompting crises from within. The panic today over democracy is no different. A whole genre of literature has emerged seeking to explain how democracies fall or why Western liberalism is in retreat. The consensus is that if democracy isn’t quite dead, it’s certainly under attack.
There’s no point in diminishing the reality of the crisis. We are surely living through a period of intense democratic disruption. All over the world, from the United Kingdom to Hungary to Poland to Brazil to the United States, populist insurgents are disordering democratic cultures. Liberal democracy, as a culturally dominant period, has died. So have many of the norms and institutions that undergird it.
But the discourse around this problem is far too circumscribed. To read many of the current books about democracy is to walk away with the impression that we’re in the midst of something new, something unique to our moment. It’s as though the default state of democracy is stability, and periods of disruption are the exception.
The reverse is much nearer to the truth.
To function properly, democracies require more than just voting. Citizens need comprehensive, accurate information as well as a healthy, open system of debate. But throughout history, when new forms of communications arrive—from the disingenuous use of rhetorical techniques developed in Athens to the social media-enabled spread of fake news today—they often undermine the practice of politics. The more widely accessible and democratic the media of a society, the more susceptible that society is to distraction, spectacle, and demagoguery. We see this time and again throughout history: Media continually evolve faster than politics, and the result is recurring patterns of democratic instability.
Classical rhetoric was a necessity for the early democratic cultures of Athens and Rome, but sophistry, a form of deceptive, crowd-pleasing speech, overwhelmed both societies and hastened their collapse. The printing press allowed for the mass production of books and the creation of newspapers, which ushered in the Enlightenment and the democratic revolutions of the 18th century, yet these public networks also sowed chaos in the aftermath of the American and French Revolutions. The former dealt with a deeply partisan press that threatened the viability of the United States in its infancy, and France exploded into the violence of the Reign of Terror.
In the 19th century, the telegraph’s speedy dissemination of news collapsed geographical distances and helped spread the norms of liberal society across Europe, but it also fomented nationalist discourses. Political leaders and news outlets generated narratives full of nativist fears and petty resentments to gain traction in place of actual debate, and the appeals of this mediated rhetoric would eventually speed Europe toward World War I. While cinema and radio further democratized media and created a more accessible mass culture, they also provided essential platforms for European fascists who were able to bypass traditional gatekeepers.
Television transformed politics so citizens could directly see and listen to representatives, with many positive results, but the imperatives of the medium also reshaped politics. To succeed, politicians in the TV era had to adapt to a new incentive structure in which branding, sound bites, and optics reigned.
The public sphere of the 21st century is more democratic and open than ever before. Political leaders communicate directly with the public; citizens provide immediate feedback and can publish or broadcast to mass audiences on their own. Yet the democratic openness of communication in the 21st century has destabilized political conversations. There are no longer any controls on the flow of information, and that has short-circuited a system built largely on the control of information. The public is now angry, distrustful of whether their representatives can even make sound decisions. That may be healthy from a democratic perspective, but with so much noise on social media and so many news outlets disseminating contradictory information, citizens are justifiably confused and cynical.
Liberal democracies have long been sustained by traditional mass media, such as newspapers and later radio and network television. Citizens remained somewhat passive while media gatekeepers and politicians hashed out a norm-driven discourse of information and debate in the public sphere. People absorbed what they read, listened to, and watched, then registered approval at the polls.
Then something changed. The rise of polarizing cable television news, the blogosphere, and the outrageous flows of social networking, now hooked to our palmed smartphones, let citizens in on the act of forging discourses and choosing what news they prefer. The result is a more democratic and less liberal world.
The belief that the democratic experiment was destined to end in something like liberal democracy was just that: a belief. It turns out there is nothing inexorable about the logic of democracy; it is just as likely to culminate in tyranny as it is freedom. And the rise of illiberalism foregrounds a crucial point: Our present crisis is as much about culture as it is politics.
Despite all our assumptions about the inherent value of democracy, a democratic culture guarantees no outcome. Democratic cultures can support liberal democratic governments, or they can just as easily spawn plutocratic or authoritarian systems. It might seem counterintuitive to think of democracies as breeding grounds for tyranny, but it’s no contradiction at all.
Democratic theorists often miss the depth of the connection between communication and political cultures. So many accounts of democracy emphasize legislative processes or policy outcomes. When culture is discussed, it’s often in the context of liberal democratic values. But we should always ask: What determines the valence of those values? If a democracy stands or falls on the quality of the culture propping it up, then we ought to know under what conditions those values are affirmed and rejected.
Those conditions are determined largely by a society’s tools of communication, facilitated through media. Indeed, democracies are defined by their cultures of communication. If a democracy consists of citizens deciding, collectively, what ought to be done, then the process by which they do so determines nearly everything else that follows. This is the key insight of media ecologists like Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, both of whom warned of the impending disaster that was the age of television and the image. They sensed that the media environment decides not just what people pay attention to but also how people think and orient themselves in the world. For every form of media has its own epistemology, its own biases, and favors certain cognitive habits over others.
People like Postman were commenting on the sovereignty of television in American culture and how it transfigures everything it touches. But the internet and social media have now been added to that wasteland of spectacle, compounding the problem in a million different ways. The obsession with drama and entertainment is now buttressed by curated news feeds that carve out epistemological bubbles and foster tribal impulses. The United States and many other countries are now confronting the greatest structural challenge to democracy the world has ever seen: a truly open society. Without gatekeepers, there are no constraints on discourse. Digital technology has changed everything, and, consequently, reality is up for grabs in a way it never has been before.
To restate the paradox: Democracies cannot exist without an open communication environment; otherwise, citizens cannot carry out their deliberative responsibilities. This condition of informational freedom is central to any democratic culture worthy of the name. But this environment, precisely because it is free, is constantly exploited by demagogues and other anti-democratic actors. Democracies are thus constantly undermined by their constitutive conditions.
It’s not easy to live in this state of tension, especially in the wide-open rhetorical cultures we see in many countries around the world today. New media technologies have altered the social and psychic environment—and, by extension, the values and institutions that ground society. There is no going back; the winds of technological change will keep blowing whether we want them to or not.
The real challenge right now is not an absence of democracy. On the contrary, we’re confronting the true face of democracy: a totally unfettered culture of open communication. Nearly all democracies up until now have been democracies in name only; they’ve been mediated by institutions designed to check popular passions and control the flow of information. But those institutional walls were weakened by the electric revolution and later shattered by digital technology. It’s no longer possible to limit access to information or curate what is and isn’t news. The test is whether democratic institutions can withstand this kind of pressure—whether we can, somehow, keep pushing that democratic boulder up the hill. And that remains an open question.
Zac Gershberg is an associate professor of journalism and media studies at Idaho State University.