Who thought that 2016 would find the left preaching socialism, the right leaning toward unbridled nationalism over traditional conservatism, and news anchors directing our attention to social media to find out what’s actually going on in the world?
New markets have shifted power from the fake and friendly establishment media to the American people. A recent and provocative essay calls this phenomenon the American Spring. In past elections, the media set the boundaries of debate and determined the electability of candidates. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and crowdfunding have enabled the unruly electorate to circumvent this process.
As a result, candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have blasted through ideological barriers and the confines of political correctness. Sanders raises money directly from online supporters every time he rails against capitalism and “the share of the wealth.” While Trump self-funds his campaign, his nearly 7 million Twitter followers constantly retweet his message for him.
Missed by the left is the fact that this transition to “direct democracy” was made possible by economic freedom and, yes, inequality. Social media and crowdfunding are inventions of the billionaire class in Silicon Valley. The founders of these services weren’t billionaires until they created them. However, after listening to Sanders, you might think they were a hereditary cabal of Spectre-style villains. Sanders owes an apology to the economic system he keeps trashing, because it’s allowed him to bypass the established media and reach out to millions of people.
The left routinely takes freedom for granted while complaining about America. If inequality is so rampant and ugly, why aren’t indignant young people rioting in the streets? Probably because they don’t want to lose their Wi-Fi access while reacting hysterically to #TheTriggering.
Social media’s supplanting of traditional media may be remembered as yet another instance of creative destruction, which Joseph Schumpeter referred to as the “essential fact about capitalism.” As entrepreneurs supply newer and better things, consumers vote with their dollars – or merely with their attention spans – and old industries gradually fade away. Free markets are the guardians of economic democracy. In the context of the American Spring, they are the guardians of political democracy as well.
The paradox of this anti-establishment revolution is that it will not necessarily make us more free. Because we are wilder than the traditional caretakers of the status quo in the media, our ideological assumptions are being uprooted, repackaged, and polarized all at the same time. Incoherence may become the norm as people latch on to persuasive personalities instead of principles. The consequence of destroying the establishment is that political views will splinter and intensify.
The Founders understood that pure democracy degenerates into mob rule. The press’s influence over political discourse was never a constitutional feature, nor was it desirable. But it was a stabilizing force. The press always eliminated overzealous candidates – who in the past would have included both Sanders and Trump – from the consideration of reasonable people. Remember when Howard Dean was essentially disqualified, through mass media soundbite repetition, after yelling “Yeah!” at a campaign rally?
Imagine the possibilities in a decade or two as refreshing, honest, and increasingly extreme future candidates take social media by storm. A social justice warrior candidate could emerge, promising to redistribute wealth on the basis of historical injustice. A hyper-nationalist candidate could win the hearts of real Americans and make Trump seem docile and naively dovish on foreign policy. It’s usually best to take a long term view, and save Stalin and Hitler comparisons for later.
The tools of direct democracy pose their own inherent dangers to freedom. It’s no secret that social media companies are run by rabid progressives. Following the directives of governments, Facebook and Twitter have already begun clamping down on conservative and libertarian speech. We can’t expect market innovation to fix problems caused by government threats.
We can celebrate the decline of pretentious media types and their hold on American politics. Conservatives and libertarians have long been sidelined by the establishment, with its annoying adherence to liberal centrism and political correctness. In a world ruled by individuals who have mastered the arts of persuasion, we have to step up our game and articulate the message of freedom on our own.