Two decades ago First Things published a controversial symposium under the general title, “The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics.” Debate over the role of the courts in public life has only intensified since the symposium's appearance. Now, however, it may be that another, more subtle threat is coming from outside the formal institutions of government. This threat has the potential to alter negatively the culture that until recently has supported these institutions. Since following the crowd and joining Facebook nine years ago, I am increasingly convinced that social media sites are having a similar detrimental effect on democratic institutions.
Because I am a professional political scientist, I take more interest than is probably good for me in what people post on politics. In an ideal world such a site could provide a forum for those willing to debate the great issues of the day and possibly even the philosophies undergirding efforts to address them. But, of course, this is not what happens. Far from it. Facebookers of all persuasions post “memes,” typically consisting of a photograph of a prominent political figure with a humorous or outrageous quotation emblazoned across the top or bottom. It is usually intended to mock one's political opponents by highlighting an obvious negative. Perhaps an overheard misstatement uttered in an unguarded moment or something taken out of context that makes its source look foolish, bigoted or even criminal.
These memes do little to advance dialogue and, in fact, have the effect of stopping conversation and hardening an increasingly polarized electorate in previously-held opinions. They irritate and outrage. They encourage ad hominem attacks. The number of friendships that have ended over social media is difficult to determine, but an educated guess is that it is not a small number.
Might it be harming the political system itself? Americans typically think of a constitution as a document drawn up by a committee and intended to function as the “supreme law of the land,” in the words of the United States Constitution's Supremacy Clause. Their assumption is that the constitution's unprecedented success is due to the extraordinary cleverness of the founders who created it. Having drafted a balanced system distributing political power among three branches and two levels of government, they established an enduring form of government for ages to come. A half truth at best, the reality is more complicated. Paper constitutions by themselves cannot create real constitutions.
What is a real constitution? Less prescriptive than empirical, it encompasses the sum total of political traditions and institutions as they function in the real world. “It embraces all those practices, memories, and principles that actually structure the body politic,” as Edward A. Goerner puts it. In this respect, the US constitution is less a document than a highly successful political system rooted in traditions of representative government long antedating 1787. Without these pre-existing traditions, no constitutional document, however well fashioned, would have worked over the long term. The 1993 Constitution of the Russian Federation reads very well indeed, borrowing heavily from American and French models, establishing a hybrid presidential-parliamentary system. Sad to say, the mere existence of this document has done little to obstruct the development of what can only be called an increasingly authoritarian Putinocracy.
The real constitution of the United States is dependent on many generations of political experience extending as far back as Magna Carta, whose 800th anniversary we celebrated last year. The establishment of the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1619 brought the first parliamentary assembly to the Americas and laid a foundation for self-government on a wider scale by the end of the following century. If politics is downstream from culture, then the living complex of intangible attitudes and worldviews is more important than concrete political institutions and policy alternatives.
What does this have to do with social media? After nearly a decade of observing political behavior on such sites, it appears to me that the traditions of civility extolled by Walter Lippmann six decades ago have fallen on hard times. Social media tend to magnify the expansive self, encouraging participants to stake out a virtual identity within the ethereal territory of the world wide web: “This is who I am, like it or not!” “My political beliefs are part of my identity; to call them into question is to call my very identity into question.” Rather than discussing the issues in an intelligent way that might make us open to opposing viewpoints, we are now backing each other into corners, holding up to ridicule those stupid enough to find merit in, well, you fill in the blank.
The danger to our political institutions comes, not just from the refusal to extend charity to those with whom we disagree, but from a failure to recognize that democracy itself depends on competition and healthy differences of opinion. Social media encourage Democrats to portray Republicans as so backwards and unenlightened that the country would be better off without them. Similarly, Republicans post memes that make Democrats look like dangerous radicals barely worth tolerating. I have yet to see a meme in which, say, a professed Democrat encourages Republicans to eschew certain unpalatable presidential candidates for the sake of the Republican Party itself and for the overall health of America's democracy. Where are the Republicans who believe that effective representative government requires a robust Democratic Party, even if they disagree with its principles?
Needless to say, such sentiments would not fit easily into a “meme.” Concern for the overall health of political institutions has never been the stuff of placards and demonstrations. It does not lend itself well to sarcasm or mockery. In particular, it does nothing to enhance one's public persona for the supposed benefit of the rest of the world. One need not be especially high-minded to recognize that political institutions matter. But so do the supportive traditions in which they are anchored. We take for granted that the institutions will always be there for us. But if we continue to allow and perhaps even contribute to the erosion of these traditions that enable them to function, we should not be surprised if our political life becomes more polarized at their expense.
David Koyzis is author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He teaches politics at Redeemer University in Canada.