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It is no longer possible,” John Dewey lamented in his 1939 book Freedom and Culture, “to hold the simple faith of the Enlightenment that assured advance of science will produce free institutions by dispelling ignorance and superstition,” those traditional “sources of human servitude and the pillars of oppressive government.” While dispensing truth and liberty, science has also given despots tools to control public opinion not by suppressing ideas but by promulgating ideas that buttress their repressive regimes. Thus, “for practically the first time in human history, totalitarian states exist claiming to rest upon the active consent of the governed.” Tyranny isn’t new, but tyrants who can rely on popular support from brainwashed or bullied masses are a product of modern technology, an unintended outcome of scientific Enlightenment.

Dewey’s lament isolates an enduring challenge for modern politics: the fraught relationship between “liberalism” and “democracy.” As Matthew B. Crawford observes, the two have never been “entirely at ease with one another.” Democracy is rule by the majority, but the majority doesn’t always cherish the unlimited freedom advocated by liberals. Ur-liberal John Stuart Mill, Crawford points out, combatted the moralistic campaigns of Victorian evangelicals, even though these campaigns had wide popular appeal. Elites need room to conduct “experiments in living,” Mill argued, but they will be frustrated unless British government and culture are freed from their religious shackles. 

Dewey thought education could close the gap between democracy and properly enlightened, liberal attitudes. Not everyone can be a scientist, he conceded, but schools can inculcate a scientific “new morale” by cultivating new desires and purposes consistent with the scientific spirit. A free citizenry must be trained in scientific virtues: patience to wait until the evidence is in, willingness to follow facts instead of interests, ability to hold hypotheses loosely until they’re tested, openness to “new fields for inquiry” and “new problems.” Latter-day Deweyans skip the question of educational formation and naively put their hope in the sheer diffusion of data. Americans are decent folk, then-Senator Obama told an audience at Google in 2007, but they’re “misinformed” or “too busy” to get the facts they need. Our “skewed” politics can be healed if “the American people trust the information they’re getting.” When a president proclaims “good information” from his bully pulpit, Americans “will make good decisions.”

Yet the gap between democracy and liberalism remains, and information is as much problem as solution. Obama can disseminate “reason and facts and evidence and science” as much as he likes, but as long as the Internet remains a wild west, contrary evidence and alternative reasonings can still go viral. As Obama told his Google audience, “we constantly have a contest where facts don’t matter, and I want to restore that sense of decisions being based on facts to the White House.” He ended with an altar call: “I think that many of you can help me, so I want you to be involved.” Information can make democracy liberal, so long as it’s the right kind of information.

A summons to save democracy is hard to resist, and tech companies haven’t. They have assumed the mantle Dewey bestowed on educational institutions. Their control of the flow of information has been more overt during the pandemic, when Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook fact-checked and removed “misinformation” (which they defined as anything that conflicts with official public health policy). But the Obama administration already nurtured a cozy relationship with Google. Intercept reporter David Dayen reported in 2016 that Google employees attended 427 meetings at the Obama White House between January 2009 and October 2015, and there was an always-revolving door between Google and government. 

As Crawford says, Google has a unique power to “steer thought,” and it aspires to do even more. The perfect search engine wouldn’t answer our questions; it would tell us what questions we should be asking and, as Google’s Eric Schmidt put it in an interview, tell us what to do next. But who is telling us? To users, Google seems content-neutral. It merely points, leaving its algorithms to sift out which information gets pointed to. But humans formulated the algorithm in the first place, it’s constantly revised, and Google admits that humans override the search machine when it’s deemed necessary. This allows Google to maintain a trickly balance. As Adam J. White says, Google works to ensure “we make choices based only upon what they consider the right kinds of facts – while denying that there would be any values or politics embedded in the effort.” 

Politicians naturally want to harness search and social media for their own ends, but there’s more at stake than the outcome of this or that election. The digital-government complex is animated by a utopian dream. Google wants to change the world, which means changing people. Shaping the informational context is Google’s destiny, as it nudges the recalcitrant demos, search by search, toward that blessed, elusive Deweyan moment when, at long last, liberalism and democracy kiss each other.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

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