When did the terrifying threat to our democracy arrive?
Was it the day Donald Trump rode down his golden escalator to announce his presidential bid in 2015? Was it the day he was elected in 2016? Or did it begin with the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021?
A new book by Idaho State University journalism and media studies professor Zac Gershberg and Vox journalist Sean Illing contends that it’s none of above.
The threat to our democracy, the authors argue, has been here all along.
That’s because democracy contains the seed of its own destruction — an existential threat that was in place long before Trump appeared on the scene, and is never going away.
In “The Paradox of Democracy: Free Speech, Open Media, and Perilous Persuasion,” Gershberg and Illing suggest that democracy isn’t really about the rules and institutions that usually leap to mind — elections and parliamentary procedures and civil rights protections.
Fundamentally, they say, democracy is a culture of free and open communication. And that openness makes it vulnerable to subversion from within. Democracy, in other words, is an argument that would-be tyrants can win. And they sometimes do.
The engine of this paradox is mass media — the newspapers and radio broadcasts and social networks that have allowed demagogues to seize public attention and destroy the democratic cultures that elevated them.
In Gershberg and Illing’s telling, it wasn’t Napoleon’s military prowess that allowed him to take power in Revolutionary France. It was his manipulation of the press to exaggerate the success of his foreign campaigns.
The rise of 20th-century fascism was about communication, too, the authors write.
Benito Mussolini was a newspaper editor who trumpeted Italy’s imperial destiny and proposed a new political party in the pages of Il Popolo d’Italia.
And when that party made only modest gains in electoral politics, he used spectacle to seize power — and propaganda to hold on to it.
Hitler, an admirer of the Italian leader, employed similar tactics. A splashy, violent parade through Munich. An attention-grabbing performance at his trial for treason. Leaflets, pamphlets, radio pronouncements, and a Zeppelin-powered speaking tour.
“Fascism relies on . . . a totalizing effect,” Gershberg and Illing write, and “here is where the Nazis excelled.”
The authors’ argument is compelling, but not entirely convincing. Their insistence on the primacy of communication gives short shrift to other factors.
Hitler’s rise had as much to do with the pain of the Great Depression as it did with his charisma.
And here in America, Trump’s victory owed much to the collapse of the industrial economy and the concomitant surge of white grievance and despair.
Demagoguery alone can’t bring democracy to heel.
But Gershberg and Illing seem at times to suggest that it can.
They write about North Carolina Republicans, emboldened by an increasingly partisan, norm-busting political culture, using bogus claims of voter fraud to muscle through a set of voting restrictions that were clearly aimed at disenfranchising Black voters.
But while the authors make reference to language from a court decision finding that Republicans “targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision,” they don’t make it clear that the court actually blocked the voter restrictions from going into effect — and that the US Supreme Court declined to take up the Republicans’ appeal.
And this wasn’t just a one-off victory.
More recently, North Carolina’s Supreme Court threw out an extreme GOP gerrymander of state legislative and congressional districts — part of a recent wave of court decisions across the country that have stopped partisan rejiggering of district lines by Republicans and Democrats alike.
Of course, these checks on demagoguery aren’t fail-safe.
Voting rights advocates in North Carolina worry that Republicans might win a pair of seats on the state’s seven-member high court this fall and overturn the gerrymandering decision.
But there’s no reason to dismiss the importance of institutions that can safeguard democracy — and every reason to fight like hell to preserve them.
If Gershberg and Illing give too much weight to the destructive power of communication, though, they do a great service in calling attention to it — in reminding us that “to be a democratic citizen,” as they put it, “is to be continually at the mercy of a communication environment full of Sophists, swindlers, and tools of distortion.”
The rational discourse we are waiting for will never come.
The threat to democracy will never go away.
And while there is no way to “fix” this, the authors say — democracy’s unresolvable contradiction cannot be resolved — there are some ways to mitigate the threat of tyranny.
Not all of their prescriptions are satisfying. Shortly after urging emergency-level attention to media literacy in schools, they acknowledge research showing that those who pay the closest attention to news and politics — the junkies — are also the ones “most prone to biased or blinkered decision-making.”
Their call for a revival of local journalism, perhaps through public subsidy, has more to recommend it.
One little-recognized effect of the death of local newspapers, they point out, is that the political debate has become more nationalized, with the public conversation “dominated by caricatured Right-Left narratives about remote issues that feed blind partisan allegiances.” A return to more localized debate could have a moderating effect.
Still, the level of investment that would be required to restore local reporting to what it once was is daunting — and a pullback from our Fox News and culture-war obsessions is hard to imagine.
The authors’ most hopeful remedy, then, may be their most basic and broad.
A system of free and open communication, they point out, is not just an opportunity for a swindler to make bad-faith arguments. It’s a chance for good people to make good arguments — and to hold authority to account.
In May 2020, when a teenager named Darnella Frazier recorded a video of police officers murdering a Black man outside a Minneapolis convenience store, she sparked worldwide social justice protests that led to police reforms and a powerful racial reckoning.
Democracies may be under perpetual threat. But they can always be protected.