Technosociopolitical Trends Bode Ill for America’s Democracy
I believe there is enough information to conclude that there is a reasonable probability that President Biden will be the last Democrat to occupied the Oval Office for several decades.
No single sociopolitical current or technological innovation is sufficient to threaten the foundational principles of America’s democracy. However, there are several current technosociopolitical issues, including
- The Rejection of Expertise and the War on Knowledge
- Surveillance Capitalism and the Loss of Privacy
- Tribal Identity and Flaws in the Human Brain
- An Imperfect US Constitution and a Nefarious Politician
- US Caste System
- The Anti-democratic Elite of the Trumplican Party
- The Great Replacement and Main Street Trumplicans
- Propaganda, the Big Lie, and Fox News
which work synergistically to threaten the continuation of America’s nearly 2.5-century experiment as a liberal, multicultural, representative democracy.
The Rejection of Expertise and the War on Knowledge
In Jonathan Rauch’s book The Constitution of Knowledge, Mr. Rauch attempts to define how we know what we know and how we separate fact from fiction – a philosophical conundrum that dates back nearly 2 millennia to a conversation between Theaetetus and Socrates. Mr. Rauch defines the concept of a “reality-based community” which is governed by two rules: 1) no person gets the final say as to what is “true” and 2) the method used to determine the “truth” must yield the same results regardless of the person who employs the truth-seeking methodology. It is the responsibility of truth-seeking organizations and institutions such as academic institutions, professional organizations, journalistic and legal institutions to apply the rules of the reality-based community to new and old information, and to ensure that society serially moves closer to a better understanding of objectively “truth.” This methodology has served humanity extraordinarily well over that last few centuries and has exponentially advanced the well-being of humanity.
Unfortunately, there have been numerous technological changes (Internet, Facebook/Meta, Google, data mining) in America (and around the world) which have made it relatively easy for powerful individuals and institutions to undermine humanity’s long efforts to define what is “true” to advance their objectives and the proponents of “the truth” have yet to figure out how to counter-act the nefarious forces who have so successfully harnessed this new technology.
Surveillance Capitalism and the Loss of Privacy
In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff shows how our private lives are fodder for algorithms constructed by Google and Facebook. These entities use our information to ensure we serially return to their platform for more information.
This is accomplished by feeding us an endless stream of data that will promote emotional outrage and support our preconceived biases. The entire feedback is constructed so that there is no editorial control that might filter out false information and promote objective true information, as this would reduce our emotional outrage and our need to return for more information.
As shown in Political Animals by Rick Shenkman, our brains prefer to use instinct to define reality rather than expend additional effort to cognitively assess what is true. The latter takes a lot more energy and the former is frequently “good enough” to keep us alive.
In the end, these platforms have redefined our “reality” based on half-truths and lies and diminished our ability to thoughtfully reconsider our own biases and ignorances.
Worse still these algorithms are particularly susceptible to being manipulated by malignant actors, who have no regard for the “truth” and use our data to advance their anti-democratic objectives.
Tribal Identity and Flaws in the Human Brain
Our brains evolved at a time when we were members of small tribes, maybe up to 150 people, and the world was a very dangerous place. If we were exiled from our tribe we would surely get eaten by a lion or killed by the neighboring tribe and our genes would not be passed on to the next generation. Thus our brains evolved to maximize the probability we would continue to be members of our tribe. With respect to an understanding of reality, our brains evolved to recognize new information as “true” if that was the tribe’s belief.
As Alan Jacobs wrote in How to Think: “Why would people ever think, when thinking deprives them of “the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved”—especially in an online environment where the social approval of one’s attitudes is so much easier to acquire, in the currency of likes, faves, followers, and friends?”
As detailed in The Constitution of Knowledge, our brain is prone to making many errors in judgment and these errors of judgment can be particularly useful for nefarious actors:
- Familiarity bias is a predilection to believe things we hear often. Trump and Fox News have repeatedly stated that the 2020 election was stolen. Currently, ~75% of the Republicans believe this objectively false statement to be true.
- Anchoring effect is a predilection to believe new information is true. This technique is used by Trump and his surrogates in which they repeatedly offer up false statements as facts and ultimately some of these new statements are accepted as fact. On March 25, 2019. Steve Bannon referred to this propaganda technique as “Flood the zone with shit”
- Perseverance bias is a predilection to retain our existing beliefs despite disconfirming evidence, as this would force us to acknowledge we and our tribe were wrong
The evolution of the brain has enabled us to accept contradictory ideas without recognizing the internal inconsistency. For example, Trump supporters laud Trump for having accelerated the creation of Covid vaccinations through his program “Operation Warp Speed” yet have no problem simultaneously believing that coronavirus pandemic is either a hoax or is only a flu-like virus.
In my medical practice, I have patients who I have taken care of for decades and are taking dozens of medicines, some of which have potentially serious side effects. When I tell the unvaccinated patients the risk of serious side effects from their medicines occur 10, 100, or 1,000 times more frequently than the risk of a serious side effect from Pfizer, Moderna, or J&J coronavirus vaccinations they don’t believe me. When I asked them directly “I’ve been taking care of you for years and you trust my opinion regarding all of the medicines I have prescribed, why do you not trust my opinion regarding the Covid vaccination,” I’ve never received an intellectually rigorous answer.
Unfortunately, the deficiencies inherent in the design of our brain makes us susceptible to the skillful use of propaganda.
An Imperfect US Constitution and a Nefarious Politician
Our Founding Fathers were well aware that the design of the US Constitution left America’s democracy vulnerable to nefarious politicians who might try to take control of our political institutions by flagrantly disregarding the un-codified rules of our democracy and that it was impossible to create a Constitution which would guarantee that such a nefarious politician would not be successful.
Per Mr. Rauch, “Adams and Franklin and Madison and the other Founders warned that democracy was only fit for a virtuous public” defined as an adherence to “habits and norms like lawfulness, truthfulness, self-restraint, and forbearance”.… and “wrote Madison in Federalist No. 55. “Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.” If the people or their factions seek to win by lying, breaking the law, fostering extremism and demagoguery, or wiping out the other side, then no constitution will endure, however strong it might look on paper.”
US Caste System
As detailed in her book Caste, Isabel Wilkerson demonstrated that a more insightful understanding of our American political system can be had when one recognizes that America has a caste system, which is very similar to India’s caste system. In America’s caste system, African-Americans are the lowest caste while white (male) native-born Americans are the upper caste.
One consequence of our caste system is that it is in the interest of the middle caste to ensure that there is always a caste below them, thus artificially propping up their stature on the social hierarchy.
East Coast liberals have frequently questioned why so many citizens in Red states appear to vote for politicians and policies that run counter to their own best interests such as affordable healthcare insurance, equal access to the tools of government, and equal access to education. When evaluated from a caste perspective, it becomes clear that people will sacrifice their short-term interests to protect their position in the social hierarchy/caste system. Thus, less affluent or poor whites Americans will preferentially support political candidates who clearly state that they intend to enforce the existing caste system, regardless of the political and economic consequences to our democracy
With this understanding, it now appears clear that a significant fraction of America’s body politic are willing to forsake our democracy if it will preserve their privileged position in America’s caste system.
The Anti-democratic Elite of the Trumplican Party
Since President Reagan, the GOP political elite’s goal was to enrich America’s small financial elite but they needed a political power base which was much larger than their 1%. They created their political power base by cobbling together the segments of America’s demographics which favored unfettered access to guns, more religion in America, anti-abortion, and promotion of the white race. Fortunately, the Republican elite have mostly adhered to the norms of America’s political traditions by acknowledging that a loosing politician had to turn over the reins of power to the political victor.
Donald Trump redefined the goals of the Republican Party so that its only purpose is to 1) ensure he personally remains in power and 2) he, his kith and kin are personally enriched. To achieve this goal, Trump and the Trumplicans have adopted the political philosophy, tactics, and tools of the world’s authoritarian leaders which included a
…sophisticated networks composed of kleptocratic financial structures, security services (military, police, paramilitary groups, surveillance), and professional propagandists. The members of these networks are connected not only within a given country, but among many countries. The corrupt, state-controlled companies in one dictatorship do business with corrupt, state-controlled companies in another. The police in one country can arm, equip, and train the police in another. The propagandists share resources—the troll farms that promote one dictator’s propaganda can also be used to promote the propaganda of another—and themes, pounding home the same messages about the weakness of democracy …
Anne Applebaum, The Bad Guys are Winning, The Atlantic, Dec 2021
Trumplicans have, in line with their new objectives, have demonstrated a contempt for democracy by aggressively disenfranchising American, denigrating our system of checks and balances, employing foreign actors to advance their political agenda while simultaneously encouraging a political agendas that are objectively harmful to the health of Americans such as their disavowal of Covid as a threat to the health of Americans, the promotion of unregulated gun distribution and the destruction of the environment.
The Great Replacement and Main Street Trumplicans
The elite Trumplican politicians have tailored their message to recruit a segment of America (many who have just grievances) in their efforts to retain their power. They are willing to promote hatred of “others,” racism, antisemitism, misogyny, and the deprecation of knowledge to ensure they control the destiny of America. Toward this end, they have promoted the concept of the “Great Replacement,” the idea that US citizens are being forced into unemployment and to accept foreign ideas (e.g. Sharia law) by non-white immigrants.
The Trumplicans conveniently ignore all data that shows that America’s immigrants are the most economically productive sectors of our society and our caste system disadvantages all members of the society.
Propaganda, the Big Lie, and Fox News
The big lie was a propaganda technique “coined by Adolf Hitler, when he dictated his 1925 book Mein Kampf, to describe the use of a lie so colossal that no one would believe that someone” could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” Hitler incessantly repeated the big lie on radio broadcasts until it was accepted as an incontrovertible truth by a segment of the German population.
The big lie propaganda technique had been employed by Republicans against John Kerry in the 2004 Presidential campaign and the advertisements came to be called the “swift boat campaign.” It succeeded in convincing enough Americans that a decorated war hero was a fraud and Kerry lost to George W. Bush.
Donald Trump employed the big lie against Barack Obama and it led many Americans to believe that President Obama was not an American citizen.
This propaganda technique is being used by Donald Trump and Trumplicans against President Biden and has convinced ~75% of Republicans that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election.
Of course, the effectiveness of the propaganda technique is predicated on having the ability to distribute the big lie to the eyes and ears of Americans and that has become the role of America’s most popular “news” network, Fox News. On multiple “news” and non-new TV, radio and Internet shows, Fox News repeatedly amplifies Donald Trump’s big lie of the day.
In early November 2021, Fox News aired a movie “Patriot Purge” which, per Anne Applebaum in The Atlantic was designed to “… to describe the events of January 6 as a false-flag operation cooked up inside the deepest layers of the American deep state—and thus to cast doubt on everything that will come out of Congress’s January 6 hearings, everything revealed by every Washington Post or network-television investigation, everything turned up by the FBI.”
Thus all of the above technosociopolitical trends synergistically combine to threaten the future of our democracy. While making long-term political predictions is usually a fool’s errand, I believe that in the absence of a major unexpected political, technologic, environmental or social event, there is a reasonable probability that President Joseph Biden will be the last Democratic President of the United States for several decades.
Hopefully, I will be proven wrong.
Version 1: 11/7/2021
11/9/2021 editorial revisions
12/2/2021 Expanded The Anti-democratic Political Elite section
I apologize to the following authors if they feel I have misinterpreted or overly simplified their writings.
Political Animals, Rick Shenkman
The Constitution of Knowledge, Jonathon Rauch
How To Think, Alan Jacobs
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff
Caste, Isabel Wilkerson
America, Compromised, Lawrence Lessig
The People vs Democracy, Yasha Mounk