The Threat of Factions in the U.S.: Progressivism and Mob Rule
The framers of the United States Constitution understood the essential truth about humanity: people loathe non-conformity and are given to tyrannical impulses. They cannot stand that other individuals can think, speak, believe, live, and act differently than they themselves do. Groups coalesce around uniformity, so deviance is a threat to the group. It is an intrinsic quality of the group to use its collective power to bend non-conformists to its will. That is why history is replete with certain groups dominating and oppressing other groups, usually on the basis of religion, national origin, ethnicity, etc. Once a majority forms around certain beliefs and behaviors, that group will try to oppress those outside the group.
The framers recognized this problem even as they themselves continued to engage in similar group dynamics in their own lives. Though they did not fully live up to their lofty and novel ideals of equality, they strove to create a form of government that would allow multiple, diverse groups to coexist. They realized that the only way to protect minority groups was to ensure the recognition of liberty rights endowed in the individual. As long as individuals are free to live, think, speak, pray, and act in a manner of their own choosing, groups can sustain themselves regardless of whether they are in the majority and without persecuting other groups. Thus, individual liberty is essential to preventing tyrannical rule by a majority.
But enumerating individual liberties for protection is only half of the solution. In Federalist No. 10, James Madison articulated the potential problem of a group ascending to such dominance that it can wield the power of government against its dissenters, thereby revoking or ignoring the individual protections outlined in the Constitution. He argued that such factions would not be able to co-opt the federal government because the United States was too expansive and diverse. Even if a faction managed to seize power locally, it would not be able take control over the whole country because the regions are too sprawling and diverse to succumb to distant and foreign influences. Each region could have its own faction, but these factions would be varied enough that the country as a whole would not be overtaken by one group. Any success a group might have in gaining national prominence would simultaneously cripple it; to appeal to such wide swaths of people requires diluting the essence of the group to make disparate peoples feel equally welcome.
Unfortunately, James Madison could not have foreseen the homogenizing effects of future technologies like television and the internet. Whereas in his day the media was consumed from mainly local purveyors providing the information that was most relevant to its own locality in written form, today everyone in the country is tuned into a select few media organizations based out of a handful of cities around the country and which remain viable by keeping their consumers in a perpetual, irrational state of fear and outrage that is not conducive to deep and reasoned thought. Local journalism has been decimated by the internet, so news is now consumed from a mostly national perspective as filtered by a homogeous collection of college-educated, affluent, urban, coastal progressives who in their delivery of news also unconsciously disseminate the belief systems of their own urban echo chambers. Everyone in the country now gets slight variations on the same overarching narrative, which boils down to a few emotionally charged, national themes that are each divided into exactly two diametrically opposed positions usually aligning with one of the two major political parties. As a result, all Americans regardless of background or geography now receive the bulk of information about the world in the same sensationalized and reductionist format from the same, limited echo chamber, a feat that was not possible in Madison’s time.
Additionally, Americans are almost never disconnected from these emotionally charged narratives since they are plugged into the internet at all times through their smartphones and other devices. Continually and passively receiving information that causes fear and outrage is the default. Absent concerted effort, they never have the space to receive more diverse information, to transition back to a more rational state of mind, or to otherwise think for themselves because 24/7 mainstream news headlines and other online notifications take all their attention. And even where they do make an effort to find information outside the mainstream narrative, it is becoming increasingly common that such information is censored by online media companies. Thus, Americans are being conditioned on a daily basis to see the world from the same, limited perspective; they have in effect been turned into a national faction centered around affluent, urban, elite values.
More troubling still, the major internet media companies are also dominated by highly educated, affluent, coastal, urban progressives, and their control over the most widely used online fora enables them to further project their worldview onto the populace. They openly and repeatedly censor and ban information and opinions that deviate from their personal beliefs. These progressives perform their tyranny in the name of science and inclusivity, but that does not make it any less oppressive than doing so in the name of religious or racial prejudice. They are merely another instance in a long line of persecutors who justify their suppression of opponents in terms of the supposed societal good.
Tech companies put a lot of successful effort into ensuring that almost all functions of speech and association were transferred online, so the public square is now effectively based on the internet. Consequently, they have the power to censor information they do not like, to stop people from associating with other like-minded individuals, and to prevent protests and events from being planned and advertised. With tech companies having private control over nearly all the speech that takes place on the internet and an oft-demonstrated will to exercise that control to shape opinion, Americans no longer have a meaningful right to free speech and association. Tech companies have become leaders of the domineering faction that the founders feared and ultimately failed to protect against. The framers of the Constitution could not foresee that one day there would exist private companies that would have powers of censorship that could rival government’s power.
The loss of meaningful speech and association rights is an abysmal situation, especially since it augurs a more threatening situation: factious control of the government against dissenters. Already, Americans have been primed by social media to have an authority figure regulate their speech, and they are increasingly comfortable with the idea of centralized authority control so that it is common now to see individuals calling for censorship offline as well as online. These attitudes have already successfully infiltrated and influenced news rooms and publishing companies, which used to be at the vanguard of free speech issues. Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union have abandoned the civil liberties portion of their missions because of this change in climate. The antagonism towards free speech has become so normalized that university professors, activists, and politicians openly express illiberal ideas and make demands for censorship of those that are deemed to be on the wrong side of progressivism. It has also become common for people to disparage those who continue to assert individual liberty rights.
These are all signs that a faction has ascended to dominance in this country; has achieved a level of collective groupthink which people are discouraged from questioning; and is attempting to use its power to silence its opponents, amplify favored voices, and further the agenda of the most vocal members. Both sides of the aisle are prone to these same tyrannical impulses, but the left-wing faction is the more imminent threat currently because of their control over nearly all the fora where the majority of speech now takes place.
Politicians and private companies have learned to pander to this faction in order to curry favor with customers and to avoid being the target of ire for upsetting the progressive group. This tendency to appease the progressive faction has bled into the news rooms of media companies, with people from without and within now pressuring these companies to take a more activist role in contrast to the neutral stance that was the ideal for many decades. The line between factual news and editorials is now blurred. This of course serves the faction’s intention of indoctrinating more people into its narrative of of the world, but it alienates those who are not inclined toward the faction’s beliefs. The alienated observe all the little ways the news is curated to present a progressive narrative—from word choice to angle selection to omission of facts to outright censorship—and they come to distrust the news itself, recognizing that, whether intentional or not, that dogma is being served along with the facts. This is hugely corrosive to democracy because if one does not trust the fact-tellers, then one does not trust the facts. If Americans cannot even agree on basic facts, then there is no shared reality around which they can be united. Every person will trust only information from his or her own faction, leading to radicalization, polarization, and acrimony over community.
That is why I believe that the lack of resistance to factions rising to dominance is a preeminent threat facing the United States. Factions are a triple threat. Firstly, by controlling the selection and presentation of information they rob the individual citizen of agency and obstruct him or her from developing independent thoughts and conclusions. Secondly, by controlling flow of information to and from the individual, factions manage to artificially manipulate public opinion, possibly leading to political outcomes that do not truly represent the will of the people. And finally, they breed distrust in the news media and government among those who are outside of the faction, which erodes faith in democracy itself and prevents Americans from effectively using the political system to mediate their differences.
Whether the United States survives and remains a beacon of freedom and pluralism will depend on how committed Americans remain to their Liberal roots and whether they can resist the siren song of illiberalism even when they are in the dominant group. In short, Americans need to recommit to protecting individual and minority rights on principle regardless of whether it redounds to their benefit in that particular moment. It is only by ensuring that people in the minority are free to think and live differently that we guarantee the benefits of freedom and democracy for all Americans. If the least powerful among us are not free, then none of us are free.