modernheretic

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.

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 humbled me and made me aware of the echo chamber I exist in and the failures of the media to present in good faith the thoughts and realities of those living outside urban, affluent, college-educated, Democratic enclaves. While I did not understand the appeal of Trump as a politician, I also did not believe as most on the left did that the people who voted for him were just racists and idiots. That explanation, besides being smugly offensive, was too reductionist to explain the motivations of a large, heterogeneous group of people, many of whom, I imagine, felt as frustrated with the lack of options as I did.

Even after Trump was elected, the media failed to report adequately on his policies and continued to this day to focus almost exclusively on the smoke and mirrors that are his tweets and contradictory, inflammatory statements. I was following the gold standard of news—the New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, etc.— and yet I knew little of what was happening policy-wise in the federal government. It took a conservative commentor lauding Trump’s policy accomplishments in response to a derisive op-ed that would have had me believe that Trump was accomplishing nothing that made me realize that I was learning nothing of substance from the news media. I was increasingly frustrated that the media was providing infotainment rather than information, and I was exhausted by the perpetual outrage cycle that the media was constantly feeding into. By focusing almost wholly on sensational click-bait stories, the media was creating a flawed and incomplete narrative of the state of the country, and I lost confidence in the news. Eventually, I cut back my consumption of news and took these revelations as a call to humility, a recognition that I need to try better to understand how others think outside of the narrative that I’d been presented with.

But many of my peers have done the opposite. They are more tuned in than ever into the cycle of outrage, each headline further reinforcing the narrative that the county faced an unprecedented threat in the form of Trump. For years I have watched in horror as purported liberals ironically adopted illiberal ideas in response to their fears that Trump’s term would usher in fascism. Apparently concluding that the ends would justify the means, they turned to illiberalism supposedly to protect against the decline of Liberalism. Now people arguably on the left actively strive to censor ideas they do not like often on paternalistic grounds and to control the thoughts, speech, bodies, and behaviors of everyone else. Though operating in the name of anti-fascism, they became vocal proponents of fascist ideals.

This shift created a schism between myself and my supposed political allies on the left. The Liberal (in the classical, philosophical sense of ideology, not in the common usage that describes the political attitudes of people who tend to identify with the Democratic party and the left. I will use a capital ‘L’ to denote when I am referring to the Enlightenment philosophy rather than modern political attitudes.) values of liberty,  independence, pluralism, government restraint, and reason that I hold dear—that the country was founded on—used to be values that united the otherwise disparate populations of the United States.

Such cultural values form a creed, or a set of beliefs that the population shares, and creeds act as the nation's and individual's operating system, constantly running in the background of a person's mind so that they may not even be consciously aware of it though it shapes every action they take.  Increasingly, I find myself in a minority by continuing to champion these once bedrock ideals of Liberalism. There has been an ideological shift, and I frequently observe that Americans are disturbingly eager to cede longstanding Liberal ideals in favor of short-term exigencies. Even former champions of Liberalism like the ACLU are now retreating into this new illiberal mode of thought. In effect, many Americans now have a new set of values they operate on, values that are largely incompatible with the old. 

The Ideology Of Illiberalism

This burgeoning, illiberal ideology has the following values attached to it:

Collectivism: The mob rules over everyone. The individual is disposable and can be constrained to accomplish the group’s goals. It is proper to abridge the rights and welfare of the individual whenever the majority wishes it.

The individual is not intelligent or competent. The individual is easily swayed by information deemed dangerous by the group and therefore must be protected from that information through censorship. There are no protections for deviant minorities.

There is a hollow dialectic of equity that fails to acknowledge that the group’s choices benefit some in the group more than others and a disregard for the harms suffered by those not favored by the group.

Authoritarianism: They believe heavily in expansive government and reliance on the state rather than on individual or local community reliance. Rather than limit government to protect individual freedom, government power should be utilized to the utmost to compel individuals into conforming to the majority. Again, since the majority assumes moral superiority, there are no protections for minority groups. They do not respect the concept of rule of law; rather, they feel the rules should be changed and constitutional rights violated to serve the desired ends. Moreover, general, unwarranted surveillance of the populace is appropriate, and the government should be able to compel individuals to act when it deems it necessary and without any due process.

Because of the jaundiced view of the individual as incompetent and ineffectual, there is a bias towards institutional solutions to every problem, especially government institutions. It is appropriate for the government to expand without limit to meet the goals of safety and conformity.

Further, every aspect of life and area of knowledge is outsourced to credentialed experts who are empowered to prescribe how the individual should act. Science is reductionist and sacrosanct and, when wielded by authority, can quash non-quantitative, philosophical objections, including Liberal objections. Not complying with authority figures and experts is seen as immoral. Authority figures should be questioned sparingly. Absent state accreditation or other formal certification, the individual is not considered competent to question expert advice, which taken to the extreme means that the private individual should not question or criticize government policy. The lack of recognition of individual competence means the individual’s actions are not legitimate or appropriate when they contradict authority.

Risk Intolerance: They are completely intolerant of risk and discomfort, and they seek to eliminate all risk and suffering at all cost without reason. Freedom is less important than safety. There is no balancing act, no recognition that some risks provide rewards, that some suffering can be necessary or even positive, or that the costs of eliminating the risk may outweigh the benefit. Anything that could cause pain is deemed an unmitigated evil to be avoided. These people believe that that which does not kill us does not make us stronger, and it is appropriate to employ government to avoid non-lethal risks. Every person is deemed drafted without due process to serve the cause of safety of others even at the expense of one’s own welfare. The collective pursuit of safety trumps the individual pursuit of happiness.

Because risk pervades all aspects of life, extreme risk avoidance coupled with authoritarianism results in enabling government to police nearly every aspect of a person's life. The government can interfere to make the individual “safe” whether the individual wants it or not. Any person who admits a tolerance for some risk or hardship is deemed foolish, selfish, or malicious. Illiberalism encourages a culture of performative victimhood and discourages personal responsibility. The institutional bias inclines citizens to externalize all of their problems onto others and seek solutions outside of themselves instead of acknowledging their own loci of control.

This creates a cycle of fear; individuals are perceived as increasingly ineffectual in the face of institutional solutions, and that sense of impotence makes the world appear more dangerous in relation to the individual, who now has no sense of control over his own safety. The more risky the world appears to be, the more government and other authority figures are called on to make society safer, further disempowering the individual.

Conformity: There are right and wrong ways to behave and think, and the individual must conform to the group. There is no room for experimentation. Rather than tolerate diverse manners of lifestyles and faiths, the group expects the individual to bend to the majority. Once the group forms a consensus about a thought or action, then any deviance should be punished and eliminated. Dissenters are enemies, and questioning or criticizing the consensus even mildly is not permitted. If you are not with the group, you are against the group. Speech is deemed violence when incongruent with the group consensus. Loss of livelihood and ostracism are appropriate punishments for speech crimes and other deviant acts because it is important to send a message to those witnessing the speech that such divergence is unacceptable, which purposefully chills further such speech.

The marketplace of ideas needs to be highly regulated, and the individual should not be able to judge for him- or herself whether an idea has merit; rather, the group should actively censor supposedly inflammatory ideas and arguable misinformation to avoid allowing the individual, who is incompetent to judge for himself, to be seduced into deviance. The group must take control of the media in all its forms to ensure that only the accepted narrative is presented to the corruptible individual. It is an anti-intellectual and anti-scientific ideology, more concerned with ensuring that every person is indoctrinated into the proper mode of thought as determined by the elite members of the majority rather than trying to better understand the truth of a matter. Once the proper mode of though has been established by the majority (or more specifically the powerful elites who control the majority), it shall not be questioned, not even by disinterested scientists. If any new studies cast doubt on the group consensus, those studies should be censored. Truth is something decided on by the most powerful voices in the majority.

Post-Modernism: Nature is inherently flawed, individuals are broken, and technology is necessary to tame and correct both. There is no agreed upon reality aside from the subjective group consensus dictated by the elite, no self-evident truths. Everything material is socially constructed and therefore not real, but the subjective is real when promoted by the majority. The focus is on fragmentary identities and labels that separate us from one another rather than on those universal truths that unite us. It is society’s and the individual’s job to validate other people’s subjective, internal realities and to constantly keep these subjective realities at the forefront of our existences, which perpetually reinforces the seeds of division that prevent true collective action and mobilization.

Liberalism vs. Illiberalism

Thus, illiberalism is a deeply paternalistic ideology that diminishes individual autonomy, eliminates diversity in thought and action, negates intelligent discourse, and uses government and institutional force to manipulate the populace into complying with the wishes of the elite. These modern values are in violent conflict with Liberalism’s values of individual liberty,  independence, pluralism, limited government, and reason. Americans now seem increasingly hostile to the Enlightenment ideals that provide the foundation for the country’s government. They value conformity more than liberty and diversity and cannot tolerate that their fellow citizens can think and believe differently than they do. And while these illiberal values have been flourishing on the left, many of the same tendencies are evident on the right as well (Although, due to reflexive opposition to the left and the fact that conservatives have become the target of leftist illiberalism, it is common to see those on the right today at least nominally defending Liberal values, unlike many on the left.).

Americans are more than willing to sacrifice freedom if it means they can be the ones dictating how others behave. No longer concerned with defending against illegitimate power, Americans now want to ensure they have the power to control other people's lives, bodies, thoughts, speech, and actions. Modern Americans value power more than freedom. We have regressed to the point that many Americans now openly sympathize with dictatorial appeals rather than the ideas of Enlightenment revolutionaries and philosophers. Consequently, the very rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution are under threat.

This illiberal ideology amounts to a secular religion that a large portion of the population are attempting to foist on everyone else. The believers of illiberalism see their values as indisputable truth and will deride, police, ostracize, criminalize, and quash anyone who dares to question the new religion. To question or criticize is heresy. Consequently, to be a Liberal in today's society is to be a modern heretic.

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