New Media Affects Politics

Published at 10:37 on 1 January 2019

Megan McArdle wrote an interesting piece for the Washington Post yesterday, one which reminded me of an earlier intellectual exercise of my own which came to basically the same conclusion that she just did. I had intended to post that conclusion here some time (as in months) ago, but other events intervened and eventually I forgot about it.

My exercise was prompted by my desire to refute an article by Andrew Sullivan, which tried to explain the rise of right-wing populism in terms of claims made by Plato in ancient times. (Disclaimer: this article seems unavailable at the moment; I furnish the link here in the hope that the problem with it proves temporary.)

I found Sullivan’s explanation simultaneously tantalizing and disappointing.

Tantalizing, because at first it attempted to explain things better than simply a purely class-based analysis. As much as the latter is the default for a leftist like me, I had been struggling with how it was simply unsatisfying. Yes, inequality is high and rising in the USA, and neither political party has been serious about combating it, and this dovetails with the rise of Trump. But inequality has not been nearly so bad in Europe, yet right-wing populism is growing there, too. Worse for my pet theory, in the case of France, right-wing populism has been a big player for longer than it has in the USA. This is precisely the opposite of what my class-based theory would predict. So clearly that theory has its problems.

But Sullivan’s theory was ultimately disappointing. Why now? It didn’t do a good job of answering that. Open societies have been opening up for decades. Conservatives like Sullivan have been long wringing their hands about how dangerous this is. Yet until recently, such danger didn’t manifest. And why didn’t it manifest itself first in the most progressive societies? You’d expect Scandinavia to have gone neo-fascist a good decade or two ago if Sullivan’s neo-Platonic explanation was the cause.

What else could it be, I thought? What new thing could be finally causing something at least superficially like the long-theorized corrosiveness to finally take hold? The Internet was the best answer that I could think of. But was there a further test, one that could better confirm this theory?

It turns out there is. France has a state-owned telephone company that behaves very much unlike capitalism fans claim all state-owned enterprises must be: it has long been highly innovative. It started developing the world’s first universal computer network, Minitel, in the late 1970s, and fully deployed it by 1982. And 1982 marked the turning point for the National Front, which in the space of a handful of years transitioned from being a tiny splinter party to a major one. The correlation is just about perfect.

Back to McArdle for a moment:

It’s striking that two of the 20th century’s periods of greatest political upheaval followed the arrival of a revolutionary communications technology—the 1930s were preceded by the spread of radio, the 1960s by the arrival of television. Both mediums fundamentally changed people’s relationship with information, and in the process radio and television necessarily altered politics.

Yet more correlations. At this point, I think the thesis is going to be difficult to refute, particularly when you consider how the invention of the printing press helped spark the Protestant Reformation: it greatly lowered the cost of books, leading to more widespread literacy, which led to people reading the Bible themselves and deciding for themselves what lessons to take away from it, instead of relying on a Church hierarchy to do the reading and deciding.

So, once again, a new media genie is out of its bottle and is making our times interesting. That is currently the best explanation I have going.

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