Jun 26, 2018 - Technology

The Founding Fathers vs. social media


Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

When people think about the challenge that Facebook and Twitter pose to our democracy, they don't often think about James Madison and the Federalist Papers. But perhaps they should, argues constitutional scholar Jeff Rosen.

The big picture: Social media runs counter to the type of government Madison and others hoped to create, Rosen argues. The whole point of having a republic with representative democracy was to slow down deliberation so that reason could prevail.

"In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever character composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob."
— James Madison

No time for deliberation: One of the ways that social media challenges the founders' vision, Rosen says, is by enabling politicians to harden their positions before they even have a chance to hear the other side.

  • Rosen says that the filter bubbles of social media are exacerbating the fact that Americans are already pretty divided along geographic lines.
  • "That’s the Madisonian dystopia," he says. "That’s the definition of factions."

A faceless debate: Another problem of shifting discussion online is the fact that you are arguing with the idea of an opponent vs. a real person. It's not political disagreement that's the issue, says Eric Liu, founder of Citizen University and executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program.

  • America, Liu argues, exists as a constant tension between the values of equality vs. individual liberty, of collective responsibility vs. personal responsibility, and of the rights of the many vs. the rights of the individual.
  • But shifting that online has had divisive consequences. Minds occasionally get changed over dinner or a glass of wine, but rarely via tweetstorm, according to several panelists at a different Aspen session, including Stanford University's Rob Reich.

Yes, but: Madison's point of view largely prevailed in the writing of the Constitution, but has been in retreat ever since, long before the internet.

  • And the trend toward more direct democracy has mostly been positive: We elect senators directly today (they were originally mostly chosen by state legislatures), and voting is now a right for all citizens, not just white male property owners.
  • Plus, one of the biggest vestiges — the electoral college — has come under intense criticism after recent elections in which the popular vote would have selected a different president.
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