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Free speech is essential for democracy. Could it also be democracy’s downfall?

Margaret Sullivan and I talk about my new book, The Paradox of Democracy.

The Parthenon temple at the Acropolis of Athens, Greece at night. It was built in the fifth century BC. Today it is a UNESCO world heritage site and a symbol of democracy.
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It seems like we’re living through a uniquely perilous time for democracy. The threats from disinformation, authoritarianism, and populist movements are all around us, seemingly all the time. And because so much of the disruption is happening online, it all feels very new.

I just co-authored a book with Zac Gershberg, a professor at Idaho State University, called The Paradox of Democracy, and we argue that these threats aren’t new at all, and in fact they’re not threats to democracy in the way we typically think — they’re threats to a certain kind of democracy we’ve gotten used to over the past century or so.

One reason for the turmoil has been a massive shift in our media environment. Digital technologies in particular have introduced more voices and platforms, and that means more conflict and anarchy. All of these changes highlight a contradiction at the core of every democratic culture: The very freedom on which it depends — the freedom of expression — can be used to undermine it from within. This is a pattern that has recurred throughout history, going all the way back to ancient Greece.

I wanted to discuss all of this on Vox Conversations, so I invited Margaret Sullivan, a media columnist at the Washington Post and a former public editor for the New York Times, to join me for an episode. We had a bit of fun with this one — this time, I sat in the guest’s seat and had Sullivan pose the questions to me. Sullivan has spent a ton of time thinking about the intersection of media and democracy, and she also has a forthcoming book called Newsroom Confidential that touches on many of these issues. We talk about the role and limits of free speech, the distinction between liberalism and democracy, and how we might bolster democratic values in our polarized media environment.

Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Margaret Sullivan

There are a lot of books out there right now about democracy, but your book comes at things from quite a different angle. I wonder if you could take us through the thesis as a starting point.

Sean Illing

The angst and fear we have about Twitter and online conspiracy theories and misinformation mirror disruptions we’ve seen in earlier periods of democratic history, especially when we experience massive changes in our media environment.

In ancient Athens, in Rome, free speech and rhetoric were vital to the birth of democracy, but both of those cultures were upended by sophistry and spectacles and crowd-pleasing demagogues.

In the 15th century, the printing press was born and that led to the mass production of books and newspapers, and it helped spawn the Enlightenment as well as the democratic revolutions of the 18th century. But it also paved the way to catastrophic religious conflicts across the continent.

In the 19th century, we have another huge revolution in media and we get the telegraph and then the penny press. These things were essential to spreading liberal democratic norms, but they were also essential in giving early platforms to nativists and nationalists, and that helped prepare the ground for fascism in the 20th century, which wasn’t possible without the new mass media of radio and film. Later in the century, we get TV, and that totally transformed our political culture.

The thing to notice about all these examples is not just that they’re enabled by these revolutions in communications. They also demonstrate the paradox that I’m trying to get at in this book, which is that new media technologies can be used for good or bad ends and there are no guarantees on which way it will go. Facebook gave us both the Arab Spring and QAnon. But when these big revolutions happen, they upend and disrupt democratic cultures over and over again.

Margaret Sullivan

You use the term “liberal democracy” a lot in an attempt to differentiate it from democracy as such. What do you mean by that? We should define the terms here.

Sean Illing

Democracy and liberalism are very different things, even though they’re often mixed up together. We think democracy is fundamentally a decision to open up the public sphere and let people speak freely. It really is a culture of open communication, which is why we say that democracy is largely free expression and its consequences.

Democracy is not just a body of institutions or practices, or just a process for choosing leaders. To say that a state is democratic is actually to say relatively very little about how it’s governed. And the book is trying to remind people that instruments of democracy — free expression, an open media environment — can be turned against it.

When we’re talking about liberalism, we’re talking about the defense of minority rights, the rule of law, the peaceful acceptance of transfers of power, and all the institutions and cultural norms that sustain those things.

Margaret Sullivan

Part of what you’re saying is that democracy is a communication free-for-all, right? It’s a circus in which anyone can say anything. Should there be limits on speech in that case?

Sean Illing

That’s the question, isn’t it? What does free speech actually mean? We take our cues from the ancient Greeks. They had dueling conceptions of free speech. There was what they called isegoria, which is the right of everyone to participate in a public debate, and that was in conflict with what they called parrhesia, which is the right to speak without limits.

Now, doesn’t that sound familiar? Doesn’t that exactly describe the discourse we’re having now about free speech and its limits? And just like back then, there’s no simple answer. The tension here is precisely the defining tension of democracy. When you let anyone speak, you don’t know what they’re going to say. You don’t know who will be persuaded of what or how they’ll be persuaded, and you don’t know what the consequences of all that will be. But when speech is truly free, everything is kind of up for grabs.

Margaret Sullivan

One thing I’ve wondered about reading your book is how concerned you are about the current state of American democracy, and really the state of global democracy. You come at it from a different point of view, suggesting this is just what democracy looks like, but how worried are you?

Sean Illing

Oh, I’m worried. I think the failure to see this distinction is making it more difficult for us to defend the liberal democracy that we have. Many of us want democracy to be a battle of ideas and policies, rooted in facts and evidence-based discourse.

But I really do see democracy as a competition of communication styles, where every imaginable kind of rhetoric and bullshit artistry and demagoguery is allowed to flourish. And that means it’s a fight, not just between arguments but between clashing rhetorics, between ways of thinking. And it is always, whether we recognize it or not, a battle for power.

So one concern I have is that I don’t think the Democratic Party in this country gets this. I really don’t. Even when they hold power, they seem incapable of exercising it. Why is that? There are probably lots of reasons. But one is that they can’t stop believing that democracy should be practiced in a certain way, and in a certain manner, and in accordance with certain rules. And I think that’s because they’re devoted to liberal democracy.

The Republicans are not devoted to liberal democracy. They’re actually willing to play dice with democracy. Republicans are saying, Look, almost half the country will follow us no matter what we do. Many of them only consume media that affirms their biases anyway. So let’s just seize and exercise power by any means necessary. The overturning of Roe v. Wade is an obvious recent example.

Margaret Sullivan

Right, that’s where you really see it happening —

Sean Illing

Trump’s great contribution was to show the Republican Party what’s actually possible if you stop caring about the liberal democratic game and just go after power. So Democrats accept the constraints of liberalism, and Republicans ruthlessly exploit the advantages our media and our political system afford them. They’re playing different games.

I’m not claiming that liberal democracy is dead. I would never claim that. I mean, it’s a possibility. But I am saying that the age of liberal democracy is over. And that means that this long postwar period of mostly stable liberal democracy was a period in which a gatekeeping media system managed a norms-driven discourse. And that is over.

Now, everyone has the power of mass communication. Now, information is impossible to contain, impossible to control. Now, the state and the elites can’t dictate the stories a society’s telling about itself. There is no monoculture; there is no shared public discourse. It’s a kind of choose-your-own-adventure information space, where you can shop for your preferred version of reality.

Margaret Sullivan

Do you even think these can be addressed? Or do we have to just sit back and let it happen? I’ve spent a lot of time calling out both the right-wing media and the mainstream media for their failures and flaws. Sometimes it gets a response, but I don’t know if it’s changing anything. But can anything change this?

Sean Illing

I think it’s very difficult because the problems begin with our ecology, with the technology that’s governing our politics. To the extent that the problem is at that level, it’s not a simple fix. It may not be fixable at all.

The reason why we think communication should be at the center of how we think about democracy is because it’s so central to how we co-create our world. The world is big, and we don’t have direct access to most of it. So we are relying on imperfect communication technologies to help us understand it. Media ecologists have been pointing out for years that certain kinds of media tend to create certain kinds of social and political environments. And if that’s true, then students of democracy, which is a form of politics uniquely grounded in expression, should probably take this more seriously than we have so far.

But the problems here really are structural. We can’t do anything about the fact that Republicans and Democrats often inhabit opposing epistemological worlds. You and I can’t transcend that problem. We just can’t.

Margaret Sullivan

I want to ask you for at least one thing that could be done in order to move this situation in a good direction. I mean, you talk in your book about state-sponsored revival of local print news, for example. What else is there?

Sean Illing

Well, the thesis of the book is that these core problems are baked into the structure of democracy. But, sure, there are a few things that I hope would bolster our democratic culture.

First, people like to talk about resuscitating civics education, and I have to say I think that’s mostly a waste of time. I mean, it’s fine to teach people how bills become laws. But we’re talking about a world in which people are overwhelmed with choices and bullshit. They should be taught about communication technologies and the rhetorical techniques they rely on so they have some chance of recognizing when and how they’re being manipulated. This sort of media literacy should be universally taught in secondary education.

Second, democracy has to be participatory or it’s meaningless. John Stuart Mill made a very useful distinction between “active” and “passive” citizenship. Today, I think a lot of people feel estranged from the political process; they feel reduced to being spectators of their own democracy. But it’s only through real engagement, real discussion and collective action, that we become members of a democratic community.

And this connects directly with the last thing I’ll say: We have to do something to reinforce local journalism — and, by extension, local politics. We know that citizens trust local news more than national news because it’s more connected with their lived experience. And we know that local newspapers have always been crucial catalysts for the sorts of social connections that make up the backbone of democracy.

What we have now is highly nationalized politics. And a nationalized politics is a more abstract, more narrativized politics, fueled by cable news and social media, and that grinds everything down to the most simplistic right-left tribalism possible. And we think that local, decentralized media should be seen as a right of all citizens. The press clause of the First Amendment affirms the right of access to newspapers. This is something that can be subsidized, federally. And it’s something in principle that Democrats and Republicans should be able to get behind.

Just to be super clear, we know this won’t solve all our problems, not even close. And we know that even a reinvigorated local print media will never be the dominant source of news in the 21st century. But it can at least offer some kind of counterbalance to the fragmented, polarizing impact of broadcast and digital media.

I’m hoping that what we’ve seen in the last several years is a reminder of how fragile this whole thing is. Democracy demands ethical commitments from the public and from politicians. And I think we’ve learned that the values that undergird those commitments — tolerance, respect for minority rights, respect for rule of law, a love of truth and justice — we bring those values to democracy. We force our democracy to bend to those principles. They’re not inherent to democracy itself.

And there are people within our democracy who are mobilizing against those values. And that contest for power is inescapable. But there are lots of examples of people recognizing the threats and mobilizing against them. It’s an ugly, messy affair, but it’s not all bleak.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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