Democracy, Deliberation, and the Internet

Bruce Thornton, one of my favorite writers these days, has a new article posted about our country, its political deliberation, and the Internet. Thornton’s depth of understanding and knowledge of history mirrors that of his friend, Victor Davis Hanson. Both men have been at the top of their game in recent years — and both understand better than most political commentators do the phenomenon that is President Donald J. Trump.

Thornton’s latest is worth excerpting in parts rather than my usual of taking the opening of the article and providing readers a link to read the rest. He makes so many important points that I wanted to highlight just a few sections. There is just too much to touch on so please follow the link at the end and read the entire article.

The lede of the article is this:

The insidious power of the sophist and demagogue in our 24/7 virtual world.

Here is the opening:

For 2500 years a consistent criticism of giving political power to the masses has been the question of competence. To critics like Socrates and Plato, the knowledge of history, philosophy, and facts necessary for governing are beyond the abilities of the average citizen.

Thornton then comments on our current situation — “In the last few decades, the explosion of information instantly available on the internet…” He then turns back ancient Greece:

Plato’s student Aristotle, in his critique of his old teacher, points toward one answer to this perennial discomfort with mass democracy and voter ignorance. Responding to Plato’s complaint of the lack of technical and philosophical skills among the people, Aristotle pointed out that what we now call “crowd-sourcing” can still make democratic deliberation effective:

For the many, of whom each individual is not a good man, when they meet together may be better than the few good, if regarded not individually but collectively . . . For each individual among them has a share of excellence and practical wisdom, and when they meet together, just as they become in a manner one man, with many feet, and hands, and senses, so too with regard to their character and thought.” Thus, “although individually they [the masses] may be worse judges than those who have special knowledge, as a body they are as good or better.

Thornton then briefly touches on a bit of recent history — media before “cable news, the internet, social media, and talk radio, a large and diverse citizenry had to get its news and editorials from a greatly reduced number of newspapers, AM radio, and three television networks.” Now, of course, that monopoly has been weakened.

In the end, Thornton writes — “the responsibility for consuming critically the information available to us lies with the free citizen, in whose hands the success of democratic governments with universal voting rights have always lain.” He closes with this:

The larger point is either we are capable of self-rule or we are not. America for over two centuries has been an experiment on the answer to that question. The democratizing and decentralizing of information of the last few decades should improve our ability to engage in political discourse more effectively by loosening controls over who produces or provide information. If it doesn’t, the fault will lie with ourselves, not the internet.

Read the entire article at

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