Standing as we are with our nose so tightly pressed against the glass, it’s impossible to know what exactly the current, crazy presidential election will mean, not just for American, democracy, but for the future of democracy itself. Of course, much of this depends on the actual outcome of the election, when the American public will either chose to cling to a system full of malware, corrupted and buggy, yet still functional, or risk everything on a hard reboot. This would include the risk that we might never be able to reset the clock to the time before we had plunged over the abyss and restore an order that while outdated, ill-designed, and running up against the limits of both still managed to do the job.
Then again, even if Americans don’t go for a hard reboot, that we is avoid electing Trump, it might not be the end of the sort of virus, or even Trojan Horse, his near election had represented. Perhaps instead we’re only at the beginning of the process where the internet breaks democracy.
In less than six weeks we’ll learn a number of very important things about the impact of the 21st century communications technologies on democracy, including how such technologies are likely to be used in elections. For one, we’ll learn whether the centralized, data driven and highly targeted type of voter mobilization pioneered by the Obama reelection campaign in 2012- and now being replicated by Hillary Clinton- is more effective than the kind of shoestring budget, crowd-seeding strategy of Trump which has been technological in the sense that it takes advantage of the major weakness of our age of balkanized media, namely its inability to hold our attention, and thus its over reliance on scandalous behavior to capture our eyes and ears. Trump has also deftly used platforms such as Twitter to do an end run around established media and political institutions. His campaign is a kind of tabloid-addicted media, Twitter enabled coup against the dominant elites, first, of the GOP, and ultimately of the country itself. And neither the elites nor the rest of us non-elites praying for a Trump defeat would necessarily be completely out of the woods should Clinton actually win the election.
A few months back, in the small city of Altoona Pennsylvania, not far from where I live, Trump gave a speech in which he said that the only way Clinton could win the election was if it was “rigged”. From the perspective of those located in the post-industrial wasteland that comprises much of Pennsylvania the idea that a Clinton victory is only possible through some type of conspiracy will make a great deal of sense. On the street I live on, perhaps one out of every four homes sprouts a Trump sign. The rest of the town is like that as are many of the small communities between here and Schuylkill county, where Trump’s usual catchphrase “Make America Great Again”, is often replaced with “Trump digs coal”.
Once while driving home from work my eyes nearly popped out of my head as I thought I had spotted a Hillary sign on a local lawn. It ended up being a poster that read “Hillary for Prison.” In all of my travels throughout the state I have seen only two actual “Vote Hillary” signs, and both of them were in the progressive, prosperous bubble of State College. If I didn’t actually trust in much of what the media tells me, and never traveled beyond the Pennsylvania rust belt, I’d guess Trump would beat Clinton in a landslide. I wonder what many of my neighbors will think when he doesn’t.
A replay of the election fiasco of Bush vs Gore might be very different sixteen years later given the fact that Trump has shown such willingness to step outside political norms, and has at least suggested that he might violate the most deeply held norm, that US elections are essentially fair and therefore should not be contested. Unlike the Bush vs Gore election, Trump vs Clinton occurs in an environment where the mainstream media and the leadership of the major political parties face competition from internet (and radio) enabled alternative media, and political actors are able to connect directly with the base of the party. And none of this takes into account the possibility that the election could be disrupted in such a way as to call into question its actual outcome even among those who appear to have gotten the result they were hoping for.
Such doubts might come from a domestic source bent on disrupting the election for political ends, or even the prospect of financial gain, by, for instance, short selling the markets before the vote takes place. Then again, such interference seems much more likely to come from a foreign source, most notably Russia, which has already, it appears, collaborated with Wikileaks to discredit Hillary Clinton. Russia’s real intention here seems less to help Trump and harm Clinton than to spread a pall of suspicion over American elections themselves. Though, given Trump’s ties and affection for the Kremlin a Trump win would be the sour cream on Putin’s smetannik.
Our digital communications architecture might also play a role in this disruption. As Bruce Schneier has pointed out our electronic voting systems are alarmingly vulnerable to being hacked. And unlike when I order an MTO at Sheetz, my vote doesn’t generate a paper receipt. Even an unfounded rumor that widespread electronic tampering had taken place might give an otherwise fair election the taint of illegitimacy. A belief that would be fostered and inflamed by those in alternative media for whom conspiracy theories and the revolt against elites has become their bread and butter.
None of this is to suggest that civil war would be the outcome of a Clinton victory. Rather, it is to wonder out loud whether the internet, and above the balkanization media and erosion of political parties it brings, might just end up killing democracy, whether through a sudden heart attack, which is what an actual Trump victory (or widespread violence in the face of his defeat, or even such violence as a response to his victory) would mean, or, as seems more likely, the kind of slow terminal cancer a Clinton victory lacking traditional legitimacy might come to represent where one- by- one the necessary components of the system decay and ultimately fail in the face of a constantly mutating and spreading enemy that emerged from our own cells.
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