Can America be saved from social media—by social science? The question anxiously pervades Cass Sunstein’s #Republic, a sequel of sorts to two prior books about how technology can help perfect or pervert democratic mores. Sunstein, a Harvard professor and bestselling author who served as former president Obama’s top regulatory advisor, personifies the establishment elite that’s public enemy number one among the very populists and nationalists whose social-media savvy launched Donald Trump toward the White House. But unlike the elites hit hardest by that wave of reaction, in #Republic Sunstein connects up his own class’s twenty-first-century failures with “We the People’s” own. And he does so because of a far-reaching conceptual grasp of the Internet’s complex revolutionary leap beyond the categories and comfort zones of mainstream, small-l liberals.
Yet Sunstein’s expertise is in one pointed sense a glass cage. Though a model of judiciousness and circumspection in weighing his brief for national, liberal, and representative democracy against the evidence of survey after study and report upon experiment, Sunstein’s mission cries out for more support from social theory than from social science. Too few elites realize that their recent failures and fall from grace has stemmed from their certainty that the only “real” kind of expertise is scientific. Ironically, this judgment is shared by growing numbers of everyday citizens and consumers unmoved by the postmodern phantasmagoria that has taken over high academic theory, now all but completely detached from the world of everyday shared experience. #Republic amounts to a tribute to John Stuart Mill and John Dewey—shamelessly and deservedly so—but could have profited from the likes of Alexis de Tocqueville and Thomas Hobbes. Their penetrating foresight into the problems of interpretive authority amid revolutions in information technology would strengthen Sunstein’s case. If nationalist liberals abjure social foundations deeper than science can ever provide, their struggles against technology’s illiberal effects, no matter how rich in expertise, are probably destined to fail.
Nevertheless, Sunstein’s argument is a straightforward one, built from a simple premise. America’s liberal national character is suffused with values that celebrate and privilege choices. However, individual and group preferences—and the identities that inevitably emerge around them— are what scientists call “dependent” variables, not independent ones. What we want, in other words, isn’t dictated to us by our nature or our will. Although these phenomena or something like them certainly play a role, the most important properties of preference formation emerge from the way we communicate—or don’t—given the influential social structures we’re embedded in (or delinked from). While the Internet seemed initially to promise a wide-open field of unfettered voices and choices, after we all rushed in, the truth came out: invisible barriers to personal advancement and social progress popped up almost everywhere we looked.
This is bad, Sunstein claims—ruinously so. Today, “a communications system in which individuals have an unlimited power to customize and filter threatens to create excessive fragmentation,” producing “a more balkanized society.” And although all of life may not be divided between the state and the market, government must be used reasonably to do what commerce has not: make social media safe for the habits and mores we need to preserve freedom and equality under law.
The task, then, is twofold: first, to prove that government must free us from communicative self-enclosure, and second, to show that government can do this without destroying its, or its country’s, liberal character. Sunstein seems to know this is not a slam dunk, but there is something quintessentially American in his deepseated conviction that it’s worth the risk of mistake, failure, or embarrassment. He invokes the likes of James Madison to insist that “free communication among the people” is not a commodity but “a central part of self-government,” and earnestly counsels that, though the government is not itself the law, the law needs the government to ensure it is kept regular (in the sense, I felt, of a “well-regulated militia”). Although Sunstein seems to underrate the power and authority of modes of life beyond the roles of consumer and citizen—a problem that haunts him to the end of #Republic—he’s certainty not wrong that those two roles have come to occupy so much of contemporary life that too obsessive a focus on the former probably comes at least in part from too neglectful an attitude toward the latter.
It helps that, most of the way, reality silently argues his case. As a musician, I sighed along to his dismayed portrayal of social media as a place where the interesting, challenging mainstream is replaced by mutually hostile or indifferent niches, each reproducing and revelling in its own signifiers and semiotics. Others will see the pattern reproduced in their own industry or avocational life. For Mill, “placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar . . . has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.” But now, exactly that experience is the one we turn to social media to erase and replace—with “the Daily Me,” as Sunstein puts it: an information product delivering content to an audience for no other reason than to confirm, affirm, and flatter its prejudices of taste. In the entertainment industry, they call it “fan service”; as Sunstein so damningly notes, the identitarian pseudo-tribes fed by the Daily Me are as apt to lash outward, fueling today’s cycle of political rancour, as they are to turn inward, stroking their shared ego one minute and brooding bitterly on nursed resentments the next. What is needed, he concludes, is not a regulatory crackdown on fan-service media, but a conceptual shift in governance toward granting and enforcing a right to unchosen, unscreened, unscripted encounters with the voices and choices of others.
In his plea for “a society with generalinterest intermediaries,” and his warning that, without them “horizons can become narrowed, and people can get smaller,” Sunstein is offering a variation on Tocqueville’s argument about the peril and promise of our transition between aristocratic and democratic ages. For Tocqueville, because egalitarian habits and mores were not imposed by a revolutionary break with the past, Americans were able to grow more democratic at a relatively smooth and manageable tempo. Europeans were more apt to hurl themselves madly toward a revolutionary utopia, only to trigger counter-movements toward reactionary re-enchantment. Instead of that agonizing social oscillation, Americans ping-ponged more individually and psychologically—one minute despairing that plenty and repose would be gained too late to enjoy them, the next minute braving commerce and politics at risk of fatal futility. Primed to crack under such intense pressure, Tocqueville feared Americans would opt for shallow, selfenclosed comfort, a striking contrast to the endless conflict awaiting Europeans. If nationalist liberalism in the New World was threatened by a secret longing for an end to history, in the Old World, it was imperiled by one desperately long and bloody pause. Yet today’s elites have long been certain it is Europe that is the West’s post-historical land, with America locked in the foolish and destructive impasse. (This is one reason they have been so unable to process Europe’s current crisis.) But Sunstein, more intelligently, suggests that the Internet has accelerated the generalization of habits and mores to the point that America now risks both too much self-enclosure and too much lashing out. He’s right to ask aloud if, now, the online equivalent of genuine public squares are becoming social goods that the government must somehow assert its powers to protect and help pull people toward.
But how? Here, the road darkens. Tocqueville suggested that political scientists pull us out of self-enclosure by orienting our hearts and minds around the significance of long-term projects that model the uniquely precious rewards only sustained shared effort can gain. Hobbes, meanwhile, made a more challenging claim: that absent a single national arbiter of interpretive authority, language will always be an information technology of generalized and irresolvable civil conflict. Unfortunately for Sunstein, the disagreement between Hobbes and Tocqueville comes down to a theological dispute. If Hobbes is correct, in the absence of an official state interpretation of moral truth, social science will be powerless to carve out safe spaces amid the howling rage of the divided multitude. But if Tocqueville is right, we need no “mortal God” to prevail. Shared general precepts about our place and purpose in the universe are fertile and enduring enough to imbue political and commercial life with a saving forbearance and solidarity. Befitting a social scientist of today’s established elite, Sunstein does not include such considerations in his purview. It is hard not to feel in places that, thanks to the limits imposed by his glassy cage, he cannot include them. Until our elites find a way to reopen communication between social theory and social science—and to the theological debates central to the development of modern liberalism from its origins—they seem destined to address the social storm that now rages around us from an uncanny and unnatural remove.