The former president's choice not to return to the platform is bad for democracy
Elon Musk has unbanned Donald Trump. What does this portend? So far not much, at least not for connoisseurs of Trumpian posting spectacle: since his Twitter reinstatement, and despite Musk’s baiting, the former president has maintained an uncharacteristically dignified silence. But the response, and public reaction, does tell us something about a wider trend in online discourse that bodes ill for the Western political settlement.
When Trump was banned, many world leaders protested, concerned over what this move implied about the power of Big Tech. The subsequent argument about how to respond to this power has tended to fall into two interconnected parts. Firstly, what to do about the fact that social media concentrates an enormous amount of power in a very small number of hands? And secondly, what to do about the fact that the political consensus among this relatively small group of individuals skews heavily progressive?
Progressive postliberals — that subset of the elite for whom authoritarian measures are fine as long as they’re ordered to woke ideals — by and large shrugged at this dilemma, because they seemed to be winning. Who cares if censorship is now overt, as long as our people have the keys to the censorship machine?
This situation forms the backdrop to much of the howling since Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, which has for some years now been a key crucible for elite opinion-formation. While it would be a mistake for the Right to imagine that Elon Musk is ‘on their side’, it’s been clear since he marched into Twitter’s headquarters holding a sink that he is not on the progressive postliberal ‘side’ either.
Far from it: Musk has taken direct aim at the consolidated cultural power of progressive postliberals on Twitter, first by undermining the cultural cachet of the ‘blue tick’, then by sacking many of the Twitter employees tasked with policing discourse on the platform. Of course, this group’s overall political sympathies were, in aggregate, clear to everyone.
But this ideological de-fanging may not succeed in restoring the platform as a public square. For if Musk is directing his considerable resources at forcing it back toward some kind of neutrality, it’s far from clear that people even want a neutral public square any more.
Trump has snubbed Twitter, stating elsewhere that he didn’t ‘see any reason’ for returning. He seemingly prefers to remain on Truth Social, the network he created after being de-platformed and which, with an estimated two million active users, serves as his personal echo chamber and megaphone. And if Trump has built his own echo chamber, those progressive postliberals most incensed about their loss of institutional dominance on Twitter have also begun loudly constructing their own. Wherever they go, as far as they’re concerned, that’s where the party is.
To date, the platform of choice has been Mastodon, and early indications are that this departure is experiencing some teething troubles. But whether or not their attempt at moving the party elsewhere succeeds, the larger trend is toward proliferating political extremisms, each with their own congenial platform and set of norms. This trend bodes ill for democracy.
As a political form, democracy rests on collective acceptance that everyone voting belongs to the same political community, and as such the ‘losing’ side is willing to abide by the overall result. What happens when very large subsets of the electorate are accustomed to viewing as ‘their people’ only those circumscribed by the norms of Truth Social — or Mastodon, or wherever?
In that context, it may become increasingly difficult to see what, in cultural terms, holds the larger polity together and enables losers’ consent to endure. At that point, only those electorates still bound together by hyper-local interests and commonalities will be able to convene enough solidarity across the political aisle to tolerate ‘losing’ in a general vote. Should this continue, at the larger scale we may see ‘election deniers’ go from the shocking political exception to the grim political norm.