Second in a series.

Populism: Traditional Community vs. Virtual Community

If, as I noted last week, populism is a logical result of our communications revolution that, to an extent never dreamed before, has empowered individuals to control their own destinies, more needs to be said about its other effects. Specifically, populists seem to have the incongruent goals of both expanding individual liberty and strengthening the bonds of community. 

But before we can harmonize populists’ dual hopes, let’s be honest about the historic peril and general trend of populism: collectivism.

The very communications revolution propelling populist movements amplifies the collectivist temptation through the increasingly common misperception that virtual community doesn’t augment but rather supplants traditional community. 

This is no Luddite paean for the “good old days” when you couldn’t even get an AM radio signal on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The internet is a tool, the benefits or detriments of which depend upon how one uses it and for what purposes.  

One growing purpose is the participation in virtual communities, especially those with a partisan bent. There is nothing inherently nefarious in such participation, as an informed and active citizenry is essential to the preservation of our free republic. Nonetheless, the burgeoning problem is when individuals elevate virtual community over traditional community—the day to day, eye to eye, pleasant and unpleasant physical interactions between human beings. After all, you can’t hug in cyberspace. 

Such human interaction within an actual, physical, pluralistic community with its untidy encounters and its necessity for daily compromises and bitten tongues cannot be underestimated for its salubrious effects upon the political sphere. For example, a plumber’s view of Trump is irrelevant to his ability to fix a customer’s sink. Both the customer and the plumber know it, ignore it, and abide—for they share the same transactional goal of unclogging the sink for a reasonable fee.  

If enough of our fellow citizens fall into the rabbit hole of rabid politicization within their insular virtual worlds, traditional community itself becomes endangered.

Thus, does the mundane nature of our daily routines within a pluralistic, traditional community keeps politics from becoming all-consuming for the vast majority of Americans who have remained a practical—not ideological—people. In sum, in the pluralistic real world, politics is rightly viewed as a part of life, not as life and death.

Not so within the ideological fever swamps of political virtual communities. Intrinsically devoid of direct physical interaction, participants exacerbate their insularity by eliminating to the greatest extent possible any real-world vestiges of political pluralism and its attendant tolerance for opposing views. While such virtual communities obviously increase the amount of political discourse, these cyber combatants also degrade it by elevating the political above all else.

Ensconced behind a laptop—armed with nothing but a nom de guerre, talking points, and vitriol—how easy it is to garner the praise of one’s comrades within their chosen virtual community by sliming their enemies. For once one enters a rigid silo of partisanship in a virtual community, one becomes insulated from the real world and its mundane pluralism. One becomes susceptible to, and over time a victim of, the delusion that everything in life is political. 

Then, if enough of our fellow citizens fall into the rabbit hole of rabid politicization within their insular virtual worlds, traditional community itself becomes endangered.  

After all, once a virtual community has inured someone to the intimacy of traditional community with both foes and friends, that person has already begun the process of depersonalizing himself. How much more readily, then, will one dehumanize his opponents into a nameless, faceless enemy to be eradicated? 

With a few keystrokes, one can stoke the hatred among like-minded monsters in their virtual community to demonize and destroy the hated “other.” Though alone in a room, a mob mentality takes hold, compelling one to seek abstract notions of “justice” by sacrificing one’s actual liberty to a brutally efficient Leviathan. 

Ultimately, when enough of these virtual Jacobins connect and combine with political actors equally eager to recreate a humanity none of them know except through the prism of their abstract ideology, a critical mass is reached; and next descends the community of tyranny.

Regardless of the “-ism” spawning it, the community of tyranny will have a cult of personality attached to the “leader.” But the repression these regimes unleash are performed by their ideological minions on behalf of the common good—i.e., the community of tyranny conjured into existence by the deadened moral sensibilities of corrupted populists who, by supplanting traditional community with virtual community, clutched at the chains of tyranny for an ephemeral sense of identity and belonging.

Worse yet, the administrative state is abetting the primacy of virtual community over traditional community with both populists and the entire citizenry by deliberately usurping the powers of the people and eradicating the voluntary mediating institutions that preserve and promote the liberty of the individual against infringement by government.

All is by no means lost. There is a segment of our citizenry that yearns for traditional community. But their yearning is often misunderstood since it is filtered through the vocabulary of the Left, by which they’ve been indoctrinated. But in their attitudes and deeds springs a font of hope for harmonizing and attaining the dual populist goals of preserving and promoting individual liberty and the virtues of traditional community.

In fact, they are already doing so—even as they stand on the precipice of the collectivist abyss. 

Find out who and how next week, as we conclude our series by harmonizing the two noble goals of populism.

About Thaddeus G. McCotter

The Hon. Thaddeus McCotter is the former chairman of the Republican House Policy Committee, current itinerant guitarist, American Greatness contributor, and Monday co-host of the "John Batchelor Show."

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