The New Majority Tyranny as the Old Oligarchic Despotism

In modern times, human flourishing takes place only in civil societies that have broad protections for individual liberty and public freedom. Historically, the biggest threat to those liberties has come from the government. Alexis de Tocqueville predicted that in modern democratic societies, majority opinion in a form of cancel culture could become even more tyrannical than governmental tyranny; but so long as the press remained free and decentralized, this threat would be neutralized. 

Today, the oligarchs of Big Tech have removed those protections by controlling most of the influential levers of public opinion, leaving American citizens vulnerable to a new form of tyranny that Tocqueville could scarcely imagine. Without these traditional securities for liberty, civil society will struggle to provide adequate protections for human flourishing, leaving human happiness dependent upon the whims of Big Tech oligarchs.

Emblazoned around the interior of the stone rotunda of the Jefferson Memorial are the immortal words: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Today a monopolistic Big Tech and a pernicious cancel culture unite into a form of tyranny distinct from any Jefferson foresaw and perhaps—because it threatens not only the liberty but also the minds of men—more powerful than any he imagined.

The Big Tech phenomenon arises from the combination of ingenious communications technology, unprecedented market popularity, and a caste of feeble politicians unwilling to defend the polity from immense corporate power. The result is that a handful of companies command the predominant means for communication in the American regime. 

We are witnessing a wholly new condition on the political stage. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: “Never in the history of mankind has so much, of so many, been made so dependent on so few.”  

These technological oligarchs have the power to take over and mechanize cancel culture. They do so by using their technology to shrink and effectively disappear the propagation of opinions they find unacceptable.

In response to pro-slavery mobs that denied him a speaking opportunity, Frederick Douglass defended such public fora as “the great moral renovator of society and government.” Tyrants, he warned, dread such exchanges of opinion, and liberty is meaningless where such practices do not exist.  

Of course, Big Tech purportedly deploys its power on behalf of civil society itself. It only seems fair, then, for civil society to be able to voice an opinion about the use of that power. 

What should be done, however, is not immediately clear. In his concurrence in Biden v. Knight First Amendment Institute, Justice Thomas lays out the complexity of the issue. In that case, the trial court had ruled that President Trump violated the First Amendment by blocking the plaintiffs from commenting on his Twitter account, a decision with which the appeals court agreed. The case turned paradoxical, however, when Twitter subsequently blocked Trump from the entire platform. 

The Court dismissed the case as moot given the change in administrations, but Justice Thomas’s comments show that platitudes like “private social media companies can do whatever they want” are no longer satisfying. Thomas notes: “Today’s digital platforms provide avenues for historically unprecedented amounts of speech, including speech by government actors. Also unprecedented, however, is the concentrated control of so much speech in the hands of a few private parties.” Thomas then concludes: “We will soon have no choice but to address how our legal doctrines apply to highly concentrated, privately owned information infrastructure such as digital platforms.”

With that moment approaching, how ought we, then, to begin thinking about this issue? Consider the matter in light of a few observations Alexis de Tocqueville makes on the nature of majority rule and freedom of the press.

Majority Tyranny and the Power of the Press

What we are experiencing as cancel culture, Tocqueville foresaw as a peculiar form of tyranny of the majority. In democratic societies, he realized, the perceived majority opinion has an influence on individuals who—rightly or wrongly—think of themselves in the minority that is so powerful it rivals “all the powers that we know in Europe.” 

Hidden within the sophistic distinction betweenfreedom of speech” and “freedom of reach” defenders of Big Tech use to justify Big Tech’s use of censorship, lies a horrifying impulse. In the most haunting passage in Democracy in America, Tocqueville depicts majority tyranny as a slavemaster castigating an individual with heterodox views in a way eerily evocative of today’s cancel culture: 

The master no longer says: You will think like me or die; he says: You are free not to think as I do; your life, your goods, everything remains with you; but from this day on you are a stranger among us. You will keep your privileges as a citizen, but they will become useless to you. If you aspire to be the choice of your fellow citizens, they will not choose you, and if you ask only for their esteem, they will still pretend to refuse it to you. You will remain among men, but you will lose your rights to humanity. When you approach your fellows, they will flee from you like an impure being. And those who believe in your innocence, even they will abandon you, for people would flee from them in turn. Go in peace; I spare your life, but I leave you a life worse than death.

For Tocqueville, this nightmarish form of majority tyranny is the great danger to liberty in a democratic society. It is a society in which people are afraid to express their views or even to inquire into their validity. Trembling in that fear, the person loses the habit of forming bonds with others.  

In the America that Tocqueville visited, he observed that this immense power is only used for good purposes, for enforcing good morals. In other countries, he notes, “you see governments that strive to protect morals by condemning the authors of licentious books,” but not in America. Here, he writes, “no one is tempted to write them,” for majority opinion would condemn such an author to the despicable fate described above.

Critically, however, Tocqueville mentions that it is “only an accident” that this power is put to a “good usage.” Tocqueville here warns that this immense power—greater than any despotic government—could easily become a tool for evil, a “tyranny over the mind of man,” in Jefferson’s words. In order to learn what the happy accident is that turns this power to good and not to evil in American society, one must turn to Tocqueville’s observations about associations and the press, i.e., the media, in America.

A properly functioning press plays a vital role in the maintenance of a democratic regime, Tocqueville observes. In fact, he claims that “sovereignty of the people and freedom of the press are two entirely correlative things.” The former depends on the latter so much so that “in a country where the dogma of sovereignty of the people openly reigns, censorship is not only a danger, but also a great absurdity.”

What causes this great power to be salutary and not harmful to popular government? Two particular circumstances: the great number and the high degree of decentralization of newspapers in America. “The most enlightened Americans,” Tocqueville records, “attribute the lack of power of the press to this incredible scattering of its strength.” 

“It is an axiom of political science in the United States,” he continues, “that the sole means of neutralizing the effects of newspapers is to multiply their number.”  Tocqueville observed, in contrast, that the press in France was centralized in a few hands, an observation reminiscent of today’s Tech Oligarchy. 

The lesson is clear: When people feel they have the freedom to engage in the business of building their society, they reach out to others to seek their support, to test their viewpoints in search of the truth, and to persuade them. Through those encounters, they often establish goodwill, even where they do not reach agreement. People form associations and depend on a free and accessible press to advance this process. But when people are denied a share in building their society, and when they are excluded from sharing their opinions with others, they are marginalized and the stage is set for tyranny.

Big Tech’s Effect on Press Decentralization

The conditions that prevailed in Tocqueville’s day have now changed. The relatively few digital media companies that dominate the market today function as giant filters for access to the American public. These Big Tech companies effectively have decreased the number of and centralized the sources by which American citizens receive information.

Accordingly, all other media sources increasingly are required to depend on these few, centralized filters, effectively reversing the happy “accident” that prevented the press from becoming tyrannical in Tocqueville’s day. A case in point is Twitter and Facebook’s suppression of the New York Post‘s story about Hunter Biden’s laptop ahead of the 2020 election. 

On the one hand, then, the pernicious tendency that always exists in democratic society toward majority tyranny has now been unleashed by technology in a novel way. On the other hand, Big Tech’s mechanization of cancel culture is anything but democratic. 

We are witnessing a transformation from democratic into oligarchic rule, technologically enhanced and hidden under a democratic guise. Our Big Technocrats purport to be merely organs of popular opinion, but in reality they are superintendents of it, nudging it in the direction they believe it ought to go when it gets distracted by things like, well, populist movements.

Consider that Twitter decided for the 89 million people who followed Donald Trump’s account that they were not allowed to do so any longer, that the preservation of democracy required it. Recently Twitter also determined that it will not even allow the National Archives to store preserved versions of the former president’s tweets. 

The question of whether such action was justified should be debatable; the question of whether it is tyrannical for Jack Dorsey alone to settle that debate is not.

Big Tech companies effectively leverage cancel culture—i.e., the latent tendency within democracy to become tyrannical—to justify its censorship and thereby to accomplish what government otherwise would not be able to.

Witness Amazon’s refusal to sell Ryan T. Anderson’s book on its platform; Tik Tok’s ban of PragerU videos; Google and YouTube’s arbitrary and capricious threats to deplatform conservative sources; Twitter and Facebook’s nebulous and inconsistent policies about what is and is not considered “fake news.”

Consider then these quotations by Tocqueville, in which the word majority has been substituted with Big Tech:

The Inquisition was never able to prevent the circulation in Spain of books opposed to the religion of the greatest number. The dominion of [Big Tech] does better in the United States: it has removed even the thought of publishing such books. Unbelievers are found in America, but unbelief finds, so to speak, no organ there.

Today, the most absolute sovereigns of Europe cannot prevent certain ideas hostile to their authority from circulating silently within their States . . . It is not the same in America; as long as the [determination of Big Tech] is uncertain, people speak; but as soon as [Big Tech] has irrevocably decided, everyone is silent, and friends as well as enemies then seem to climb on board together.

In America, [Big Tech] draws a formidable circle around thought. Within these limits, the writer is free; but woe to him if he dares to go beyond them.

In a separate note on this chapter in Democracy in America, Tocqueville expands on the reason why majority tyranny differs from and surpasses that of a single person exercising tyranny. “A man,” he writes, “never able to obtain the voluntary support of the mass, cannot inflict on his enemy the moral torment that arises from isolation and public scorn.” This note further amplifies the way that Big Tech has co-opted this more noxious form of tyranny: Big Tech is capable of manufacturing a semblance of “support of the mass” in order to inflict a feeling of “isolation and public scorn” on its victim.

Freedom of the Press and the Health of Civil Society

In 19th-century France, Tocqueville observes, the press was centralized in a few hands, giving it immense power to shape public opinion. At the same time in America, conditions were different. Newspapers there were scattered across the states. As a result, the American press was unable to “establish great waves of opinion” such that “the personal views expressed by journalists have no weight, so to speak, in the eyes of readers.”

Buttressed by the guardrail of competition, the press performs valuable functions for civil society in Tocqueville’s estimation. It brings political life to all corners of the country. It illuminates the inner workings of government and forces “public men, one by one, to appear before the court of opinion.” It serves as a tool for rallying citizens around causes and for formulating the creeds of political parties. Moreover, an oppressed citizen always finds in the free press an organ through which to voice his grievance and thereby to defend himself by appealing to the nation or to all of humanity.

These benefits cease, of course, if the press is not an effectively free organ of popular opinion.

The potential for Big Tech—having effectively neutered the potency of the press—to abuse the tranquility of the common life of the citizenry is even more troubling. Every despot, Tocqueville notes, “sees in the isolation of men the most certain guarantee of its own duration, and it ordinarily puts all its efforts into isolating them.” To achieve this goal, the despot must limit discussion and debate on the matters it perceives as crucial to the maintenance of its power and agenda.

Furthermore, such measures involve curtailing part of the very essence of citizens’ humanity: the yearning to reach out to others—human and divine—to associate with them and seek common understanding; in a word, curtailing friendship.

In terms of civil society, the ability to speak and associate with others is in fact a creative process that affirms the dignity of the participants and contributes to social tranquility and cohesion. At the end of the day, the despot perceives such unity as a threat to his power. He “easily pardons the governed for not loving him, provided that they do not love each other.”

If Tocqueville is right that “sovereignty of the people and freedom of the press are two entirely correlative things,” then too much is at stake for that freedom to be placed generally at the whimsical mercy of the oligarchs of Big Tech. To paraphrase Tocqueville again, absolute monarchies had dishonored despotism. Let us be careful that Big Tech—under the guise of protecting democracy—does not rehabilitate it.

About Emmett McGroarty and Clifford Humphrey

Emmett McGroarty and Clifford Humphrey are fellows at the Program on the Constitution and Catholic Social Doctrine in the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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