Militant Democracy Comes to the Metaverse
27 Pages Posted: 2 Aug 2022 Last revised: 21 Jan 2023
Date Written: July 22, 2022
Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Parlor are an increasingly central plank of the democratic public sphere in the United States. The prevailing view of this platform-based public sphere has of late become increasingly dour and pessimistic. What were once seen as a “technology of liberation” has come to be understood to act a channel and amplifier of “antisystem” forces in democracies. This is not the first time, however, that a private actor that operates as a necessary part of the democratic system has turned out to be a threat to the quality of democracy itself: The same was true for parties of the extreme left and extreme right in postwar Europe. The principal theoretical lens through which those earlier challenges were analyzed traveled under the label of “militant democracy,” a term coined by the émigré German political scientist Karl Loewenstein.
This essay uses the lens of militant democracy theory to think about the challenge posed by digital platforms to democracy today. It draws two main lessons. First, the social digital platform/democracy problem is structurally similar to the challenge of antisystem parties that Loewenstein’s militant democracy theory was crafted to meet. This insight leads, secondly, to an opportunity to explore the practical and theoretical space of militant democracy for insights into democracy’s contemporary challenge from social media. While I make no claim that it is possible to read off in some mechanical way effectual interventions today from yesterday’s experience with anti-democratic parties, I do suggest that the debate on militant democracy has broad-brush lessons for contemporary debates. This illuminates, at least in general terms, the sort of legal and reform strategies that are more likely to be successful, and those that are likely to fail as pro-democracy moves in respect to digital platforms.
Keywords: Social media; democracy; First Amendment; militant democracy
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