In his essay “Liberalism and Its Discontents,” Francis Fukuyama defines classical liberalism as an “institutional solution to the problem of governing over diversity.” This problem became existential after the Protestant Reformation and the religious wars that followed it, Fukuyama writes; what we call liberalism today was “simply a pragmatic tool for resolving conflicts in diverse societies,” meant to “lower the temperature of politics by taking questions of final ends off the table and moving them into the sphere of private life.”
That tool has taken many forms throughout its history, not all of which fit our contemporary needs. “Liberalism’s present-day crisis is not new,” Fukuyama says, and the economic and social policies that liberal societies should pursue today is a “wide-open question.”
But his implied answers to it—reinvesting in public services, beefing up the welfare state, revisiting post-1980s trade agreements—assume that yesterday’s liberalism can save today’s, with Cold War social democracy as the tacit template. And this assumption stems from an underdiagnosis of the problem that liberalism arose to solve. It wasn’t just diversity that demanded a solution; it was also technology, and the new experiences of diversity it brought about. But since today’s technological conditions look nothing like those of the 16th century or even those of the 20th, the problem of pluralism in the 21st century is historically unique—which means that any proper solution to it will look quite different from liberalism’s past incarnations.
Liberalism would not have arisen without Protestantism. But Protestantism would not have arisen without the printing press. Printed pamphlets allowed the new faith to proselytize at scale and, in doing so, created the conflicts that liberalism helped solve. But even after those conflicts ended, the hegemony of print buttressed liberal institutions in at least three ways.
First, it greatly reduced the costs of administrative coordination. Liberalism depends on a strong, centralized state to protect the various rights it promises. The viability of such a state, in turn, depends on efficient communication among its agents, something the printing press made possible. So although print media created conflict, it also created the bureaucratic means to mitigate it.
Second, the printing press changed the way words were experienced. Print culture, as L.M. Sacasas has argued, made it easy to believe that “truth would triumph in the marketplace of ideas:” Because “[w]riting and reading are slow and deliberate,” they encourage “the belief that false ideas will eventually be rejected by anyone trained to think.” Paradoxically, then, print promised to resolve disagreements even as it produced them, thus lowering the apparent risks of liberal toleration.
Finally, the print medium allowed for only so much diversity, which meant that liberalism confronted only so many conflicts. A printed pamphlet could spread heresies far and wide but could also spread denunciations of them—so, provided elites maintained their monopoly on the presses, they could maintain a monopoly on the narrative. That’s part of what made “his realm, his religion” a viable settlement after the Thirty Years’ War. Because princes had print and peasants didn’t have iPhones, the former retained some degree of epistemic dominance over the latter—more than would be possible today.
This informational asymmetry persisted into the televisual age. Radio and television, the two defining communications technologies of the 20th century, remained reasonably centralized. They gave the public access to information, but also gave elites a fair bit of latitude in determining what information the public could access. In fact, they arguably made gatekeeping easier than it had been from the Thirty Years’ War to World War I, because they let a standardized narrative be blasted into everyone’s home 24/7.
There was still diversity, of course, and liberal institutions still helped manage it. But those institutions could take for granted a “Judeo-Christian” consensus that excluded much of the world, giving liberal societies a circumscribed but shared vocabulary for settling social conflicts. Under different technological conditions, this consensus might never have formed; had it not formed, liberalism might not have worked so well for so long.
But we no longer live in the televisual age; we live in the digital one. Its animating technologies are the smartphone, the social media platform, the search engine, and the world wide web, whose combined effect has been to create both unprecedented diversity and unprecedented means of controlling it—a paradox that has challenged liberal society in entirely new ways.
The most recent illustration of that paradox occurred from January 6 to January 9. Egged on by the Very Online Donald Trump, a motley mob of cultists, cosplayers, gun nuts, Nazis, and even normies stormed the U.S. Capitol in a blaze of livestreamed surreality, killing four and nearly killing more. By January 8 Trump had been forever banned from most social media platforms, including his beloved Twitter. By January 9 Google and Apple had dropped Parler from their app stores, and Amazon had banned it from its servers, nearly ending the pro-Trump social network overnight. (It has since found new life on Russian servers.)
This progression, from sedition to censorship, illustrates the two opposing tendencies of the digital medium: on the one hand, how it can coordinate crackpots who would have been impotent pre-internet and disseminate delusion among the otherwise well-adjusted; on the other, how it can concentrate political power in the hands of nominally private actors, letting billionaires set the terms and conditions of public debate.
And this tension stems from the structure of the medium itself. It has created universal, world-spanning platforms that have no correlate in the analogue era, such that the more speech migrates onto these new platforms, the less viable liberalism becomes in its current form. Liberal institutions were supposed to prevent anarchy without installing tyranny; a global commons makes it inherently difficult to avoid one or the other, even with robust restrictions on prior restraint. Let the platforms police themselves, and you’ll end up with either a dangerous free-for-all or an arbitrary regime of censorship, enforced by bots and billionaires rather than the public. Police the platforms through the state, and you’ll end up limiting freedom of association, either by requiring platforms to host speech with which they disagree or by preventing them from hosting speech deemed indecent, mendacious, or hateful. Destroy the platforms by revoking Section 230, and you effectively concede that some forums are so dangerous that they can’t be allowed to exist—a conclusion that contradicts liberalism’s spirit, if not its explicit premises.
There is probably a way out of this dilemma; but past incarnations of liberalism, which developed in different informational environments, probably won’t supply it.
Furthermore, the digital environs haven’t just changed the way in which speech is distributed, but the way in which speech is perceived, giving words an immediacy that can feel aggressive, unpredictable, and overwhelming. The current impulse to equate speech with “violence,” or demand a “safe space” free of disagreement, is partly a symptom of these conditions—as is the much discussed phenomenon of “cancel culture.” The internet immortalizes “violent” speech, letting it be searched and surfaced at a moment’s notice, and this makes transgressions harder to forget—or forgive. “It is not that we are more punitive or less tolerant today,” Charles Fain Lehman has argued in American Mind. It’s that we “forget far fewer of people’s past wrongdoings.”
The digital age has thus amplified diversity while eroding our cultural tolerance for it. That contradiction is pushing Big Tech toward a type of discursive despotism, in which social media are forms of social control and free speech is held hostage by corporate power. My guess is that the institutional solution to this problem, whatever it turns out to be, will bear a family resemblance to liberalism. But it may also require serious departures from liberalism in its past and present forms—and liberals should calibrate their expectations accordingly. In this sense, liberalism’s current crisis is new. Its resolution will be, too.
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