Fight Big-Tech Censorship with Low-Tech Retail Politics
Thoughts that are increasingly unthinkable online may yet find success via handbilling, door-knocking, and person-to-person conversations.
January 6 represented a turning point, not just for the U.S., but for the broader Western world. The riot on Capitol Hill was preceded by weeks of political fantasies, dreams of some decisive action that would knock the U.S. political system out of a morass that Donald Trump neither created nor proved capable of shifting. But like a wish on the monkey’s paw, what followed after the riots revealed a cruel but altogether fitting irony. Someone had clearly prepared to cross the Rubicon in the period leading up to that event; it just wasn’t a much-diminished Donald Trump.
Already, the merger of “woke” big business, professional-class “knowledge workers,” and political operators within the Democratic Party had occurred brazenly, a declaration of war in plain view of their putative opponents. In war, how one defends reveals priority, while how and where one chooses to attack indicates intent. In that vein, one can already say a lot about what the new powers that be have in store over the coming months and years. A new kind of far-reaching censorship is already being put into effect, amidst calls to start a “war on terror” against domestic political opponents, enemies lurking among the American people themselves.
The carping of free-market libertarians now sounds empty indeed, given that “just shut up and start your own social media platform” is no longer a serious suggestion even in theory. In fact, the fate of Parler is instructive. The platform was not only denied server hosting by Amazon, but completely iced out by polite society, unable to find anyone willing to provide them any sort of service, not even legal counsel. Elsewhere, calls ring out for Gab to suffer the same fate, and corporations line up to censure various “enemies of democracy,” including senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley—whose aptly named upcoming book The Tyranny of Big Tech was recently dropped by publisher Simon & Schuster after he objected to the certification of electoral college votes. Only the hopelessly credulous would look at this as some sort of temporary state of affairs before a return to political normalcy. Rather, this is the new normal, as what is happening right now amounts to a rising political and economic coalition flexing its muscles during grueling behind-the-scenes workouts. Those muscles will only become stronger and more hypertrophied in the years ahead, and as their functional ability increases, they will be used again and again.
All of this is depressing, and none of it augurs well for the future. But here one should avoid missing the forest for the trees. This censorious anger and budding political repression can be read not as a sign of overwhelming strength, but rather a startling demonstration of the weakness and vulnerability of the nascent regime. This new political order certainly has the power to censor political thought from all social media platforms, and it is in the process of shedding any lingering moral and cultural restraints on the use of that power. But to accept the idea that exclusion from TikTok is tantamount to political destruction is to (foolishly!) buy into the hype of Silicon Valley.
Political ideas, like religious ideas, generally propagate through deep social connections between living humans, rather than through anonymous, impressionistic interactions, whether these be online or not. Moreover, the primary tool of anonymous political communication is not some soon-to-be-banned Twitter user named “RonPolPot420” attempting to shake the foundations of society with braindead racist jokes but rather the humble pamphlet. The pamphlet, whether produced through a basement printing press, a stencil machine, or, in latter days, an electronic printer has served as the cornerstone of written, one-way political communication for hundreds of years, and it will remain so for centuries more.
It is in light of this unassuming piece of technology that the ultimate weakness, not the strength, of this new consensus coalition is revealed. In an age of tech monopoly, one can easily drive Parler to ruin, while banning conservatives from appearing in social media. But Parler did not exist in the time of Tsar Nicholas II, and said tsar could hardly hope to keep either the liberal democrats or the socialist revolutionaries at bay merely by invoking Facebook’s community guidelines.
To deal with decentralized printers churning out political material in the age of the tsars took an enormous police apparatus and real repression, and in the end it failed anyway, with an entire political dynasty wiped out by the revolutionaries who replaced them. To attempt to do the same in an age in which printers are household appliances, rather than bulky industrial machines, would require a totalitarian apparatus not on the scale of Tsarist Russia, but of latter-day China or mid-century Eastern Bloc states such as the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic.
This point about handbills versus social media might seem anachronistic and more than a bit naive, but it cuts to the heart of the dilemma with which conservatives are confronted. This new combination of tech-based censorship and progressive repression is likely strong enough to deny conservatives a place within the currently existing political establishment. It is easy, as we are now learning, to slowly (and not so slowly) extirpate even the most establishment-friendly dissident Republicans like Hawley and Cruz from polite society. Indeed, that is obviously the plan. We already see how platforms are being attacked, how corporations are enlisted to deny basic services, including payment services and email, and how donors shift and grow even more activist in their funding predilections. This, in turn, creates a cordon sanitaire around the “wrong” kind of Republican politicians—which, unfortunately, is all of them save the leaders of their genteel country-club elites, lovable losers represented historically by the likes of long-time party leader Robert Michel, who spent 38 years in Congress but not a single year as part of a Congressional majority, and today by Mitt Romney and other politesse-obsessed RINOs.
None can deny that this regime has the power to do all of this. But it does not have the power to deny the right to use the pamphlet and other time-tested tools of anti-establishment politics. Outside of polite society, the consensus coalition’s writ does not run, and neither the technology nor the techne of dissident politics has changed much in the last hundred years.
The political scene in Sweden provides several instructive examples. The Sweden Democrats (SD) have in the past twelve years gone from a tiny and powerless political formation to commanding nearly a quarter of the voters, breaking a century of Social Democratic hegemony in the process. All the while, SD has faced exactly the same sort of political, social and economic repression that is now in its early phases in the U.S. From antifa-style violence tacitly supported or at least tolerated by the state, to overwhelming media hostility, to party activists and members routinely getting fired or shut out of professional institutions, to not even being able to book hotels or conference halls… SD has seen all of this and more.
Similarly, on another point on the political spectrum, the Örebro Party (OP), named after the city of Örebro, serves as yet another practical example of the viability of non-establishment politics. The party leader of ÖP, Markus Allard (grandson of the well-known Social Democratic speaker of parliament, Henry Allard) has a background within the Swedish left, but now mainly describes himself and his party as populist. Founded in 2014, what makes ÖP instructive is that it stresses building functional local political machines and representation. As such, it has managed to leverage 3,000 votes in the 2018 municipal election into national name recognition and rapid creation of a number of other municipal branches, all in the span of a couple of years. And all this on a paltry party budget that wouldn’t even buy a Martha’s Vineyard summer home for D.C.’s indispensable pundit elite!
These two very different parties, taken together, illustrate a basic point: politics is a low-tech business. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you a barrel of hogwash instead of actual political services, which at least come with promises of tangible, quantifiable municipal and civic reforms. For all intents and purposes, the Sweden Democrats have already survived the not-so-tender mercies that the new consensus coalition is preparing to unleash on their American populist cousins. In fact, the party has not merely “survived,” it has thrived and grown to occupy a dominant role on the political scene. This success is not in spite of, but because of, its complete exclusion from the establishment mode of politics. Both SD and ÖP owe their political dynamism to their reliance on a low-tech, low-cost political “conscript army,” a political yeomanry rather than well-paid and well-heeled consultants and fundraisers.
It would be risible to ask whether American conservatives and populists, already expelled from the digital commons, are ready for such a mode of politics. The answer is so obvious that it hardly needs to be spelled out. The real question is whether the Republican Party would be ready for such a thing, and by and large the answer to that question is still “no.” Just like curing malaria, there simply isn’t enough money in the work to see it through to completion.
Compare the printing of pamphlets at the local print shop to building “Joe Biden Island” in some online video game that children can play on their smartphones. The latter option will always exert a significant appeal to political professionals, because the former is cheap and proven to work if accompanied by grassroots effort, while the latter is politically worthless but expensive and open to all sorts of graft. Some political professionals might argue that pamphlets and face-to-face communication will wither on the vine during an age of endless lockdowns and shelter-at-home orders, making the digital frontier the only area open to the feckless sort of “organizing” they prefer, but this denies reality: the American states and regions where face-to-face communication and pamphleteering might work are already de facto, if not de jure, open for business, and no population of this size can be kept at home permanently absent a repressive surveillance apparatus on the scale of the one operating in China. In other words, the lame sort of “doing the work” preferred by the slick-talking slacktivist political professional is still no match for the actual work of party- and machine-building.
The many sicknesses inherent to Conservatism, Inc. are not new, nor are they necessary to relitigate in depth. But those very sicknesses are, in closing, the real reason why these new Democratic attempts to destroy or cripple the GOP—at least in its current form—will likely prove successful. For a not insignificant part of the Republican Party, being thrown out of the infamous “swamp” and barred from the Beltway really is tantamount to social death. Better, then, to find another well-paid sinecure somewhere else, or even join the Democratic winning team if it seems likely they might find a use and a paycheck for your skillset.
For a lot of the professional soldiery of Western politics, the utterly moribund, politically useless, socially destructive, and economically predatory institutions they belong to are the point—these are the places where you wear the lanyard and “do the work” of moving grains of sand with an eyedropper or counting the angels on the head of a pin. For them, the coming progressive censorship will truly represent hell on earth, a frightening offensive targeting all their weak points and undermining the status, money and access they trade on. In this area, as in many others, a balanced view of the Trump phenomenon ought to grapple honestly with the continuity on display, and not just the differences. For more than a few intrepid politicos, “populism” has turned out to be just another frontier for the never-ceasing grift.
For the rest of you, however, we have some good news. Friends, the Old Gods of retail and machine politics—Boss Tweed, Huey Long, Mark Hanna, the Daleys of Chicago—are not yet dead, and the old ways are still as strong as ever. The American heartland is more than capable of lending its dormant power to confound the censors and defeat the new consensus coalition. The challenge is not whether it can be done, given that it surely can, but whether people actually want to do it. And if out-of-touch, swamp-drained Republican leaders and operatives chased off a rapidly constricting World Wide Web do not want to assist constituents in these strained communities with their political struggles, they may soon find themselves stooping to live among them once again.
Oliver Bateman is a journalist and historian who lives in Pittsburgh. He is a contributing writer to the Ringer, MEL Magazine, and Splice Today. He also serves as co-host of the “What’s Left?” podcast.
Malcom Kyeyune is a freelance writer living in Uppsala, Sweden. He also sits on the steering committee of Oikos, a Swedish conservative think tank founded in 2020 by former SD deputy party leader Mattias Karlsson.