We Americans tend to think of democracy as our national birthright rather than as a fragile achievement that depends on social conditions subject to decay. We spend a lot of time celebrating our pluralism—it deserves celebration—but we sometimes forget that a political community is possible only where people have certain things in common. Without some common beliefs about what is true and what is false, what is real and what is fantasy, the political debates that are the lifeblood of democracy quickly degenerate into mutually unintelligible shouting matches, until words give way to blows.
That is what happened on January 6 in Washington D.C. A mob of Trump supporters, whipped into a fury by the president himself, stormed the U.S. Capitol in order to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s electoral victory. Their parallel universe of conspiracy theories, echoed and amplified by Trump every day since the election, suddenly broke out of the confines of social media and into the real world, where reckless words can still draw blood. Five people, including a police officer, died as a result of the failed insurrection. The former vice president, who had finally refused to help Trump sabotage the certification, came within minutes of being confronted by rioters chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” Lawmakers hid behind barricaded doors as gangs of QAnon devotees and white supremacists roamed the halls of the Capitol, trashing offices and shouting violent threats.
All this was the predictable consequence of a political environment where even the most basic facts are in dispute, and where unwelcome realties are immediately dismissed by nearly half the country as “fake news.” It would be foolish to imagine this problem will simply disappear now that Trump has left office. Rapid technological and cultural changes are distorting our politics in ways we are only now beginning to reckon with. When the Founders enshrined a free press in the Bill of Rights, it was partly because, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.” But today the biggest obstacle to a well-informed citizenry is not government censorship or even Big Tech gatekeeping but the well-documented tendency of social media to insulate willful ignorance and encourage mass delusion. Today misinformation is often much more profitable than real journalism, and much of the American public appears to have little immunity to it.