After we sent the paper off to the printer last week, I picked up the April issue of The Atlantic that somebody left on the kitchen counter. It was folded open to page 41, where Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantsev write, “The civic habits necessary for a functioning republic have been killed off by an internet kleptocracy that profits from disinformation, polarization, and rage.” Their commentary on the destruction of fundamental democratic values in the U.S. got me thinking about the effects of the internet on life in our own towns.
I had just finished working on the story about Wellfleet’s town election, in which only one candidate for select board will be on the ballot, even though there are two seats to be filled. Interviews with eight current and former select board members and candidates produced conflicting theories about why no one had come forward to vie for the spot Justina Carlson is giving up: the meetings are too long, the pay is too low, the job is thankless and emotionally draining.
The Atlantic writers set up their argument with a history lesson about why this problem matters: Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America, which he wrote in the 1830s after nine months of travel and observation of our civic life and why it works. “Famously, he found many of the answers in state, local, and even neighborhood institutions,” they write. “He liked the traditions of local democracy … the ‘township institutions’ that ‘give the people the taste for freedom and the art of being free.’ ”
That art, they argue, is disappearing as Americans lose the habit of working together to solve problems. They put the blame squarely on internet culture, social media, and the all-powerful tech corporations that make the rules.
“Instead of participating in civic organizations that give them a sense of community as well as practical experience in tolerance and consensus-building, Americans join internet mobs,” they write. “Instead of entering a real-life public square, they drift anonymously into digital spaces where they rarely meet opponents; when they do, it is only to vilify them…. Instead of the procedural regulations that guide a real-life town meeting, conversation is ruled by algorithms that are designed to capture attention, harvest data, and sell advertising. The voices of the angriest, most emotional, most divisive — and often the most duplicitous — participants are amplified.”
I’m not sure Applebaum and Pomerantsev are right that we can somehow take back the internet at this point. I say we start small, using a tried-and-true discipline that predates de Toqueville — independent local reporting. One way we’ll know we’re making progress? When more and better-informed candidates want to be the creators of our civic life here.