THR Web Features   /   November 10, 2020

The Rise of Vetocracy

Donald Trump Was Only the Symptom

Eric B. Schnurer

( Someone displaying the "talk to the hand gesture" to the camera. Peterlocicero via Wikimedia Commons.)

The 2020 election has made clear that we remain a deeply divided nation. Almost equal numbers voted for fundamentally different visions of what America should be. Perhaps more crucially, Donald Trump and his supporters stand poised to reject the outcome—and, indeed, virtually all institution—as illegitimate. But had Trump prevailed (or if he still does), Democratic voters, equally, would reject the election as stolen by a government that slow-walked mail ballots, disfranchised minority voters, and stacked the judiciary.

Commentators across the political spectrum now vie to ascribe this state of affairs to endemic racism, economic angst, anachronistic structural peculiarities of our political system, the arrogance of elites, or countless other factors. But the antagonisms engulfing our country—in fact, the world—owe their existence to something far deeper: our technologies.

Technologies shape culture, politics, and economics as much as the other way around. For instance, most of our own social and governmental institutions today—prisons, hospitals and nursing homes, welfare systems, even schools—were shaped both literally and figuratively by that great embodiment of the Industrial Revolution: the factory.

The common view that we’re now experiencing the rise of authoritarianism—as countless books since 2016 with titles like The Road to Unfreedom and How Democracy Dies all attest—misunderstands our technological and social moment. There are many ways in which today’s technologies are being deployed to monitor and control individuals’ behavior by both dictatorially inclined governments and monopolistically inclined corporations, but we nevertheless are simultaneously living at a time of hyper-democratization.

Today’s digital technologies—from the Internet, to the platform model and mobile apps, to blockchain and other distributed applications—are radically democratizing access to, and choice among, goods and services. They are decentralizing both the pen and the sword (or, at least, their twenty-first-century equivalents). They are undermining authority both in the physical world and the metaphysical realm, with “truth” as a meaningful concept the biggest casualty.

These advances are in many ways liberating, but the result is not (as was originally expected) at all “liberal,” in the classical sense of the word. Rather, our technologies have not so much universalized our ability to attain what we want as they have thoroughly distributed the power to say “no” to everyone else’s choices—as the dominance of trolls and threats in virtually all online discourse illustrates. This is reflected in our politics: Government has descended into near-permanent deadlock. The resulting populist movements, on both the right and left, are highly democratic: intensely broad-based and grassroots, and at least rhetorically anti-elite. But they are neither liberal nor tolerant. On an operational level, it has become more important to “own the libs” or “cancel conservatives” than to achieve any meaningful objective, let alone compromise. All opposition is now treated as an existential threat.

Yet the increasing acceptance of incivility, the denigration and ridicule of opponents, the political violence and even death threats against anyone who takes a position that someone dislikes isn’t the problem itself. It’s simply the iceberg’s tip of a deeper and larger social phenomenon that constitutes our new normal. That new normal, in short, rather than either autocracy or democracy, is vetocracy: Thomas Hobbes’s “state of nature,” but one in which weak and strong alike can thwart each other’s objectives yet none can attain their own.

It is essential to recognize that this is neither simply a political nor a passing phenomenon. Our technologies are driving this broader sociological superstructure, not just in the obvious ways of rendering jobs obsolete, enlarging global connections, amplifying anger and trolling, or elevating a politician like Trump who perfectly reflects, and intuits how to exploit, the resulting anxieties. Rather, technology today makes it increasingly possible to “cancel everyone.” Yes, the technological advances of the Cold War, in nuclear weaponry and mass communications, made possible both the obliteration of all human life and the advent of modern totalitarianism. But these were one-to-many technologies. The decentralized, networked technologies of today, in contrast, are many-to-many: Anyone can cancel everyone.

Technology increasingly has democratized the use of force. The lethal power of weaponry a single individual can wield has advanced from fists to Special Forces-grade firearms to Weapons of Mass Destruction whose components are now available, literally, by mail-order. This geometrically increasing destructive ability of any one individual extends beyond the physical to crippling virtual attacks on governments, corporations, and even the global economy as a whole, costing trillions of dollars.

It’s not hard to imagine a world where almost anyone can destroy just about anyone or anything he or she opposes, as such well-regarded and thoughtful books as The Future of Violence or Click Here to Kill Everybody can attest. We are not yet at the point where some solo, Bond-movie villain can take down the entire world economy, and perhaps indeed every living soul on the planet. But we’re not so far from it that it’s not worth considering such a state as the limit we are rapidly approaching. Indeed, in some ways things are worse, because the “home versions” of such technologies—such as mail-order pathogens—are already readily available.

It’s not hard to see why, in such a technological environment, we are coming apart as a society. Today’s technology is all about decentralization, disaggregation, and individualization; it is, despite being called “social media,” inherently anti-social in the most fundamental sense. During the vice presidential debate, Mike Pence repeatedly resorted to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous line, “you’re not entitled to your own facts.” But the Internet has created an information democracy in which most people, especially Pence’s own supporters, feel entitled to exactly that. As a result, it gets harder every day to see how we avoid some level of violent civil conflict; indeed, many would argue we’re already in it.

And we are likely to grow more divided, not less. In most countries, there are getting to be as many political parties for niche interests as there are cable channels; we would see the same in the United States already, except that our electoral system channels voters into putative-majority coalitions (our two parties) before rather than after elections (and even here, both parties have been splintering for some time, with only loyalty to or loathing of Trump holding them together). As I wrote three years ago:

Political parties very well might be headed the way of newspapers, TV networks, record manufacturers, hotels, cab companies and countless other "authorities" and industry incumbents that were undermined or rendered obsolete by new technologies that make it possible to unbundle services, democratize their provision and allow consumers to assemble their own personal bundles…. It very well may be, as well, that the aggregating and mediating function of parties is just another casualty of the atomizing and polarizing force of the new technologies on society as we have known it.

In short, the problem isn’t simply an election-year division of one large “side” versus another; it’s, in every area of culture, discourse, economics, and politics, a multiplicity of individualist interests resulting in a Hobbesian “war of all against all,” where, in Margaret Thatcher’s words, “there is no such thing as society.” The irony of this technological broadening of individual choice is that freeing us from the enforced conformity of yesteryear also frees us from shared experiences and social norms; rather than leaving everyone satisfied that each has her own personalized option, it instead leaves many feeling isolated and those feeling alienated empowered to strike back. You see this every day, in all political and social interactions. Increasingly, our discourse is not about the obligation to do as one should, but rather the power and right to do as one may—as if the existence of the latter obviates the former. Anger and envy are hardly unique to this moment; rather, what is different now is not simply the desire to punish but also the widespread ability to do so, and its increasing acceptability—if not, indeed, desirability.

Mathematical “game theory” provides one helpful way to think about our current social interactions and governance. When viewed through this theory, several well-known “games” recur frequently in the real world and explain why people pursuing their own ends often produce anti-social outcomes. These behaviors have fairly self-explanatory nicknames, such as “chicken” and “deadlock.” There’s one “game” in which some people are “chickens” but others adopt “deadlock” behavior, willing to blow up themselves and everyone else if they don’t get their way. The game is called “bully,” and the risk-averse chickens quickly give in to the player threatening “deadlock.” The more reckless one is (or the more willing to appear reckless), the further ahead one will come out in such contests.

It’s clear that “bully” is increasingly applicable to our entire society today. In just the most visible example, large numbers of Americans feel they should be able to flood the public commons with actual, not just virtual, viruses, in effect forcing the “chickens,” who prefer to “cooperate” (as it’s called in game theory) out of the commons completely. It’s not surprising that they’re enthralled by a bully-in-chief. There are illiberal, “bullying” tendencies on the left, as well, ranging from violence on the extremes to the censoring of disagreeable speech and thought within even mainstream institutions.

If our spiraling polarization was inevitable—or at least technologically determined—is there anything we can do about it? Thankfully, the answer is yes; we still possess agency to shape the movements of history. But these answers are no more simple or quick than the problems they address:

  • Creating networked, instead of massed, social and economic structures. What got me thinking about “bully” twenty years ago was the ubiquity of the means of mass-destruction in the context of terrorism. In our pre-9/11 world full of weapons of mass destruction, stability nonetheless could be achieved when they were concentrated in a few large states, because rational actors are deterred by Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). But where the power to “cancel everyone” is widely distributed, it takes only one extremist to believe it’s better to blow up the entire world. Completely different thinking—call it Mutually Assured Survival Systems (MASS)—is required. In what I’ve called the “Holographic Society,” physical and virtual redundancy—distributing the defense to distributed threats—can deter “canceling everyone” by rendering it futile because there will always be survivors. That will require large-scale social shifts over the long run, and, as Keynes said, in the long run we’re all dead. On the other hand, Covid-19 already has accelerated the shift to more networked and distributed patterns of living, working, producing, and consuming.
  • Expanding opportunity for the aggrieved. Similarly, at least if played between rational actors, the most likely outcome of a potentially deadly game of “bully” such as we’re locked in today is something resembling the “maximin” result suggested by the philosopher John Rawls—not total equality, but everyone, even the least well-off in society, able to exact with their veto at least a minimally acceptable outcome. There is probably, then, a rational, equitable, and stable long-run resolution to our current situation. We might even reach such a positive resolution sooner, by proactively striving for more just and equitable outcomes for the socially disgruntled and economically dislocated, plenty of whom can be found on both sides of the divide, both domestically and globally. Unfortunately, our country and its current party structure have been notably deficient in addressing this. 
  • Reforming technology industries. Meanwhile, the products of our technologies, especially social media, have been structured intentionally to exacerbate their divisiveness—because this increases the profits of the companies designing and selling these technologies. But things needn’t be this way. Eventually, these companies and their products will be overtaken by other, better, business models that deploy the same technologies to more beneficent effect—just as the supercomputer, whose first widespread application was for purposes of war, now provides countless benign consumer services from the palm of virtually everyone’s hand. Of course, public policy could hasten this result.
  • Allowing people to opt-out and opt-in. I’ve argued elsewhere that separate virtual “countries,” in which we choose our policies and what we’re willing to pay for them by choosing a “provider” rather than by participating in elections, are the probable technological end-point of our current democratization. This, too, will eventually ease the tensions within our politics by reducing them to simply another consumer choice, allowing everyone to live as he or she chooses without having to submit to the will of the majority. But it won’t dissipate the anger of those whose concern is less that they don’t have what they want than that others do. And, unfortunately, both history and psychology tell us that this is a powerful motivating force.

Ultimately, deep structural forces shaped by our technologies are driving us further and further apart. Donald Trump was not their cause but simply their predictable result. The problems won’t be cured simply by his defeat. We’re in for a much longer period of even more difficult technological and societal change. The immediate challenge is our vetocracy, in which anyone can, and does, say “no” to what everyone else wants. No society can exist like that. We need to find a way to say “yes” to each other. We used to have a technology for doing so. It was called “politics.” We have only a limited time to rediscover how to use it.