As the forces of reaction outpace movements predicated on the ideal of progress, and as traditional norms of political competition are tossed aside, it’s clear that the internet and social media have succeeded in doing what many feared and some hoped they would. They have disrupted and destroyed institutional constraints on what can be said, when and where it can be said and who can say it.
Even though in one sense President Trump’s victory in 2016 fulfilled conventional expectations — because it prevented a third straight Democratic term in the White House — it also revealed that the internet and its offspring have overridden the traditional American political system of alternating left-right advantage. They are contributing — perhaps irreversibly — to the decay of traditional moral and ethical constraints in American politics.
The use of digital technology in the 2016 election “represents the latest chapter in the disintegration of legacy institutions that had set bounds for American politics in the postwar era,” Nathaniel Persily, a law professor at Stanford, writes in a forthcoming paper, “Can American Democracy Survive the Internet?”
According to Persily, the Trump campaign was “totally unprecedented in its breaking of established norms of politics.” He argues that
this type of campaign is only successful in a context in which certain established institutions — particularly, the mainstream media and political party organizations — have lost most of their power, both in the United States and around the world.