Generations before Facebook or Twitter, Tocqueville warned that censoring the press would endanger the survival of freedom and democracy in America.
With the recent suppression of a New York Post story damaging to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, many Americans have finally had enough of the one-sided censorious behavior of tech giants. Less than three weeks before one the most contentious and fraught elections in American history, Facebook and Twitter users were alarmed when it became clear they were prevented from sharing the Post’s article detailing the sordid dealings of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.
Both citizens and lawmakers justifiably fear the enormous influence wielded by entities like Facebook, Google, and Twitter; the rise of an unchecked tech-tyranny where one side of the political aisle has its views promoted while the other side has its views punished. Nearly two centuries ago, the author of one of the most penetrating insights on American life shared similar fears of what would happen should a free press remain free in name only.
Traveling across America in the 1830s, young French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville saw a nation filled with both promise and peril. Amidst boundless opportunities, an economically vibrant workforce, and an ever-increasing equalization of conditions, the potential for tyranny lurked underneath an otherwise promising future. Tocqueville feared some of the forces at work in the young republic could lead to despotism.
To prevent this future, Tocqueville sung the praises of two essential safeguards: a free press connected with freedom of association. Armed with these two weapons, Tocqueville argues the United States can help prevent a tyranny of the majority as well as the chilling and repressive effects of a nascent soft despotism. Yet, of the two, Tocqueville’s principal solution for America is a free press.
Unfortunately, as Tocqueville noted — and we’ve now witnessed — the free press he prescribes functions as a double-edged sword. To be sure, the press and modern media can help cultivate liberty. It can do a marvelous job of keeping the people informed of politics, sustaining their activity in local government, and helping to make their voices heard. In doing so, it can help train the populace in the necessary exercise of freedom. Liberty, after all, is like a muscle: if it is not used regularly it will atrophy.
On the contrary, an unhealthy, ill-functioning press can create problems rather than prevent them. If the press or powerful media organs can influence such a vast number of people at once; if there isn’t enough volume granted to dissenting voices; if the levers of media and press control are too tightly concentrated, a deadly homogenization of the American mind may occur.
When this happens, the former sovereignty of the people is transformed into something both helplessly docile and malevolent — worse, something deadly to liberty. These were the stakes back during the time of Andrew Jackson. Today, the situation is all the more dire.
In “Democracy in America,” Tocqueville writes Americans should strive to be continually “making liberty emerge from within the democratic society in which God makes us live.” One of the most effective avenues to pursuing this is to give some degree of local administrative power to bodies of private citizens such as would be found in newspapers, periodicals, or pamphlets — and today’s social media platforms.
A free press made up of numerous varied newspapers fulfilled this role in 19th-century America. In the 21st century, websites and social media should — hypothetically — join traditional print publications to prevent the dangers of the tyranny of the majority. When operating fairly and nobly, they provide a way for every voice to be heard.
Of course, a free press and media aren’t just useful vehicles for spreading ideas or forming associations, but for ensuring that new associations can connect their ideas over large distances. Furthermore, in a free nation, the press can and should help to disperse power — not concentrate it within itself. The answer to ideas some citizens disagree with is not to stifle, curtail, or limit such speech, it is to encourage more of it.
Beyond this, protecting freedom of the press is vitally important because it can often serve as an individual’s best or only means of appeal. Tocqueville writes:
A citizen who is oppressed has therefore only one means of defending himself; it is to address himself to the whole nation, and if it is deaf to him, to humanity; he has only one means to do it, it is the press. Thus liberty of the press is infinitely more precious among democratic nations than among all others; it alone cures most of the evils that equality can produce. Equality isolates and weakens men; but the press places beside each one of them a very powerful weapon, which the weakest and most isolated can use.
As Tocqueville observes in “Democracy in America,” opening and running an American newspaper in the 19th century was both relatively inexpensive and unregulated. As such, this meant a truly free press was an accessible weapon available to the common man to beat back the tyranny of the majority and the homogenization of the mind.
Thousands of newspapers operating throughout the country and representing various individuals, associations, and interests, was both a way of protecting divergent opinions as well as checking against the rise of despotic or tyrannical forces. In the current climate of Big Tech censorship, men and women of all political stripes should be asking themselves if this can be said of America any longer.
A healthy and truly free press is one of the mechanisms that can help prevent the public from being manipulated into having one set of “approved” opinions. Freedom of the press, says Tocqueville, does not just hold important influence over the success or failure of political parties, it makes its power felt “over all of the opinions of men”; not only that, it modifies both the laws and the mores of a society.
Indeed, if laws can affect the mores of a society, and the mores of society can affect the laws, something that can simultaneously change both is a weapon capable of either awe-inspiring good or tremendous evil. Tocqueville argues a free press has the power to do just that.
What happens if this power is used to stifle speech rather than spread it? The result, unfortunately, is not good for any polity featuring democratic institutions. As University of Oklahoma professor Donald J. Maletz puts it: “Tocqueville associates democracy with freedom of the press as a matter of principle.” As one goes, so goes the other. Forebodingly, Tocqueville calls the issue of how to handle a free press “the greatest problem of modern societies.”
Due to its non-institutional nature, a free press is unique in its role in helping prevent tyranny because it exists apart from the governmental arena. Separations of power and varied institutions are not enough to prevent tyranny if all interests involved are the same — you need associations or organizations outside of government as well.
Ultimately, the freedom of the press may well be the final bulwark of liberty against a rising tide of corruption. By Tocqueville’s reasoning, once the press ceases to be free, it’s hard for any society wishing to regain freedom for its citizens to do so, as the best avenues for opposition will be closed. Because of this reality, those who love liberty and value an open society must guard against any censorship of the press.
Tocqueville acknowledges in “Democracy in America” that an unfettered press can create problems, and is only so virtuous because it prevents more problems than it creates. Even so, Tocqueville goes on to powerfully proclaim one cannot be “moderate” in support of a free press. For Tocqueville, there’s no sustainable or workable “middle ground” when it comes to press censorship.
To “reap the inestimable advantages” brought by the freedom of the press, society must learn how to handle its potential pitfalls. This much is clear, however: liberty starts to evaporate the moment powerful entities within society start to censor its press or suppress the work of reporters and writers.
As historian Thomas G. West points out, James Madison saw free speech as a natural, retained right, not a privilege created by the government. West puts it in clear terms:
There is an absolute right to freedom of speech, just as there is an absolute or inalienable right to liberty in general. … For the founders, speech is simply a part of the overall natural right to liberty, which it is the main job of government to secure.
Indeed, the 1780 Massachusetts Declaration of Rights went so far as to say: “The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom in a state: it ought not, therefore to be restrained.”
In her analysis of “Democracy in America,” the University of Notre Dame’s Catherine Zuckert believes Tocqueville saw freedom of speech as an “essential part of liberal democracy.” She’s right. Tocqueville warned stifling press freedom, even a little, will lead to a chilling silence, and society will find itself “under the feet of a despot.”
The publication of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” shows the power of a free press during turbulent times. Paine’s pamphlet, which sold around 100,000 copies in 1776, is called by historian Grant S. Wood “the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire revolutionary era.” It is an exemplary case of a political tract in layman’s language that shaped the future of a continent — all made possible by the press.
Freedom of the press, when combined with associations, acts as an incentivization to participate and be active in politics. For Tocqueville, the relationship between newspapers and free associations is symbiotic and correlative: “newspapers make associations, and associations make newspapers.”
Properly functioning and free, the press can encourage debate instead of hindering it. It can foster statesmanship instead of leading to the rise of despots. The exchange of ideas and the proliferation of the best new civic and societal notions can be a chief tool in preserving the essential balance between liberty and virtue in America.
While the left’s current stranglehold on corporate media is formidable, Tocqueville would at least be partially hopeful that the rise of conservative voices on the internet, new media, and outlets like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter will at put up a fight to uphold liberty — that is, as long as they aren’t silenced in turn by the very platforms that are supposed to aid in the spread of ideas.
The “press” may look a lot different than in 1831, but it remains pivotal in the struggle to preserve freedom. Until enough Americans unite their voices and demand that tech giants like Facebook and Twitter stop their oppressive censorship of the very press and media outlets essential to the health of our republic, things will only get worse, and Tocqueville’s worst nightmares will inch closer to becoming reality.