The debate in Washington over who’s to blame for the slow pace in filling judicial vacancies (or whether the pace is even slow to begin with) reflects an assumption that is shared by both sides: that the Senate should generally defer to the President in the confirmation process.
Nathaniel Persily, a professor at Stanford Law School, wonders whether democracy can survive the internet. The immediate impulse for his question is the election of Donald Trump, who used social media to get around the established institutions, principally the mainstream media, that mediate between candidates and citizens. In particular, Persily fears that fake news circulating in social media empowers demagogues, of which a prime example in his mind no doubt is Donald Trump himself.
The essay is an exemplar of progressivism, because it puts its faith in institutions dominated by progressives to safeguard democracy rather than the Constitution. But to one who is not a progressive, Persily’s fears are unwarranted and his solutions are a source of concern. Begin with fake news. It is not a phenomenon of the internet. Political campaigns in the early republic were vicious because of outrageous and often false charges in the partisan press. Adams was said to be a monarchist focused on establishing a dynasty with his son; Jefferson was accused of being an atheist. He was also alleged to have sired children with one of his slaves. That last bit of dramatic information would have been labelled as fake news at the time by the self-designated great and good—the real fact checkers of any age–, but it appears to have been true.
The verdict of history can be hard to overturn, even when patently unjust. Luke Mayville, postdoctoral fellow at the Center for American Studies at Columbia University, is a young scholar pursuing his own version of the Innocence Project. The beneficiary of his researches is John Adams, who despite his revolutionary bona fides and his manifold services to the new nation, was tagged a “monocrat” and a reactionary apologist for aristocracy by Thomas Jefferson and his partisans. Mayville’s fine first book, John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy, almost completely clears Adams of these old, but remarkably persistent, anti-democratic charges.
This century witnessed the “return of history” in international affairs, and has now shown that we Americans are not immune from the tendencies of human nature toward excessive ambition, and of political society—particularly democracy—toward oligarchy and tyranny. Americans are not exceptional.