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How Totalitarians Speak
Stop Using "Democracy" to Mean “Rule of People I Agree With”
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a fair and just place. How could you believe otherwise? Just look at the name! It’s Democratic, ruled by the people. It is the People’s country, it couldn’t be clearer than that! It’s a Republic, a fair and legitimate system! That’s what they tell you. You might even hear similar rhetoric from your very own TV or phone.
In reality, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, more commonly known as North Korea, is one of the poorest and most authoritarian countries in the world. One border crossing away is South Korea, consistently ranked in the top 30 richest countries in the world by GDP per capita. South Korea, on the other hand, needs far fewer platitudes.
To a naive reader, this doesn’t make sense. Why does North Korea make such frequent references to its “democracy” when no such thing exists. But take one look at the incentives and it couldn’t be clearer. To South Koreans, democracy is a system that gets results. You vote in the election, some of the time your party is fairly elected, some of the time you lose, but in aggregate your life improves. Democracy is an embedded part of your life. In North Korea, democracy is a symbol. The elections are for show, Kim Jong-Un will rule until he dies, and your life sucks. Democracy is an ideal. It’s just a word. In fact, it’s three words: Democratic People’s Republic. It is completely detached from reality. And that’s how the North Korean ruling class would like to keep it. The more they shout about “democracy” and plaster it across all of its propaganda, the more it becomes a term that emerges de neuvo from media and the less it even occurs to people to test the waters to see if the real thing is there.
[ My views on domestic politics and the question of legitimacy are informed by international politics, often Asian politics. That is why I am sympathetic with an understanding of ‘regime politics’, the politics of power, propaganda and control, even though my disposition differs strongly from their priors. Many Americans say that regime politics is a conspiracy, religious movement, or some other kind of deviation from the politics of their granddad. They call for regime change, an American Caesar, or to “stop the count”. To me, the politics of regime analysis, viewing political power as it is, not as we wish it to be, is completely compatible with non-radical, even centrist, politics. I think this because this is how almost everyone in almost every country in almost every time period, ranging from Socrates to Hobbes to Havel to Xi, thinks about politics. In fact, American academics shelter a surviving tradition of regime analysis in the form of political economy, which in truly American fashion, does regime analysis through the lens of economic tools. ]
At this point, this is how I think of the substance-free warnings of “extremism” and “threats to democracy”. They’re the product of a dying regime, desperate to keep the public eye on a philosophical abstract up for constant redefinition and debate, rather than the practical question of whether the government is doing what the people want or not.
After the affirmative action decision prohibiting some uses of race in college admissions, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) cried about “An extremist Supreme Court”. In reality, 74% of Americans believe race should not be used as a factor in college admissions. In other words: if the public has a critique, it’s probably that the Supreme Court didn’t go far enough. NPR selected a small minority of activists who complain that most Asians would rather not be discriminated against. Biden called the slew of court decisions disagreeing with him “not normal”. But as Josh Hammer puts it in Newsweek, “What makes [The Supreme Court] different from virtually any other leading national political or cultural institution is simple: It is not entirely dominated by Leftists.” The rhetoric of fantasy extremism is about one thing and one thing only: avoiding the debate about what is good in exchange for the debate over what is fashionable — a debate which regime media wins by default.
Another regime media strategy is “nutpicking” — focusing on an extreme subset of supporters instead of a representative sample. The regime journalists’ subhead of choice to attack surveillance reforms: “With hard-right Republicans attacking federal law enforcement agencies and unwilling to extend their broad powers, a major warrantless surveillance program targeting foreigners overseas may face new limits from Congress.” In reality, Americans of all political stripes oppose mass surveillance. In reality, Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Republican Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) issued a Bipartisan statement opposing section 702. “We must take this opportunity to reform Section 702 and overhaul privacy protections for Americans so that they truly protect the civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy rights that are foundational to our democracy”. In reality, left-wing organizations such as the Brennan Center and American Civil Liberties Union have signed on to startments directly opposing the laws the New York Times is subtly advocating for, under the premise of fighting “hard-right” republicans. Once again, they want to make the debate about fashion. Are you on board with the regime press’ narrative of the day? If not, you’re “hard-right”, whether you’re a normal American, a social justice non-profit, or an elected Democrat.
Regime journalists are obsessively focused on keeping the debate about fashion, rather than about reality. They are likely to be fired over transgression about fashion — just ask James Bennett, fired for commissioning an Op-Ed from a U.S. Senator representing the opinion of the majority of Americans. Or Bari Weiss, who resigned from the New York Times after her coworkers attacker her not on correctness grounds, but for refusing to comply with the fashion. Ironically, this is the greatest threat to actual democracy: unaccountable bureaucrats and regime media worshipping at the idol of fashion while censoring speech, harassing dissenters, and elevating mass surveillance.
“Why would the New York Times do this?”, you might ask. After all, it’s been a powerful brand for over 150 years. First, it’s important to understand that the New York Times of 2020 is not the New York Times of 2000.
It is a fundamentally different business model with fundamentally different principles. Before the age of social media, it was possible to sell influence by picking whichever narratives were most convenient while not explicitly taking sides. Now, people see through that game and want explicit fealty. The result is a transition from exploration to exploitation. The Democratic People’s Republic of the New York Times is leveraging its legacy brand, along with abstract notions associated with legitimacy, in order to prop up a nonsensical coalition. Most important to note is that the target of the New York Times is not the Republican or even the moderate or unaffiliated. The target of the New York Times is the Bernie Sanders or Robert F. Kennedy Jr. voter. The function of the New York Times is to keep those people aligned and avoid fragmentation of the left-wing coalition at all costs. The business model of the New York Times is simply incompatible with a world where Biden, Sanders, and Kennedy voters see themselves as distinct people with distinct media environments.
Of course, there’s no way I could end this piece without talking about the issue I’m known for: machine learning. At this point there is no subject where this odious pattern of distraction is most evident. I’ve at this point written numerous article-length debunkings of Jonathan Haidt, Yuval Noah Harari, and the rest of the “technology is a threat to democracy” grift. Democracy means nothing if not for the freedom to gather, deliberate, and communicate. At the end of the day, that is what they are complaining about. There is an extreme irony to complaining about echo chambers and emotional manipulation from within the most manipulative echo chamber of them all. And now all of you can identify exactly the language they use to do it.
On the reality of AI, there’s not much I can say that’s not already in one of my existing articles. So I’ll leave you with some quotes.
What exactly does Yuval think is the problem introduced by AI intimacy? Each problem it introduces already exists in ordinary politics, arguably to a worse degree. Are people going to support worse policies because they are being charmed by Sydney rather than Bush, Obama, Trump, or Biden? … Equality of charm would lead to smarts and strategy becoming more important, and I think that’s a good thing. It might even solve the Trump problem.
This brings us to the more cynical interpretation, which is that the Harari-style cope is because they can no longer be the center of attention. They were doing some very profitable rent-seeking, taking advantage of their ability to project this style of fake empathy to the online masses, and are simply angry that the AI is better than them at it.
Many of these examples are simply ahistorical. Universities have improved in their scientifical and technological output, but it was following a very specific period of time. "What happened in that time?" you might ask. Well, it was a few years after the start of the cold war. The Soviets had just launched the first satellite into space and it seemed like they were just smarter than us. Backed into a corner, U.S. universities implemented g-loaded standardized tests to recruit the most competent of students to become our future technologists. The academic science system boomed. The decline in academia started in the seventies and accelerated to the present day. The replication crisis, which pushed junk papers with tampered methodologies, peaked a few years before 2010, well before the popularity of social media. This obviously does not track with social media, but does track with affirmative action, "hollistic admissions", and the campaign against standardized tests. Simultaneously, the university expanded, which meant that academia as a whole had to open up to lower iq students even if they had kept the same rigor of assessment. Proliferation of critical theory and radical social justice follows the exact same historical line.
Democratic politicians and media figures have become closely associated with ideas like “bureaucracy” and “stagnation.” And in a sanitized political bubble like this one, there is very little need to engage in formal democracy. Sure, there are primaries and elections every couple of years, but these tend to make up a fraction of a bureaucrat, professor, NGO staffer, think-tanker, or journalist’s time. Instead, their engagements with “democracy” are mostly relational—filling out paperwork, putting arguments in writing, arranging meetings, and so on. Their idea of democracy is shaped not by the democratic process itself (i.e., public deliberation), but by feedback from bureaucracy, an often artificial and unnecessary appendage of democracy.
P.S. I’ll have an upcoming article out somewhere (either this Substack or another publication) where I do a deep dive into what language models are actually capable of. To no surprise to my readers, they excel at arguments of fashion and style, while failing at arguments of reason or fact. To no surprise to my readers, this is a huge threat to the actual business model of regime journalists.