Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Parlor are an increasingly central plank of the democratic public sphere in the United States. The prevailing view of this platform-based public sphere has of late become increasingly dour and pessimistic. What were once seen as a “technology of liberation” has come to be understood to act a channel and amplifier of “antisystem” forces in democracies. This is not the first time, however, that a private actor that operates as a necessary part of the democratic system has turned out to be a threat to the quality of democracy itself: The same was true for parties of the extreme left and extreme right in postwar Europe. The principal theoretical lens through which those earlier challenges were analyzed traveled under the label of “militant democracy,” a term coined by the émigré German political scientist Karl Loewenstein.
This essay uses the lens of militant democracy theory to think about the challenge posed by digital platforms to democracy today. It draws two main lessons. First, the social digital platform/democracy problem is structurally similar to the challenge of antisystem parties that Loewenstein’s militant democracy theory was crafted to meet. This insight leads, secondly, to an opportunity to explore the practical and theoretical space of militant democracy for insights into democracy’s contemporary challenge from social media. While I make no claim that it is possible to read off in some mechanical way effectual interventions today from yesterday’s experience with anti-democratic parties, I do suggest that the debate on militant democracy has broad-brush lessons for contemporary debates. This illuminates, at least in general terms, the sort of legal and reform strategies that are more likely to be successful, and those that are likely to fail as pro-democracy moves in respect to digital platforms.
Aziz Z. Huq is the Frank and Bernice J. Greenberg Professor of Law. He works on topics ranging from democratic backsliding to regulating AI, and has published with Chicago, Oxford, and Cambridge University presses. Before joining the Law School, he worked as counsel and then director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Project, Senior Consultant Analyst for the International Crisis Group, and as a law clerk for Judge Robert D. Sack of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and then for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Supreme Court of the United States. His most recent book is The Collapse of Constitutional Remedies.