Farrell and Schneier argue that democracy’s vulnerability lies in its need for free information—and its concomitant susceptibility to a flood of falsehood, misinformation, and propaganda. They call for a trenchant analysis of the “information and knowledge that democracy requires”—and remain skeptical of norms as underpinning democratic stability. Indeed, they argue that “theories that focus on shared rules and norms don’t sufficiently capture the central place of disagreement in democracy.” After all, some shared ideas, such as racism, are oppressive, and a firm consensus can lead to stasis and complacency rather than innovation and progress.

In the end, norms are still the crucial underpinning for democracy.

Debate and disagreement—which require information and fair competition among ideas—are thus critical to a flourishing democracy. And as Farrell and Schneier point out, maintaining democratic rules while preserving deep disagreement is the crux of the dilemma faced by democracies. Yet in the end, norms continue to be the crucial underpinning, though it is helpful if we think of “norms” not as a consensus on policy goals or tools, which can indeed lead to oppression and stasis, but instead as commitments to a particular kind of democratic process.

What are these norms? Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt identify two critical ones: forbearance (not exercising the law in punitive ways) and tolerance (acceptance of criticism and opposition). To these I would add a third: equality before the law, or the belief that all actors are bound by the same rules. If a petty thief is brought before the court, so should an investment banker who failed in his fiduciary duties. If a Democratic judicial nominee gets a bipartisan hearing, so should a Republican. 

Why do we need these norms? If upheld, they allow electoral and political losers to remain vested in the system. Losers believe they won’t be punished by their opponents, who are now in power. Losers also know they will be allowed to criticize their opponents from the sidelines, and that they can win eventually since the game won’t be rigged in the favor of any one person, party, or interest. Just as importantly, these norms lead the winners to constrain themselves, which prevents the spirals of distrust from taking off in the first place—especially when the winners are long-term incumbents and do not fear losing their grip on a given office.

Democratic winners, whether presidents or parliamentary parties, are difficult to constrain otherwise. In the jargon of political science, there is no effective third party enforcement: no guards who guard the guardians. Courts and legislatures can constrain the executive, but only if there is bipartisan elite support for the equitable application of the law and a widely shared commitment to both tolerance and forbearance. Without these norms, formal institutions serve to provide partisan cover rather than to uphold democracy.

The violation of these norms of tolerance, forbearance, and equality before the law underpins authoritarian backsliding, even absent the Internet.

These norms are also critical in constraining the flooding and manipulation of information on the Internet by domestic agents. If we examine Farrell and Schneier’s three examples—the Jones case in Alabama, the FCC, and the census—these controversies are not about “deep disagreement” over policy or its goals. They are cases where we can no longer trust democratic processes because these three critical norms were violated. The FCC case is seen as manipulated because the norm of tolerance broke down: those opposed to net neutrality refused to accept the public’s comments. With the census, those who believe forbearance had been violated (i.e., the census would be used to unfairly target and deport undocumented immigrants) led to doubting the entire enterprise and its ability to deliver honest and accurate results. And in the Jones case, Democrats thought the Republicans were already playing by different rules, thus breaking down the norm of equality before the law and leading them to “fight fire with fire.” Without a deeper commitment by all sides to these norms, the spirals of distrust and democratic corrosion take off. Obviously, we should not expect foreign actors to uphold these norms, but if domestic ones do not, then democracy is deeply threatened.

Crucially, the violation of these norms of tolerance, forbearance, and equality before the law underpins authoritarian backsliding, even absent the Internet. In Poland and in Hungary, the current ruling parties did not rely on sophisticated Internet misinformation campaigns: instead, they came to power on the basis of old-fashioned demagoguery and clientelism, with a healthy dollop of xenophobia. They relied on taking over the state media and remaking public TV into a propaganda arm of the party, which now broadcasts an alternative set of facts to its viewers. In Hungary, the ruling party simply starved opposition newspapers and media of advertising revenue until the print media fell into line. State-owned and deeply partisan media outlets manipulate information the old-fashioned way: by making their viewers immune to persuasion from alternative viewpoints. To keep themselves in power, the parties then delivered particularistic benefits: subsidies for families with children in Poland or favorable access to housing and welfare in Hungary. (In the Hungarian case, the ruling party also rewrote the constitution in ways that guaranteed its hold over Hungary for the foreseeable future.)

Neither PiS in Poland nor Fidesz in Hungary needed bots or Internet chicanery to accomplish their slide into authoritarian rule. The winners of the elections simply refused to constrain themselves by the norms of liberal democratic processes, and instead used their parliamentary majorities to emasculate the courts, hobble the media, attack civil society organizations, and divide their societies into “good” loyalists who should be rewarded and “traitorous” opponents who deserve punishment.

In the end, then, it is absolutely the case that we need to think hard about the kind of solutions that address the manipulation, flooding, and distortion of information on the Internet, precisely because debate and disagreement are at the heart of democratic progress. But democratic debate is threatened not just by the Internet, but by the very participants in these debates—the politicians, commentators, and officials who can exercise restraint or abuse their positions. As a result, we need to think hard about what prevents democratic winners from abusing their powers in the first place, and how to bolster the norms of forbearance, toleration, and equality before the law.