Josh Hawley, the Missouri Republican who entered the U.S. Senate with intellectual chops that he has largely forsaken in favor of opportunistic populism, announced today that he will lodge a pro forma objection when Congress meets to certify Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory next week. He notes, correctly, that Democrats have done so before, including in 2016. But Hawley’s reasons merit notice: He plans to complain not just about alleged irregularities in some states but also about “the unprecedented interference of Big Tech monopolies in the election.”
Hawley has previously raised reasonable concerns about whether social media companies that exercise editorial judgment deserve the liability shield Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act gives them for content published on their platforms. To the extent these companies have meant to clamp down on disinformation, they are doing, at best, an inconsistent job based on inscrutable standards. Still, for argument’s sake, stipulate a monopolistic conspiracy to muzzle Republican opinions and promote Democratic ones. In what sense does that constitute “interfere[nce] in this election”?
There is no shortage of channels for acquiring news or commentary to suit one’s tastes (read: predilections). Facebook and Twitter may be villainous “mega-corporations,” in Hawley’s phrase. They may amplify some voices and quiet others. They may even do so systematically. But they cannot suppress competing voices altogether, which are routinely heard from the President’s Twitter feed to One America News Network.
Consequently, these corporations’ power ends at the voting-booth curtain. They have no ability to coerce votes—unless, that is, Hawley’s premise is that voters have no ability to process information, resist manipulation and make independent decisions. This is the same basis on which Democrats have, for years, made the preposterous claim that campaign contributions decide elections. Companies acting to encourage voting behavior, if they in fact do so, “interferes” in elections in the same sense campaign ads and stump speeches do.
Hawley’s apparent premise that voters cannot resist those messages makes for a strange populism—except insofar as it partakes of the essence of all populism: the powerful condescending to those they claim to protect. His populism might feel more authentic were he to treat his constituents as intellectually capable.