EVANSVILLE - Think about democratic and liberal society in America as it was in the distant past, nearly obscured in the mists of time, for example 1980. Or 1970. Or 1940. Or 1900. An imperfect construct, of course, but for the majority characterized by a voluntary principle: Nearly all social interaction was undertaken within the bounds of mutual benefit and mutual agreeability.

You interacted with family; you exchanged goods and services; you joined benevolent societies; you worshiped in community; you attended political clubs. The entire web of liberal interaction as described by de Tocqueville was vibrant and pervasive. The important point is this: You interacted with others on a generally positive basis.

Underlying every association was some agreement or shared experience, and so we generally believed most of society agreed on most of the important things. As a consequence, we were more optimistic and pacific, and therefore in turn generous.

In antagonistic or hostile interactions, there were mutually agreed rules and resolutions to them: the political process, the judicial process, or old-fashioned geographic separation. One might not always win, but one generally felt that things were fair. As important, one believed there were defined ends and terminations to those conflicts.??There are two significant differences between then and now. The first is that more and more factions within society seek to definitively impose themselves upon the others. There are structural reasons for this — the administrative state, the supremacy of the judiciary, the collapse of federalism — and they are well known. Few genuinely wish to contend with the structural issues since those that control the relevant structures benefit from them so much.?
The other significant difference is the rise of social media, which is vastly more destructive and poisonous to a democratic and liberal society than is commonly understood. Continual and unhindered sentiment-sharing reverses the normal process for human relations.

Before, we typically chose our interactions with fellow citizens and peers, largely on the basis of mutual agreement. I borrow tools from my neighbor because we both have an interest in good relations and a good neighborhood. Now, that channel of communication is continuous, and generally exposes you and me and everyone else to the disagreeable sides of one’s neighbors.

Suddenly, the friend since high school with whom you share so many good memories becomes intolerable because of constantly expressed political disagreements — disagreements that were previously irrelevant, but now may not be ignored. Suddenly, you are aware that your neighbor who loaned you tools has voted for a different candidate, on grounds you find abhorrent — and so a neighborly relationship that might have lasted a lifetime is sundered. In place of cooperation is friction, and worse, friction without resolution: continual, constant, and cumulatively distressing.

By knowing more about one another we vastly increase alienation from one another. The effect of greater familiarity is greater contempt. The aggregate societal reaction to this — to discovering that the rest of society is alarmingly worse than we ever suspected — is to seek out others whose views and premises correspond most closely with our own across the spectrum.

A feedback loop results, rendering factions more distinct and more emphatic. Our normal signals that informed the heuristics enabling democratic liberality become overwhelmed by the noise of a thousand social-media feeds. Your uncle reads InfoWars. Your aunt reads Salon. You learn about it and a family grows a little less close. A holiday grows a little less joyous. A society grows a little less harmonious.

The fathers of liberal democracy in the modern era assumed that a prerequisite for their society was individual virtue married to information accessibility. Now we find that you can have too much of the latter: Knowledge may be indispensable, but too much too often can be problematic when it comes to one another.

Perhaps an essential trait of the democratic citizen is the ability — and the willingness — to mind your own business. And we find that we cannot.

Joshua Claybourn is an attorney and author in Evansville.