The Atlantic

White Supremacy Is the Achilles Heel of American Democracy

Even in a high-tech era, fears about minority political agency are the most reliable way to destabilize the U.S. political system.
Source: Justin Sullivan / Getty

There are a million and one threads to the chaos currently unspooling about the Trump administration and the 2016 election. One might be forgiven for giving up on trying to navigate the intricacies of congressional Russia inquiries, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ever-widening probe, news about foreign intrusions into voting systems, investigations about Twitter bots, and the developing story about the manipulation of Facebook data. There are just too many details, too many variables, too many actors, and a hard limit to the amount of nihilism about what really happened in 2016 that can be absorbed with the steady onslaught of updates.

But there’s one main thread running through all of these stories, one that should orient readers to the things that truly matter, whether the news is about Cambridge Analytica or the Russian “troll farm” known as the Internet Research Agency. It’s the fact that the human brain is eminently exploitable—as are, by extension, the civic and democratic institutions the human brain has built.  And in America, a country built from its foundations on white supremacy, where identity is forged in the crucible of a centuries-old “race question,” one of the easiest and most effective ways to “hack” those institutions is the use of racism in disinformation and propaganda campaigns. Almost every single American era of widespread racial friction was buttressed by sophisticated psychological manipulation, data gathering, and propaganda, a concoction that when taken together, often helped push whites to the extremes of antidemocratic oppression and violence. It’s the oldest American trick in the book.

That vulnerability is on full display in the ongoing Cambridge Analytica scandal, after and released investigations featuring allegations from whistleblower

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic7 min readTech
It’s a Winner-Take-All World, Whether You Like It or Not
Not long ago, I reached out to a writer I respect, and posed the uncomfortable question authors find themselves forced to ask: Would she write a blurb—the endorsement you see on the back cover—for my new book about how a person can navigate a career
The Atlantic6 min read
Tip Your Hotel Maid
My grandmother worked in housekeeping for 10 years—and it’s a job where you could use a gratuity.
The Atlantic10 min read
This Isn’t Going According to Plan for Kirsten Gillibrand
The senator from New York is a battle-tested campaigner who thrives as the underdog. But 2020 is proving to be a much tougher challenge than she thought.