The books of Republican politicians might be described as political romances. Harboring fantasies of an electorate falling in love with them, they come bearing a dowry of policy prescriptions donated by right-wing think tanks. These books occupy a world of willful delusion, where, in 200 or so generously spaced pages, the enemies of liberty can be quickly identified and dispatched by the author, an errant knight guiding the reader through the hopelessly debauched milieu of American governance. And as with any good romance, these books end with a wedding: a synthesis of anachronistic conservative ideals and of-the-moment culture-war grievances that promises a happier future.
The Tyranny of Big Tech, the latest book from Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, slots easily into this model. An occasionally absurd pastiche of selective historiography and populist saber-rattling, it manages to follow the typical conservative politico’s script of denouncing big government while its author occupies a seat of power. Reading it is a strange experience if only because rather than taking on an anemic culture-war issue, Hawley has seized on a subject of real importance: the growing power of the U.S. technology industry. Beyond that base insight, the book is a mess, if a potentially important one, as it attempts to blaze a trail of right-wing opposition to Big Tech.
The Tyranny of Big Tech is divided into two parts: a capsule history of early twentieth-century corporate consolidation and trust-busting, and a dive into the manipulative surveillance state more recently pioneered by Facebook and Google. In Hawley’s vision, early efforts led by President Theodore Roosevelt to tamp down corporate power were undermined by President Woodrow Wilson, who inaugurated the era of what Hawley calls “corporate liberalism,” which has since found its apotheosis in today’s tech industry.
Replacing inherited conceptions of liberty and small-r republicanism, corporate liberalism was atomizing by design, claims Hawley. Preaching meritocracy, scientific progress, and the elevation of an expert class of governing elites, the ascendant ideology instilled a societal and political malaise that persists today. “Corporate liberalism taught that there was no need to cultivate the habits of deliberation that made democracy work or to protect the communities where such deliberation occurred, no need to see personal freedom as linked to participation in democratic self-government,” Hawley writes. “Instead, all that mattered was the celebration of individual choice.”
In its vague pining for a bygone era of individual liberty led by the “common man”—a phrase that appears, always with great reverence, 35 times in this short book—Hawley’s daydream almost hangs together. But when he gets down to specifics, The Tyranny of Tech betrays its own ideological priors and slapdash research. As other critics have pointed out, Hawley’s chronicle of early trust-busting is filled with inaccuracies, and his refusal to engage with the efforts by FDR and other twentieth-century administrations to tame corporate power shows how selective his historical interpretations are. Like many Republican commentators, Hawley also seems to have little idea that much of the American experiment he idealizes was an exercise in denying political power to women, Black people, Native Americans, and other marginalized groups. The pre-corporate political era he would like to resurrect was one in which the franchise was largely guaranteed to white men.
Beyond that important caveat, early America represents a wholly unrecognizable mode of political economy, one in which most of the country lived in rural areas and worked in agriculture and in which slavery was widespread. Whatever latent Maoist hopes Hawley might harbor, there’s no returning to a nation of smallholders and cottage industries.
For Hawley’s purposes, those details are irrelevant. In the senator’s view—one shared widely in the American political scene—the Founders were nearly infallible, bequeathing a noble experiment in democratic governance and self-administered republicanism. Through them, we received “that most cherished of American ideals, liberty.” Slavery merits some mention, but rather than being the diabolical economic engine that built the country and contributed to enormous accumulation of generational white wealth, it’s quickly dismissed as a parochial affair, with most slave plantations having far smaller workforces than, in Hawley’s example, Northern factories.
Among many, many elisions, what’s missing from Hawley’s narrative is any sense of class or material reality, any grit on the page. There are some brief mentions of labor strikes but nothing about the brutality of early factories, child labor, unions, the fight for 40-hour workweeks and weekends, or other forms of economic struggle and exploitation. Instead, in an act of casual condescension, he laments how we have forgotten the importance of labor itself. “Labor was no longer to be the common lot of mankind; it was no longer to be regarded as essentially noble and ennobling,” Hawley writes. “It was something to be escaped.” Of course, if one were working as a sharecropper or in a dangerous textile factory, this is precisely what labor would represent. But to Hawley, labor is more a cultural affectation, not an issue of basic sustenance, dignity, and survival.
You could get lost sorting through Hawley’s oneiric vision of America’s political past—or you could do the same with his puzzling vision of our political present. It’s no longer novel or controversial to say that tech companies are monopolistic Goliaths vacuuming up huge amounts of personal information so as to monetize and manipulate the behaviors of billions of people. This dystopian precis is our bleak and well-chronicled reality, which makes it all the stranger that much of Hawley’s tech criticism is made up of regurgitated insights from nearly a decade ago combined with generic right-wing talking points. He’s not wrong that many tech products are addictive, making us miserable, distracted, twitching things, locked in our highly surveilled filter bubbles. But it’s so familiar that it’s hard to share Hawley’s horror that tech companies collect data—even from minors!—to provide personalized recommendations.
Where Hawley is most far afield is in talking about content moderation. This is a broad, thorny issue that essentially concerns what kinds of posts a social network should allow and what kind it shouldn’t. Big companies like Facebook employ thousands of third-party content moderators who help keep social networks free of the flood of gore, animal abuse, child porn, and other ghastly material that is being constantly uploaded to these platforms. At a scale of millions or billions of users, content moderation decisions carry a huge potential impact. For that and other reasons, these systems are far from perfect—and reflect corporate policies that are often political in nature, privileging some types of speech over others—but without them, most popular websites and platforms would be almost impossible to use. It’s a flawed system crying out for reform, public education, and debate; it’s also all we have right now.
Conservative commentators like Hawley have no understanding of these complexities. To them, content moderation is “censorship”—full stop. It’s an inhibitor of free speech and a way of coercing users into behaviors and modes of thought that Silicon Valley prefers. It’s another manifestation of “Big Tech’s progressive social agenda—pro-LGBT, pro-abortion, pro–Black Lives Matter.” Instead of quoting academics, content moderators, or anyone else with a hand in this misunderstood industry, Hawley turns to a pseudonymous Facebook whistleblower, from whom we learn, in muddled terms, about some internal Facebook tools that the company uses to manage content moderation and sometimes coordinate decisions with other companies. In Hawley’s view, this is only further evidence of the perfidy of content moderation, which he depicts as a concerted censorship regime designed to promote liberal policies. (To that end, Hawley approvingly cites a widely discredited study by a man named Robert Epstein, who claimed that Google search suggestions shifted millions of votes to Hillary Clinton in 2016.)
Hawley may be smarter than this, but put-on ignorance is a feature of a Republican leadership that would rather deny its elite credentials. (At one point, Hawley disparagingly refers to the founders of Google as “Silicon Valley PhD students” without acknowledging that they attended Stanford at the same time that he was an undergraduate there.) Fusing the false populism of Trumpism with a Republican establishment that has never seen a tax cut it doesn’t like, Hawley’s proposed solutions to our Big Tech problem are lacking. He says nothing about strengthening unions or raising corporate tax rates. He says little about actually breaking up companies or using the power of the Department of Justice and regulatory agencies to check tech behavior. He seems to want it both ways, aspiring to a more activist, trust-busting government while never actually promising substantive interventions, since he must maintain his congenital opposition to “big government.”
Some of Hawley’s ideas, like his proposed Do Not Track legislation to give users more ability to opt out of online surveillance, bear consideration, or at least are founded in worthwhile principles. He seems aghast at the scope of digital surveillance, though he overlooks the U.S. government’s own complicity in this state of affairs. He wants a “new Glass-Steagall Act for the tech sector [that] would halt tech’s march into every industry in America and circumscribe its dominance over American life,” but he says nothing about other forms of corporate consolidation and influence. Other suggestions seem insignificant or misguided: Hawley would like to ban the infinite scrolling of the Facebook news feed and YouTube’s autoplay feature, saying they enmesh users in addictive habits. He’d also like to raise the legal age to open a social media account from 13 to 16 and require that users submit an ID. Perhaps most significantly, he would like to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—a brief but profoundly influential law that essentially immunizes internet companies from legal liability for the content posted on their services. Hawley seems to have little idea of how to replace it (or what the consequences of not doing so might be).
“Corporate liberalism, oligarchy, rule by the elite—these need not be our destiny,” suggests Hawley. He’s right, but he doesn’t seem to know how to avoid them. From Trump to Ted Cruz to Hawley, the new strains of right-wing populism have always rung false, promoting culture-war grievances in place of material progress. But however misleading, this crude populism has appealed to a genuine political constituency that often merges conservative thought with a sense that government and the prevailing corporate order have failed them, that the millionaires in Congress, especially decadent liberals, have no idea what they need. It would be a mistake to dismiss it entirely.
Republican opposition to Big Tech is still searching for a critical vocabulary to describe some very real problems. Until it does that, its solutions—legislative reprisals against companies it thinks discriminate against conservative ideas—will sound as hollow and poorly considered as they do in Hawley’s book. The junior senator from Missouri claims to be rescuing the common man from the leftist depredations of Big Tech, but while railing against Facebook censorship may play well on Fox News, it’s not much of a political program.
Still, whether fueled by genuine interest or the Republican establishment’s tendency to buy its leaders’ books in bulk, something is going right: As of this writing, The Tyranny of Big Tech is in the top 10 on Amazon’s bestseller list. And if Hawley’s man-of-the-people shtick ever runs dry and he’s looking for a truly emancipatory critique of tech’s societal dominance, well, there’s always Marxism.