Populism is normally a partisan political tactic. Reactionary and reductive, cynical and manipulative; almost always the mother of bad laws, government overreach and encroachments on civil liberties. The democratic process, the push and pull of left and right, usually serves to tamper legislation that emerges from it.
There is however one form of populism that has historically brought left and right together in mutual spasms of conservative hysteria: Luddite populism. Always a response to panic about new technologies or adjacent trends, these politically convenient displays of performative solidarity are satisfying and cathartic for worried parents; red and blue. And pleasing to unions, and corporations, both weary of disruption. The laws that result are often shortsighted and dangerous. What’s worse, the mediating force of political opposition is absent, so the risk of them passing into law is higher. Libertarian legislators do what they can, but are always outnumbered outliers. Historically a handful of activist technologists are tasked with defending the future and technological progress.
In recent months US politics has seen a resurgence of Luddite populism, with numerous bills moving forward with bi-partisan support. Political deadlock and the failure to pass President Biden’s Build Back Better plan, has made Democrats realize that—in the words of Susan Collins “in a 50-50 Senate, the only way you’re going to be able to produce any accomplishments that matter to the American people is to work across the aisle.” So they crossed it and began to legislate.
First, there was the EARN IT Act, which would almost certainly disincentivize the use of end-to-end encryption by large online services and undercut section 230 liability protection. Introduced by Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Richard Blumenthal, it has 11 Republican co-sponsors and 10 Democrats. Next is the NUDGE Act that would see government approved content curation algorithms, something that is almost certainly unconstitutional. This bill was created by Democrat Amy Klobuchar and introduced by Republican Cynthia Lummis. The Open App Market Act was another introduced by Blumenthal in early February, which would force Apple to allow apps to be installed outside its AppStore. This could jeopardize many consumer protection features Apple has built voluntarily—many of which achieve the very same ends as regulations. Its sponsors? 4 Democrats and 6 Republicans. And just last week, the Kids Online Safety Act was introduced–again by Blumenthal. Which, among other things, would force social media platforms to give parents of kids 16 or younger parental controls, many of which iOS and Android already do.
To understand this political moment, the risks it brings and what is at stake, we must look back at Luddite populism of the past and the bad laws it almost, and sometimes, has brought about.
The 1950s saw the infamous anti-comic book Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, which consisted of two Republicans and two Democrats. All four were pandering to moral panic caused by dubious research from psychologist Fredrick Wertham and an accompanying book which led to comic book burnings in multiple states. Wertham claimed, among other things, that Batman and Robin could encourage homosexuality because in his mind they were clearly a couple. In a televised congressional hearing Wertham said “I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry.” The hearing made the front of The New York Times and the industry would soon adopt the Comics Code Authority, an onerous list of content rules that decimated the industry and notably prohibited LGBT characters or content until the 1980s.
In 1985, responding to concerns about rock music, Tipper Gore, wife of then Senator Al Gore, formed the Parents Music Resource Center, which included wives of prominent Democrats and Republicans. The target? The Filthy 15—a set of songs that they claimed needed censure to protect children. In a televised Senate hearing Al and Tipper Gore confronted rock stars. At one point Mr. Gore asked Dee Snider whether his band’s fan club “Sick Motherfucking Fans of Twisted Sister” was Christian. Mrs. Gore would release a book a few years later titled Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society.
In 1991 then-Senator Joseph Biden introduced legislation that would prohibit encryption—the bill was co-sponsored by two Democrats and a Republican. This famously motivated Phil Zimmerman to finish and release his open source encryption program, PGP. Helping widespread mass adoption of the technology. Then in 1993, the Clinton administration took another shot at encryption with the Clipper Chip—an encryption backdoor, with Al Gore tasked with promoting it. In response Phil Zimmerman would release a sequel to PGP, PGPfone, to help make the chip irrelevant. After much protest and a paper highlighted a vulnerability in the chip, the plan was abandoned.
That same year, concerns about video game violence began to pick-up. A 1993 Senate hearings on video games was organized by Senators Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl, where Mortal Kombat and other games were blamed for an uptick in violence—much like television was at the time.
As the 1996 election beckoned, the Clinton campaign looked to another chip mandate—the TV censoring V-Chip—as a way to appeal to parents who worried about the influence of television on children. At a press conference Bill Clinton and Tipper Gore sat with parents, where she decried television’s slide into violent debauchery, Power Rangers being her example. Separately Clinton promised the V-Chip could “become a powerful voice against teen violence, teen pregnancy and teen drug use.” The mandate was part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which included another provision to ban internet porn, promoted on the Senate floor via a folder full of internet smut. The act received over 90 percent support and was signed into law (porn prohibition was later ruled unconstitutional.)
In the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine Massacre, these narratives would come back to haunt Democrats when Republicans and the NRA used prior concerns about video games and music lyrics to distract from the gun control debate. Not only did Democrats fail to meaningfully push back on these fallacies—probably because they helped create them—they embraced them, with President Clinton saying “Video games like Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct and DOOM… make our children more active participants in simulated violence.” Hillary Clinton would echo her husband as a Senator in 2005 when she said “We need to treat violent video games the way we treat tobacco, alcohol, and pornography.”
While blaming violence, drug use and promiscuity on music and video games has since become a less bi-partisan notion. Progressive politicians are again falling for the convenient allure of Luddite populism, with social media as the new boogeyman.
In 2018 the Center for Humane Technology launched (with help from Common Sense Media) and would go on to release the Netflix blockbuster documentary The Social Dilemma, which presented unsubstantiated claims as facts, while denying the well-documented history of unfounded fears about new technologies. The group’s co-founder—Tristan Harris—would appear on Joe Rogan’s podcast, where he would uncritically tout new Chinese laws that pushed “patriot videos” (propaganda) into social media feeds and enforced screen time limits. He insisted he was not praising this heavy handed approach, however when Sen. Josh Hawley introduced the SMART act, a draconian social media bill, his organization’s newsletter would list it as a legislative win, in which it implied it played a role in influencing.
Right leaning orgs like the Heritage Foundation have followed their lead with a recent report on “killer apps” spouting many of the same unfounded claims about social media and mental health. This narrative offers a convenient scapegoat for gun violence and allows NRA aligned candidates such as Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ to appeal to worried parents by proclaiming social media is her number one concern as a parent, while at the same time opposing masking in schools and voting for looser gun controls.
The bi-partisan appeal of Luddite populism endures and, as in the past, we are scapegoating new trends to explain complex societal problems. This myopia has a legislative opportunity cost, just like it did in the aftermath of Columbine—when time spent discussing 16-bit virtual guns, could have been about real 17-caliber ones.
While bi-partisan lawmaking can feel like progress in the midst of political deadlock, history shows—when it’s driven by Luddite populism—it’s almost certainly regressive.