What’s wrong with the democratic experiment? As the United States faces what many believe are existential threats to its political processes, and fragile political systems around the world slip into new, technologically savvy variants of authoritarianism, many commentators say we are suffering a crisis of democracy.

Some point to recent departures from bedrock norms that govern the conduct of government and the role of free speech in civic life, with campus debates over matters such as sexual harassment and unpopular speakers as examples of a new generation that has yet to learn the lessons of its forebears. Others argue that the nation’s political heritage is the problem rather than the solution, pointing to undemocratic governmental features such as the electoral college, as well as recent efforts by groups with declining electoral numbers to gerrymander legislatures, suppress Black and Latino votes, and engage in hardball politics to sustain illegitimate legislative, executive and judicial power.

Ellis Cose, the eminent journalist, grapples with both explanations for our present crisis in his pithy and thought-provoking book, “The Short Life and Curious Death of Free Speech in America.” Cose contends that the death of traditional free-speech norms might in fact be a good thing, given our current challenges. That might sound like heresy coming from a veteran journalist, and Cose knows it.

The framing device for Cose’s book is the 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville that resulted in a Nazi sympathizer killing a civil rights protester by driving his car into a crowd. The American Civil Liberties Union had successfully fought for the ability of the rally’s organizers to hold their event in the center of town rather than in a place that authorities said would be easier to make safe. While some journalists defended the ACLU’s stance, Cose contends that “it is insane to pretend that we don’t make trade-offs between various rights, including speech, all the time.”

He begins with a proposition that scholars know well: that our familiar free-speech norms, and the constitutional doctrines that embody them, were invented only about 100 years ago. These norms began to take shape in response to the suppression of dissent during and after World War I, famously in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s metaphor of free speech as a process in which claims are tested in the “competition of the market” — a metaphor that Cose associates instead with Holmes’s fellow justice, Louis Brandeis. In our own times, Cose asserts, we can no longer be certain that “good ideas generally crowd out bad ideas,” or that debates are driven by ideas rather than by “corporations and wealthy individuals” who use “trickery, appeals to base prejudice, and outright lies” to get what they want. If free speech is a market, then the market for speech, like economic markets, has always required baseline rules and norms to make it work. It has always required a sense of social purpose as well. Perhaps it’s time for new ground rules and a new commitment to popular democracy to put them into practice.

In short, punchy chapters, Cose examines one issue after another where democratic commitments and speech claims seem to conflict. For instance, he laments that the historic role of the press as a fact-checker has been undermined by political leaders who lie with impunity, as well as pressure within mainstream media outlets to attract viewers and website clicks. As prominent examples, he cites press coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails during the 2016 campaign, and former CBS chairman and chief executive Leslie Moonves’s observation that Donald Trump’s deceptive statements “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Then there is the social media site Gab, whose purported mandate for unfiltered free speech quickly became so overwhelmed with hate speech that the gunman charged with attacking Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life congregation in 2018 found inspiration there, and a survey on the site after the killings showed substantial support for genocide against Jewish people in the West. On university campuses, debates over unpopular speakers and sex harassment have produced some predictable bureaucratic overreach, but they have also been manipulated by President Trump and his supporters in a cynical effort to rally support by attacking institutions of higher education.

By contrast, Cose argues, there has been less willingness by purported free-speech proponents to support other fundamental values such as democratic participation or to reform outdated political institutions such as the electoral college. “Is voting a form of speech?” he asks provocatively, pointing out that those who critique what they call suppression of free expression on campuses are often perfectly willing to suppress the political expressions of Black Americans in the voting process. Cose closes his book with thoughts on living through the coronavirus pandemic, when the inability to sort truth from lies has turned positively deadly.

“The Short Life and Curious Death of Free Speech in America” is a requiem of sorts for the core assumptions under which Cose has conducted his long and respected career. Indeed, it arrives in the midst of an election season when the journalistic craft that he represents has been under siege. He could have easily penned a jeremiad, calling on his readers to reassert old values from which Americans have unfortunately departed. Instead, he has delivered a trenchant critique of those values as harmful to the project of preserving our democracy amid our demographic, political and technological challenges. Free speech, he argues, has never been a value unto itself or an untrammeled right. Instead it “was supposed to be a means of defending our freedoms and our republic,” rather than a vehicle for destroying them. Readers will find much with which to agree, disagree and consider in these pages. In that sense, this is a book that represents the best of our free-speech traditions.

The Short Life and Curious Death of Free Speech in America

By Ellis Cose

Amistad.
194 pp. $23.99