Digital technology and the crisis of liberal democracy

By Hans Kundnani

Hans Kundnani reviews three ways of understanding the role of technology in the current political turmoil.

What role does technology play in the current crisis of liberal democracy? Is it simply part of the problem, as many now seem to think – particularly since the 2016 US presidential election? Or can technology be part of the solution?

Part of the reason it is so difficult to even begin answering these questions is that there is so little consensus about how to understand the current crisis of liberal democracy. This article identifies three distinct ways to think about the current crisis and elaborates on the implications of each for the specific question of the role of technology as a cause of, and as a potential solution to, it.

Populism

Perhaps the most prevalent prism through which the current crisis is seen is the concept of populism. Richard Hofstadter said in a famous lecture at the London School of Economics in 1967 that ‘everyone is talking about populism but no one can define it’. Although since then, political scientists like Jan-Werner Müller have come up with precise definitions of populism, there is still no shared definition.

Moreover, these academic definitions often exclude some of the figures, movements and parties that are routinely described as populist in policy debates – particularly those on the left. In practice, populism is often used as a ‘label that political elites attach to policies supported by ordinary citizens that they don’t like’, as Francis Fukuyama put it.

There has also been an ongoing debate about the relative weight of cultural and economic factors in the rise of populism throughout the West. Cultural factors include progressive value change since the 1960s, anger about immigration and racism and Islamophobia. Economic factors include wage stagnation, the loss of manufacturing jobs, growing inequality and economic insecurity or ‘precariousness’.

Nowhere can support for populist figures, movements and parties be simply reduced to either cultural or economic factors (though they may have different relative weight in different situations). Instead, populism is a function of a complex interaction between the two sets of factors that we are only beginning to understand.

It is difficult to know how technology – and in particular social media – fits in to this extremely complex context. Most analysts of populism see technology as being of marginal significance relative to cultural and economic factors in driving voters to embrace populist figures, movements and parties.

But there is little agreement about whether social media specifically strengthens populists over others political actors. Social media is widely believed to have empowered Donald Trump. But many of the techniques he used were pioneered by the Obama campaign – and a wide range of other figures, movements and parties like the democracy protesters in Tahrir Square in Egypt in 2011 and Black Lives Matter in the US have also used social media to mobilize.

Yascha Mounk argues that the real effect of social media is to empower all kinds of outsiders rather than populists as such. Social media closes the technological gap between insiders and outsiders and thus reduces the advantage that elites previously had in shaping political discourse.

Thus social media favours change over the status quo and the forces of instability over the forces of order. ‘In empowering outsiders, digital technology destabilizes governing elites all over the world and speeds up the pace of change,’ he writes.

Yet authoritarian governments are also increasingly using social media as a tool to increase social control and maintain ‘stability’ – and may yet turn out to be more successful than those who seek to overthrow them.

Other analysts argue that there is something specific about developments in digital technology that is inherently corrosive of democracy. For example, Jamie Bartlett argues that ‘information overload and connectivity has encouraged a divisive form of emotional tribal politics in which loyalty to the group and anger outrank reason and compromise.

Specifically, the ‘splintering of established mainstream news has allowed people to personalize their news sources in ways that play to their pre-existing biases’. This produces filter bubbles and echo chambers that in turn lead to the formation of ‘tribes’ who share a sense of struggle and grievance and leaders who are unable to reach the kind of compromises necessary to the functioning of liberal democracy.

Democratic deconsolidation

A second way to understand the current crisis is through the concept of democratic deconsolidation. Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk have drawn attention to the way that, across the West, the percentage of people who say it is ‘essential’ to live in a democracy has plummeted – especially, and most disturbingly, among younger generations.

The reasons for this are even less clear than the causes of populism. But part of the problem may be that democracy is too ‘analogue’. ‘The daily experience of liking and sharing posts on social media may habituate users to a simulated form of direct democracy that makes the existing institutions of representative democracy appear intolerably outmoded,’ Mounk writes.

However, if technology is in this sense part of the problem, it may also be part of the solution. There has been much discussion of the potential of digital technology to facilitate democratic participation and some have even seen the possibility of using it to scale up and update the kind of direct democracy that was once possible in ancient Greek city-states – a kind of ‘virtual agora’.

Yet so far, the results of experiments with online voting are underwhelming. Meanwhile the recent success of figures like Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom suggests that young people can be more effectively brought back into the political process through different policies. In short, in explaining democratic deconsolidation, the content of politics may more important than its form.

A hollowed-out democracy

A third way of thinking about the current crisis is the idea that, throughout the West, democracy has been gradually hollowed out over the last several decades. Although, formally, democracy continues to function, it has become increasingly empty – what the British sociologist Colin Crouch called ‘post-democracy’.

One version of this argument focuses on globalization and, related to this, the rise in the power of corporations to influence decisions that were previously taken by national governments in response to popular pressure. Others put the emphasis on the decline of political parties that once functioned as a vehicle of social interests and thus mediated between citizens and government.

What is significant about this idea of a kind of hollowing out of democracy is that it turns populism into a symptom rather than a cause of the current crisis of liberal democracy. Indeed, some analysts see a kind of symbiotic relationship between ‘post-democratic’ tendencies and the rise of the populism.

For example, the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde writes that ‘populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism’. Rather than being a function of the inability of democratic processes to respond quickly enough to the demands of impatient millennials, ‘democratic deconsolidation’ also becomes a (somewhat understandable) response to the failure of liberal democracy in the West.

A particularly interesting variation of this argument emphasizes the increasingly technocratic nature of governance in the context of globalization. In this analysis, populism is seen as a complement to technocracy.

This is particularly relevant within the European Union, which is perhaps the ultimate experiment in technocratic governance. In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that populists would emerge to challenge technocracy and seek to restore a sense of popular control – a European version of the increasing tension between ‘responsible’ and ‘responsive’ governance identified by the Irish political scientist Peter Mair.

This opens up another way of seeing technology as a potential solution to the current crisis of liberal democracy. Interestingly, many of the new political forces that are described as populist have experimented with technology as a way to reconnect voters with the political process.

Particularly intriguing in this context is the Five-Star Movement (M5S) in Italy. Chris Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti identify the M5S as a ‘techno-populist’ party – by which they mean both that it is technocratic (it rejects ideology and sees itself as pragmatic in the way that some centrists do) and that it uses digital technology to connect with voters. Similarly, Podemos, which emerged out of the anti-austerity Indignados movement in Spain, used online voting to produce a ‘participative’ election manifesto.

The use of digital technology at the level of political parties may have more potential to invigorate democracy than mere experiments with online voting. In particular, digital technology could help parties recover the role they once played in making government more responsive to the interests of particular groups.

Through applications and online platforms, citizens could perhaps shape the platforms of parties rather than simply voting once every four years or so for what Mair called ‘cartel parties’ from whom they are completely disconnected. That, in turn, might help bridge the gap between ‘responsible’ and ‘responsive’ government.

In other words, technology might help overcome technocracy.

Hans Kundnani Chatham House

Hans Kundnani is senior research fellow in the Europe Programme at Chatham House and leads the Commission on Democracy and Technology project.

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