Democracies Are Fighting for Their Lives


Democracies Are Fighting for Their Lives

Can they save themselves?

Political parties are pushed back from a proactive role to be a reactive player running after and trying to respond to questions raised by others. Such a role does not instill confidence among the electorate.

A deeply worrying element is what has taken place in the United States over the last two years with the President using social networks to spread news and information in a disruptive way. Apparently, he is bypassing the established system and is building his own channels to the electorate. He may win in the short term, but the victim of such behavior is the system itself being undermined from the top.

The widespread use of tweeting with a limit of one hundred to two hundred characters introduces an oversimplification of complex issues. The game is about who can win the attention of most people and that rules out a deeper analysis and long-term effects of policies.

6. Politicians are out of tune with the people, especially over immigration.

For most people globalization was all right as long as it meant free trade and foreign investment. But that attitude changed when they met globalization on a personal level with people behaving differently due to culture, race or religion. It unsettled them. Not only did a threat to their jobs arise, but their daily life was disrupted with people in shopping centers, at the workplace, in the neighborhood and their children’s school turned out to be “not like us.”

The cultural confrontation is most visible in European countries not used to receiving a large number of migrants. This is especially the case for migrants who have a different behavioral pattern than citizens who have lived there for generations. Suffice to mention the following figures showing the share of total population not born in the country they live: Sweden 18.5 percent, Austria 15.2 percent, Germany 14.9 percent, Norway 13.8 percent, UK 13.2 percent, France 11.1 percent, Spain 9.2 percent, Denmark 9 percent and Italy 8.3 percent. If immigrants were distributed around a country such figures might still have created a political problem but definitely a more manageable one. But they are not. Reports tell of small towns receiving a large number of refugees being lodged in sports halls turning daily life for people living there upside down.

Immigration is a sensitive issue mixing demography, economics, normative behavior and ethics. The political system has clearly failed to prepare citizens for an influx of this size. It has also forgotten to inform immigrants that they have chosen to come to a country with the implication that they adjust and cannot expect, and even less demand, that the host country adjusts to them. Immigrants and refugees form enclaves with the risk of parallel societies.

Both citizens and immigrants feel that they were never told the truth and blame the political system for omitting to do so. As they have nothing to lose and feel let down by political parties they turn to populism like Front National in France, Five Star Movement in Italy and Alternative for Germany in Germany. Persons outside the political system like Donald Trump are elected.

What happens now?

Liberal, representative democracy is mired in a clash between the less educated majority of people and those with higher education. Social networks have sharpened this confrontation by offering the majority something they didn’t have before: access to the media with the possibility of setting the agenda.

The outcome will be determined by how well democracies tackle two major problems connected with social networks. The first problem is to offer citizens the protection of their privacy. Democracy is the only system of government with powers invested in the people preventing abuse from the government that can be thrown out at the next election. The second problem is to get across to citizens that social networks are theirs and it is up to them to prevent fake news or similar wrong or harmful information. John Locke (1632–1704), hit on the right idea by saying that freedom depends on some kind of self-discipline among those who enjoy this privilege. The same approach can prevent social networks from being hijacked by destructive forces and turn it into an instrument supporting—not disrupting liberal—representative democracy. The free access to social networks can only survive if the users—the people—emerge as its guardians and weed out abuse and fake news, stopping those who use it for delusion and deceit.

The combination of mass communication, social networks, pressure from people in poor countries to enter developed nations and a growing power distance may produce a new political system. The emergence of populism, nationalism, and illiberal systems do not bode well for those believing in democracy, which can only survive if it solves problems people meet in their daily lives. Through social networks, people must get rid of “us versus them” and reinstate the electorate’s confidence in seeing the system as theirs.

Democracies are fighting for their lives and there are nine major challenges they face. In this first article of a two-part series, the first six were examined. Read part two here.

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. He is also an Adjunct Professor Singapore Management University & Copenhagen Business School and an Honorary Alumni of the University of Copenhagen.

Image: Reuters