Navigating Change: How to save democracy
By Ed Amory, CEO
In the summer heat of Britain, facing an unprecedented economic crisis, we almost can’t be bothered to choose between the various dismal alternatives to our catastrophic experiment with Boris as Prime Minister. In America, the President struggles to speak without notes while Donald Trump, who did his best to overturn the outcome of the last election, is bizarrely resurgent. In Italy the parties have ousted a competent technocrat and will replace him with an incompetent populist. In Germany, an apparent nonentity struggles with problems beyond his control. In India, a demagogue with a record of inciting ethnic violence has now been in power for nearly a decade.
Democracy is failing global electorates, offering extreme populist choices from an ever shallower gene pool. The quality of democratic debate and decision making declines by the day. Lying has become acceptable, incitement to violence commonplace, corruption surprising when absent. And much of this within the last decade; prior to that, an optimist could have believed that we were still on a path to a global progressive democratic future. Today the autocrats look like the winners.
The digital threat to democracy
What went wrong, and is there anything we can do about it? While there have always been demagogues and dangerous populists within the democratic structure, and sometimes they have been propelled to power, the extent of the current malaise is unprecedented, so some new factor must be at play.
The most obvious culprit is social media, which increasingly dominates the lives of voters in many democracies, and has two obvious impacts on the political process. First, it offers a platform to individuals that allow them to bypass traditional political structures. This can be a positive – Greta Thunberg – but also permitted Donald Trump to ignore the laws of previous political physics, and win an election in which he spent only half as much as Hilary Clinton. This removes some of the checks and balances from the system. Second, social media has created for many of us our own personal echo chambers, in which we endlessly hear back our own views reflected by others. The effect is to make many of us that little bit more narrowminded, more extreme, more certain. Fertile ground for a populist demagogue who feeds our fears and our certainties.
So given that in the short term at least, these impacts are likely to accelerate and deepen rather than diminish, what can we do to ensure that our democracies are not captured by the extreme and the inept?
Failure of constitutions and banning bad actors
First, what won’t work. Constitutions have often been seen as a bulwark against bad actors in government, and Britain’s absence of a written constitution was exploited by Boris Johnson during his premiership to manipulate some political outcomes. But the American constitution did little to protect its citizens against Donald Trump, and his packing of the Supreme Court is now allowing the constitution to be further manipulated for populist political ends.
Second, banning these bad actors from social media. The first problem with this is defining those bad actors. Certainly those platforms that banned Donald Trump thought they were doing the right thing, but can it ever be a good idea in a democracy for commercial companies to choose which politicians should or should not have access to their platforms? Nor does Donald Trump’s removal from some of these platforms seem to have diminished his impact or popularity.
What institutions are necessary for a healthy democratic state?
Perhaps instead it’s worth thinking about what, if we were building a democracy from scratch, would be required. A few years ago I worked with the leaders of a country facing complex challenges on exactly this issue. The answer was surprisingly simple:
- First, honest and independent media institutions. Currently these are either lacking or under threat in many supposedly mature democracies.
- Second, an independent judiciary, which we do still have in Britain but whose existence in America, say, is now more questionable.
- Third, clearly defined mass participation political parties.
This last is the greatest challenge facing many mature democracies, where ordinary people have abandoned politics to a small band of the politically motivated, and then complain when the result is not to their taste. We need to return to the world of Burke’s “little platoons”:
To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.
Without that first link, the resulting edifice has no foundations. Only by rebuilding our democratic process from the ground up, by accepting that we cannot as individuals contract out our obligation to engage as citizens, can we hope to protect democracy in an age of social media demagogues.