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Populism and Digital Democracy

New technologies offer the reality of much wider access to political information and conversation, and the potential for greater governmental transparency and citizen participation . They also enable money to buy attention, simplistic mass messages to displace more sophisticated information and debate, and demagogues to broaden their reach

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Progress is seldom a simple, straight path. New opportunities come with new risks. Efforts to build a better future undermine the security existing institutions provide. 
 
Pursuing the dream of digital democracy is no exception. New technologies offer the reality of much wider access to political information and conversation, and the potential for greater governmental transparency and citizen participation. They also enable money to buy attention, simplistic mass messages to displace more sophisticated information and debate, and demagogues to broaden their reach. Should we damn the technologies, just say it will all work out, or look more deeply into what is going on?
 
Combining openness and quality
 
Modern democracies – and even non-democratic but still participatory republics - are founded partly on an 18th century ideal: that high standards of rational-critical political debate can be sustained while political participation and access to relevant information are expanded to previously excluded populations. This ideal has been tested throughout the modern era.
 
It is worth recalling that the vast majority of Americans were illiterate when the US was founded. Around the world the coming of mass literacy dramatically increased the reach of political debate. In China’s 1919 May 4th Movement – with its famous slogan ‘science and democracy’ - language reform was seen as basic to enabling ordinary people to read, multiplying the impact of the printing press in the country where it was invented but where complex old-fashioned characters had long limited its impact. 
 
Literacy did bring wider political participation

Literacy did bring wider political participation. So, did the 20th century spread of radio and TV. But each technology supported appeals to the lowest common denominator and often mass prejudices as well as the development of more educated citizens. Just to take US examples, radio supported Father Coughlin’s nasty, anti-Semitic and quasi-fascist movement in the 1930s; TV supported Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare. 

Behind the camera during filming at a CBS news desk in 1967
 
Anxious about the use of new media to spread innuendo, scurrilous personal attacks, and outright lies many today bemoan the decline of newspapers. But appearing in physically printed form did not guarantee the press would publish true facts or intelligent commentary. Radio and TV opened cultural and news access to populations that often preferred crass entertainment. Concerned about potential market failures, many governments responded by sponsoring state media to ensure more highbrow programming was available. Some, like Britain’s BBC, became major global resources. States also regulated content and ownership structures, not least to avoid monopoly.
 
Here there is a clue to today’s situation. Some of what we see may not reflect inherent features of digital technology, but the fact that digital media are not comparably regulated or complemented by institutions developed to try to make sure the public good, or the good of diverse legitimate perspectives, is consistently served. Since the 1970s, while digital media have grown more prominent, we have seen a substantial deterioration of institutions in many of the world’s well-off countries. Deregulation is part of this, but so is the decline of trade unions, political parties, churches, and the range of voluntary organizations that provided citizens with contexts in which to interpret politics. The creation of new institutions may be important – as with state channels in the broadcast era. Already philanthropists are seeking to create sustainable structures for high quality media. 
 
Visual content also plays a role in Donald Trump’s version of politics as spectacle, producing dramas of moral outrage and emotional release akin to professional wrestling

Still, today’s new technologies do have distinctive features. They integrate visual and aural media with text – and visual content allows them both to cross language boundaries and to make visceral, emotional appeals. Visual content gave power and reach to the Arab Spring five years ago. But visual content also plays a role in Donald Trump’s version of politics as spectacle, producing dramas of moral outrage and emotional release akin to professional wrestling.
 
Today’s digital media are more interactive – hence the name social media. They allow more users to be creators and not just receivers of messages – though this doesn’t guarantee that the creators are very creative; many just repeat what they have heard elsewhere. And in fact, research into media audiences has revealed that they were never quite as passive as some have thought. The reception of media messages was always shaped by discussion among audience members – including often loud dissent from what those controlling the media sought to make their message. Social media today give wider reach to such commentary. One of the most important implications is that people with extreme views who might be outliers in their local communities may gain a sense of being part of a movement with critical mass from hooking up with distant others. Perhaps because it is not constrained by the need to maintain good relations in local communities, online communication seems particularly prone to incivility. But online communication also comes with radically transformed access to high quality information and analysis. Social media are vehicles for sharing and recommending longer reading as much as they are pressures for reduction of all messages to the scale of slogans. The effect is as radical as the spread of libraries alongside literacy. Of course not everyone used them, but they were extraordinarily important for those who did. 
 
Double movement
 
Watching the debased political campaigns of the current US election or the recent Brexit referendum in Britain, it is easy to conclude that we have simply entered an era when facts and rational argument are losing their purchase. Some are tempted to blame technology for this. But it may be better to see the need for what the great economist and sociologist Karl Polanyi called a ‘double movement’. Technological and economic advances are necessarily disruptive, Polanyi argued. The industrial revolution broke down community-level institutions that provided support for workings during cyclical hard times, in personal misfortunes, and in old age. But it took many decades and considerable struggle before replacements were created. Welfare states were a central part of this, but so was the development of insurance companies (and government regulation to ensure that insurance companies were run with appropriate standards).
 
The industrial revolution broke down community-level institutions that provided support for workings during cyclical hard times, in personal misfortunes, and in old age

Dramatic transformations seldom follow straight paths of progress. They run zig-zag courses in which striking forward movement is also disruptive and in which the public good depends not just on the initial innovations but on effective compensatory institutions. Populist movements often arise when disruptions have not been matched by the second half of a double-movement that would ensure wider participation in the benefits of innovation. They seldom grasp issues clearly or immediately offer viable policy solutions. They often express old prejudices as well as more legitimate frustrations. They are prone to a tone of resentment. But they also reflect real concerns.
 
It is a rare discussion of digital technology today which doesn’t include reference to Luddites and worry that temporary problems will become a basis for trying to block new technology in general. As it happens, the original Luddites who startled England in 1811 were not against all forms of new technology. They were framework knitters whose livelihoods depended on a specific, relatively recent technology. But the introduction of a newer technology in a unilateral way – to the advantage of machinery owners not workers – threatened to destroy their craft and communities. They lost their struggle and in fact, the new technology did what they expected. Their real wages went down, generally for the remainder of their lives. Nothing got better for their children or communities for at least 30 years and then mainly on the basis of transition to other trades and new cycles of disruption and struggle. For workers in general, overall real wages remained near constant for a hundred years while output rose dramatically. And real wages rose in the 20th century partly because of unionization and the Labour Party. 
 
Populism
 
In techno-economic change, net gains almost always come with distributive inequalities. Those who get the new jobs are not those who lose the old ones. This produces a correct sense of being left out or cheated and occasions populist pushback. In addition, technological-economic change generally disrupts old safety nets. Globalization exacerbates both trends. Resentment and real problems follow. 
 
The point is not that everyone voting for Trump or Brexit or using social media to spread messages of populist resentment or outright racism is suffering economically. Some are. Some worry they might be next. But the wider complaint is less poverty than a sense of unfairness. 
 
Feeling that they are falling behind in the pursuit of their dreams populists often blame those they think are 'cutting in line' like immigrants and other minorities or women, making them ‘strangers in their own land’ in the phrase of Arlie Hochschild. Feeling their safety nets are under pressure, they blame those who compete for benefits; they lash out at the visible face of change in institutions and communities, and appeal to an alleged lost golden age.This may be rooted in illegitimate claims to entitlement. White men may think the gains of women and racial minorities are all reductions in what was rightfully theirs. This is part of how populist resentment over changes due to technology and globalization gets attached to racism, sexism, and anti-immigrant feelings. But in condemning what is in fact a claim to privilege not fairness, we should not forget that people are really struggling to adapt to momentous change. 

Resentment is heightened when elites who benefit from technology and globalization don't seem really to care about those who feel they are losing out
 
One side of disruptive change is the creation of new wealth in which most people do not share. Another side is the disruption of relatively stable social structures on which people have depended. Resentment is heightened when elites who benefit from technology and globalization don't seem really to care about those who feel they are losing out. Resentment is even worse when elites seem to dismiss their anxieties or look at them as just backward. And resentment is reinforced when there is no clear, widely understood narrative to give a sense of legitimacy and shared progress to patterns of change. 
 
Building a welfare state was one response to the uneven benefits and genuine losses brought by technology and globalization - or put another way, of capitalism. It was only achieved in struggle, but it helped to create a narrative of collective benefit. But welfare states have been weakened since the 1970s and may never be rebuilt. There are also market and philanthropic responses and potential narratives. But whatever the approach to successful ‘double movement’ it's key to recognize that it is needed. Populism doesn't come just from wider political participation as such, or from new media. It comes from social change. 

We live in an era we might call the after-party
 
In fact, populism is not all bad. Without it, elites are prone to ignore the way technological-economic changes and globalization affect many ordinary people. Populism can tilt left or right – and both varieties have been on display since the financial crisis and in the current year. But populism has some severe limitations: (1) It is reliant on demagogues and thereby both vulnerable and likely to short-circuit real political debate in favor of spectacles and recitations of grievances. (2) It is mainly reactive and not very good at producing proactive solutions. Populist voters express their frustrations; they seldom put forward viable policy proposals. (3) It is prone to Golden Age delusions. There can be inspiration in the past, but efforts to return to it seldom work. More importantly, the past was seldom as perfect as ideological assertions about it suggest.
 
We live in an era we might call the after-party. Conventional political parties still exist, but have lost much of their capacity to organize political competition and compromises. They are prime examples of the institutional deficit that shapes media and politics today. In their place are a variety of mechanisms for channeling money into media and a variety of mini-movements that find it hard to gain realistic purchase on practical problems. Something good could be developed to replace political parties. But in the meantime, we are in a bit of the situation of late-night revelers who want to keep going after the formally organized parties close. There can be some great moments for a range of individuals and small groups. There is likely to be a lot of risk-taking. And there will probably be some real stupidity.