Political Fragmentation in Democracies of the West
68 Pages Posted: 5 Oct 2021 Last revised: 3 Apr 2023
Date Written: October 2, 2021
The decline of effective government throughout most Western democracies poses one of the greatest challenges democracy currently confronts. The importance of effective government receives too little attention in democratic and legal theory, yet the inability to deliver effective government can lead citizens to alienation, distrust, and withdrawal from participation, and worse, to endorse authoritarian leaders who promise to cut through the dysfunctions of democratic governments.
A major reason for this decline in effective government is that democracies have become more politically fragmented. Political power has been dispersed among many more political parties, organized groups, and even more spontaneous, instantly mobilized non-formal groups. In the proportional-representation systems of Western Europe, power is now divided across many more political parties, including recent, insurgent ones. In the first-past-the-post system of the United States, the main parties are much more internally fragmented. Outside groups, and even individual actors, have far greater power to disrupt and undermine government efforts to forge policy than in the past.
This article expands and extends earlier work I have done on political fragmentation in the United States. It identifies the various forms political fragmentation has taken across Western democracies in general. The article then explores some of the major economic and cultural forces that are fueling fragmentation across most Western democracies.
This piece then turns to a substantial analysis of the communications revolution, as another major cause of the political fragmentation in democracies today. The challenge this revolution poses to democratic government is more profound than more familiar concerns with disinformation, misinformation, offensive speech, and the like. The communications revolution might inherently undermine the capacity for legitimate, broadly accepted political authority – the authority necessary to be able to govern effectively in democratic systems. Political fragmentation is the result of dissatisfaction with the way democracies have been governing, yet it also makes effective governance all the more difficult. Though there is insufficient appreciation of this new era of political fragmentation, overcoming this fragmentation and delivering effective governance is among the most urgent challenges facing democracies across the West.
Keywords: democracy, political parties, governance
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