Democracies in the Age of Fragmentation
13 Pages Posted: 24 May 2022
Date Written: May 21, 2022
Democracies throughout the West are unable to marshal wide-enough support to deliver effective government. The communications revolution is one reason why, and we have not yet fully grasped the profound challenge social media poses to democracies. Even if the problems of disinformation, misinformation, incitement, and the like could somehow be solved, that challenge would remain.
The political turbulence social media has fueled takes many different forms, which this essay chronicles. In the United States, it has enabled the rise of independent, free-agent politicians, who party leaders cannot corral to generate a unified party agenda. The internet has also spawned the rise of small donors, one effect of which is to fuel the extremes of the parties. In Europe, social media has led to the sudden emergence of digital “pop-up” parties that have dramatically disrupted politics, such as the Brexit Party in the UK and the Five Star Party in Italy. The communications revolution has also facilitated the rise of spontaneous, non-organized groups that have completely roiled politics, such as the Indignados in Spain or the Yellow Vests in France. Because these groups lack structure and leaders, democratic governments find it difficult to respond to vague, shifting demands. Even atomistic individuals, acting through social media but outside of any party or organizational context, have had major disruptive effects on politics in some countries.
Political authority must be accountable, of course, and badly exercised power deserves challenge. But democracies now function in an era in which the challenge to them is constant. This new democratic era might be one in which new technologies will enable many more people to engage in forms of politics, individually and in groups or parties. Opposition to government action, or demands for government to act or act differently, will be easy to mobilize and constant. Politics and government will be continually turbulent, but less able to deliver effectively on the issues citizens care most urgently about.
This essay, forthcoming in the Calif. L. Rev., explores the challenges democracies throughout the West face in this new communications age.
Keywords: demoracy, social media, fragmentation, political parties, communications, protests, social movements
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