Democracy’s modern journey began with the simultaneous claim of its crisis, although it was only the turmoil of the 1920s that set the tone for its most dramatic setback, as Ira Katznelson has shown in Fear Itself (2013). With the end of the Cold War, constitutional democracy won global recognition. Today, it has no legitimate competitor in terms of civil and political liberty.
Yet it is no less vulnerable now than a century ago. In Europe and the United States, poverty is on the rise. The plague of unemployment and the erosion of welfare policies have had devastating effects on electoral participation and citizens’ confidence in political institutions. As some neo-Marxist scholars argued in the 1970s, political democracy seems unable to mitigate the harshness of capitalism or realize the ideal of equal citizenship impermeable to socioeconomic inequality.
Within this context, two currents of political analysis have emerged in recent decades: one that connects the decline of democratic efficiency with the decline of state efficacy in areas from border control and human rights to social policies, and a second that situates the weakening of democracy in a causal relationship with the financialization of capitalism, the erosion of organized labor, and the expansion of neoliberal politics of deregulation and privatization. Both analyses point to an economic crisis—the growth of nonpolitical actors (market agencies and multinational corporations above all) within a global system of power relations that humiliates the institutions traditionally associated with the sovereign state, in which contemporary democracy developed. Moreover, this crisis occurs at a time when all human relations are experiencing the formidable effect of the Internet, perhaps the most important technological revolution since mechanical printing in the 1450s.
Economic crisis and new media have encumbered democracy.
Economic crisis and new media technology encumber representative institutions in their own ways. The former inhibits human agency, while the latter expands it for millions in many domains of life. Accordingly, political institutions are under stress both because their deliberative nature makes them act slowly and without guarantee of competent outcomes and because new media amplify their dysfunction while reinforcing citizens’ beliefs that politics no longer needs intermediaries. Calls to empower experts and upset the party system profit from the same factor that empowers the critics of parliamentary democracy—the Internet. New media thus seem equally capable of facilitating political verticalization—e.g., epistocracy, the rule of the most knowledgeable—and a horizontal expansion of the public. These scenarios are contradictory, but each is characterized by distrust in traditional representative institutions (the parliamentary system in particular) and each relies on the potential of the Internet and the erosion of socioeconomic equality.
In sum, a combination of economic and technological factors makes today’s democratic crisis different from previous ones, although parliamentary democracy is once again the main target. Today we are witnessing a variety of attacks against the rule of law, constitutional democracy, and the institutions of representative government. These attacks involve efforts to weaken the power of judicial institutions over, and the protection of civil rights against, the will of elected majorities (Hungary); bypass political parties (Iceland); and create Web-driven parties with no organized structure (Italy’s 5 Stars Movement).
Thus, one novel aspect of the present crisis of legitimacy of parliamentary democracy is a revolt against the intermediary bodies that made it possible—political parties and professional journalism. The Internet’s horizontal simplification of information and participation enacts what I would call a live-broadcasting representative democracy. The driving logic here is not direct democracy but representative democracy operated by the elected and the citizens together. It is hard to evaluate the consequences these efforts will have for representative democracy, but one thing is clear. While they don’t trigger direct democracy, they reflect the desire of citizens for unmediated communication with representative institutions. As such, they reveal a deeper lack of trust in parties and traditional media than in representative democracy itself.