The Downfall of Democracy

Holden Lamberson

The golden age of democracies, which took place all over the world between 1945 and 2000, has come to an end. During that period, the number of democratic nations grew from a mere twelve to a burgeoning eighty-seven. Since then, however, the democratic movement not only has slowed down, it has reversed direction. In fact, the rate at which democracies are collapsing is faster than the rate at which new democracies are being formed. Instead, far-right movements are emerging at a rapid pace, with populism being a forerunner. Indeed, right-wing populist parties in Europe have more than tripled over the last twenty or so years, and countries such as France, Poland, Italy, Brazil, the Philippines, the Netherlands, Belgium, India, Indonesia, and Israel have faced serious populist threats in the last decade alone. The United Kingdom’s BREXIT plan is a textbook example of the influence that a populist party can have on a nation. At the onset of COVID-19, at the behest of the President to employ emergency measures, the Hungarian government canceled elections indefinitely and allowed the President to shut down any media outlets. With its appeal to “ordinary” people who feel their needs and concerns have been ignored by the “elite,” populism is not a new concept. However, the ease at which populist parties and their leaders are able to use social media to reach more and more people and make such a great political impact is new. Additionally, because the system of democracy heavily relies on individual information gathering, democracies are vulnerable to populist challenges as misinformation seems to be the name of the game in modern-day elections. 

One reason far right political parties are making such headway in democratic nations may very well be due to a fundamental tenet of democracy, namely, to be effective, democracy requires individuals to competently sort through true and false information about political candidates and issues before casting their ballots. Simply put, democracy depends on the average voter judging candidates based only on the merits. While in theory, performing this civic duty seems reasonable, even desirable for those who recognize the importance of being able to exercise their right to vote. In reality, however, the reliance on skilled and unbiased information gathering by individuals is an inherent flaw in the democratic system. It is human nature for individuals to seek out and agree with information that reaffirms their beliefs regardless of whether this information is false. Likewise, individuals tend to disagree with information that conflicts with their opinions regardless of its truth. As ridiculous as it sounds, most individuals do not pay attention to information at all when it comes time to vote and cast their ballots based solely on the physical appearance of candidates. Even if this was not true and individuals set aside their biases when researching political candidates, parsing out fact from fiction has become a nearly impossible task due to the glut of information available on social media and the high probability that such information goes viral. For example, in the months leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, nearly ten million people read about Pope Francis endorsing Trump on Facebook — that this report was patently false made no difference in the expansive reach of this story. Social media allows misinformation to thrive, which muddles the informational waters and inhibits democratic functions.

A second reason underlying the successful rise of politically far right movements in democratic nations is the growing appeal of populism. According to the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, populism has two central assertions: (1) there is a group of “true people,” who are in conflict with other groups, and (2) because these “true people” are in the right, no constraints should be applied to them. Populists use broad, undefined policies to communicate an underlying message with the intent to differentiate the group of “true people” from everybody else. In other words, populist leaders create crises by manipulating public perceptions to cause division within nations and disruption among their people. Populism embraces anti-establishment strategies, like decrying technocratic approaches to politics, disregarding experts, and delegitimizing political opponents. Populist leaders seek to remove constraints of the “true people,” and by extension, their own constraints as leaders or government officials in an attempt to gain more power and control. These leaders have the power to go one step farther than social media’s proliferation of misinformation, as they can take direct actions designed to destabilize entire democracies. Rather than solve problems they have identified, or perhaps created, populist leaders give those who feel disenfranchised someone to blame and a reason to act against them.  

Modern democracies must address the challenge that individuals’ biases impact their decisions at the ballot box. That people’s political views of the world easily can be manipulated by largely unregulated social media outlets only serves to embolden some politicians’ attempts to do whatever is necessary to either gain or retain power in government. Some far right populist parties seem to adopt this strategy unabashedly, capitalizing on the fears and growing discontent of groups of people who feel slighted by more elite groups. The end result is that votes are cast and elections are won based on untruths.  

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