Democracy protects the rights and freedoms of the individual; it aims to ensure political institutions are representative of the views of society through public votes; it enshrines checks and balances between political branches; and it upholds the rule of law. These features of liberal democratic systems are rightly viewed as the most desirable means of government. Yet, this democratic model is greatly threatened in the 21st century – the rise of the extreme right, the rapid and unregulated advances in digital media and the disconnect between the populace and their representatives amasses to a cosmic threat to liberal democracy.
Far-right parties have taken root across many European democracies – in France, the Front National made it all the way to the final stage of Presidential elections; in Germany, the Alternative for Germany party form the largest opposition party in the Bundestag; in Austria, the Freedom Party are instituted in a coalition government; in Poland and Hungary authoritarian groups are forming governments. Such a proliferation of the far-right amounts to what Galston of the Brookings institute described as the ‘populist threat to liberal democracy‘: the success of such parties undermines the democratic system as they stand diametrically opposed to some core aspects of democracy, such as the protections of the rights of minorities. The far-right groups in Poland and Hungary have displayed that when these parties can successfully form governments, they can make material steps in undermining democracy: here we see the democratic checks and balances being destroyed and the freedom of the press being stifled. With the continual support of such parties, it seems like the Western democratic model is in danger.
Further dangers to the western democratic model are found in the way Russia and other nations can and do interfere in foreign elections. Not only creating transnational distrust and divisions, it also discredits our democratic model as the results of elections are not the product of a fair and open political debate. For example, Russian interference has been evidenced in the US presidential election, the Brexit referendum and the recent European elections. They spread disinformation, amplify distrust towards mainstream parties, and weaponize these technological advances against democratic institutions.
Despite holding the capacity to generate a more informed, engaged and active electorate, the advances in media comes with another danger. Social media has heralded the replacement of ‘broadcasting’ with ‘narrowcasting’ – previously the public were exposed to a broad range of viewpoints, whereas now social media exclusively presents us with our views. This stifles political debate as our echo chambers prevent true engagement with differing viewpoints. Sadly, these advances in digital media and the existence of interference from foreign actors is detrimental to the democratic process.
But the declining turnout at democratic elections, the world over, is perhaps the most concerning threat to a healthy chain of democracy. In Europe, turnout is plummeting as established democracies face continual electoral decline. This disconnect between the electorate and their representatives threatens the legitimacy of democratic systems. The reasons for poor turnout at elections are complex, but the disjunct between political parties and the populace lies at the heart of this issue. People don’t believe political parties represent their views; people don’t believe political parties serve their interests; people don’t believe political parties are willing to sacrifice their own agendas for the good of the country. Take the UK as an example – the Brexit stalemate shows a complete inability of politicians to compromise with those they disagree with, to respect the views of others, to transgress the interest of their party. Solace is sought in far-right parties who play on this disconnect as voters become altogether disillusioned with our democratic institutions.
Democracies have been overthrown through violence, revolutions and coups; but the 21st century is witnessing more subtle and insidious threats that are creating a rip in the democratic fabric of the west and posing an existential challenge to its survival. Social media companies should take greater responsibility for preventing the exploitation of their platforms by external actors; people should uphold the democratic necessity of engaging opposing viewpoints; and mainstream political parties should find a way to reconnect to the electorate. This will take time, but these threats must be combatted if we want to regenerate true democratic models.