It probably goes without saying at this point, but democratic institutions are experiencing something of a crisis. The last decade has seen an increasing trend toward right-wing populism around the world, from Donald Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to the rise of autocratic regimes in Poland and Hungary. These developments are particularly troubling considering they are occurring in countries ruled by nominally democratic governments, even though democracy is meant to be a bulwark against exactly this kind of political extremism.
Although political theorists have long considered democratic governments to be among the most stable forms of governance, new research by an international team of complex systems theorists that analyzes how democracies become destabilized suggests that the stability of democratic governments has been taken for granted. As detailed in a paper published this week in the European Journal of Physics, Wiesner and an international team of mathematicians, psychologists, political theorists, and philosophers focused on two features of complex social systems—feedback loops and stability—to better understand why democracies around the world are backsliding.
“Times have changed,” Karoline Wiesner, a mathematician at the University of Bristol and the lead author of the new study said in a statement. “Citizens of democracies are becoming less content with their institutions. They are increasingly willing to ditch institutions and norms that have been central to democracy. They are more attracted to alternative, even autocratic regime types.”
When the researchers entered “threat to democracy” in the media search engine Factiva they found just over 1,500 articles mentioning including that phrase between 1970 and 2010. By comparison, between 2010 and the present, there were over 1,700 articles containing the same phrase. According to the researchers this indicates that there is a widespread public perception that democracies around the world are backsliding.
More objective measures also add weight to this perception. The Freedom House democracy index, for example, measures the strength of democracies around the world according to a rubric that takes into account things like free and fair elections, a free press, and civil liberties. According to Freedom House, almost twice as many countries registered a decline in these democratic markers this year compared to the number of countries that saw an increase in democratic principles. This marked the twelfth consecutive year that the nonprofit saw a global decline in democracy.
But what Wiesner and her collaborators wanted to understand was the socio-economic and political mechanisms that are driving this democratic decline.
Their research shows how feedback loops are intimately connected to the health of democratic institutions. For example, the researchers found that economic inequality and a healthy democracy are closely linked. In cases where economic inequality vastly increases between a society’s wealthiest and poorest—such as after the 2008 financial collapse—democracy also suffers.
“This is because democracy presupposes a basic equality of influence,” Wiesner and her colleagues wrote. “But when economic inequality increases, so do differences in influence over institutions. Those who have large financial resources can better influence institutional change than those who do not. A shock increase in economic inequality leads to corrosion of the relationship between less well-off voters' choices and institutional outcomes. It may even lead to effective or actual non-democratic rule.”
Yet it’s not just economic factors that contribute to the erosion of democracy. The researchers also found that having a population with too diverse of opinions can also destabilize a healthy democracy. The negative effects an extremely diverse population are also compounded by radicalization and polarization. The former can be characterized as political actions that bend or break longstanding norms and the latter is best understood as the breakdown of collective faith. In other words, polarization can lead to autocratic leaders because polarized constituents may believe it is better to let democracy wither than have their opponent in power.
The researchers attribute this in part to news organizations in countries like the United States where the media is less regulated than, say, Russia.
“Talk radio and Fox News have long catered to a conservative constituency hungry for information and perspectives that confirm its beliefs,” the researchers wrote. "This creates a feedback loop fed by commercial imperatives between the media and its listeners. In fact, they and their listeners and viewers created an entire mythological universe, in which Barack Obama was collaborating with internationalists to take away guns from conservatives.”
Moreover, the researchers noted that partisan competition and “the need to support or thwart policy goals” also create feedback loops between media and political actors. They point to climate change, which has become a “banner of partisan identity thanks to a the combination of conservative media and pseudo-scientific think tanks” as a prime example of this sort of feedback loop.
Finally, the researchers found that the erosion of widely held social norms can also significantly contribute to the breakdown of a healthy democracy. They argue that this is fueled in no small part today by social media.
“Extreme views can move into the mainstream when they are legitimised by actual or presumed majority endorsement,” Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist at the University of Bristol said in a statement. “The fact that any opinion, no matter how absurd, will be shared by at least some of the more than one billion Facebook users worldwide creates an opportunity for the emergence of a false consensus effect around any fringe opinion, because the social signal is distorted by global interconnectivity."
The role played by social media in the breakdown of democracy is compounded by the fact that political players can use the massive amounts of data about users to craft specially targeted messages that exploit individual voters’ specific fears or opinions. Indeed, Cambridge Analytica famously sold Facebook user data to political campaigns that was used to influence elections in the United States as well as the “Brexit” referendum in the UK.
“A stabilising feature of a democratic system—opinion exchange—breaks down when this possibility for engagement and debate is destroyed because messages are disseminated in secret, targeting individuals based on their personal vulnerabilities to persuasion, without their knowledge and without the opponent being able to rebut any of those arguments,” Wiesner said. "These impacts of social media on public discourse show how democracies can be vulnerable in ways against which institutional structures and historical traditions offer little protection.”