The recent protests in Lebanon, Iraq, Chile, and Hong Kong, among other countries have caught the world’s attention, for their intensity and temporal proximity. While at first glance they might seem to be about very different issues, there are some common threads that unite them. One is a demand for greater socio-economic justice in a time where global inequality is extreme, and economic hardship is widespread. In this scenario increases in the costs of basic goods and services—e.g. petrol (France), metro (Chile) or WhatsApp (Lebanon) can serve to spark mass protests. Many of these protests are led by members of a millennial generation that --even in wealthy countries-face an uncertain future likely characterized by increasing precariousness and debt.
But this is only one side of the picture. The protests today are a continuation of the global wave that emerged following the crash of 2007/2008. There, the youth without future challenged the idea that economic crises were the result of abstract, global capitalist forces and instead placed the blame squarely on economic and political elites. They made clear that in addition to economic inequality we are also living through a global democratic crisis. Whether protesters are demanding democracy in authoritarian contexts or better democracy in more liberal ones, there is a widespread feeling that political representatives are not governing to meet citizen needs but colluding with economic elites to govern in their own interests, and scandals like the Panama Papers lend credence to these claims. Paradoxically, widespread dissatisfaction with democracy does not decrease commitment to democracy as a value. People still believe in and want democracy, they just don’t think their democracies are working very well. And they are right.
Current democratic systems are based on a competitive model that is not capable of responding to pressing global challenges
Current democratic systems are based on a competitive model that is not capable of responding to pressing global challenges. One reason is that electoral logics encourage parties to magnify their differences and downplay the common ground between them, not only across central cleavages (e.g. left/right) but also and often especially with those parties with which they have the most in common. The performance of difference and conflict continues into the theatre of parliament, where party members continue to work against each other (or pretend to) as they jockey for power and visibility, always with an eye to the next election. This longstanding problem has been exacerbated by the contemporary media ecology which offers new opportunities to gain greater media share through polarizing discourse, effectively exploited by the far right. It is not a coincidence that the US and the UK currently have political leaders who openly express inflammatory discriminatory views supported by false “evidence”. They were helped on their way by political systems that don’t work to advance the most qualified candidates but also by a media system that that thrives on attention grabbing content. In the 2016 US election, for example, Trump spent about half as much as Clinton yet got 50% more media coverage equivalent to about 5.6 billion dollars in free media coverage.
What is more, politicians like Trump and Johnson know that not only does their callous disregard for truth and antics not have any negative consequences for them, it actually increases their media reach. Even serious journalists who challenge the veracity of false claims while reporting them are still amplifying the message. Journalists are still following practices that are no longer fit for purpose in the contemporary media scenario, but finding viable alternatives and shifting long established media cultures is difficult. Even more worrying is the weaponisation of social media through the application of psychological warfare propaganda tactics to interfere in elections and influence political opinion, a strategy that appears to have had a significant impact on both the US 2016 general elections and the Brexit referendum, (as the Cambridge Analytica scandal shows) and has been used effectively to demobilize voters and influence elections around the world . Platforms like Facebook, whose profit is generated by the commodification of our attention, still refuse to fact check the content of political advertising. Ironically, they cling to freedom of speech to justify practices that are one of the most worrying and least visible of all current threats to democracy. As Sacha Baron Cohen put it, they would have happily let Hitler run political ads. Although in theory these tactics can be used by any well-resourced political actor, according to investigative journalism by Open Democracy there has been a concerted campaign to fuel far right movements and parties in Europe by wealthy US Christian Conservatives. Increasing support for far-right politics is not simply the result of ideological preferences, but is actively and strategically fuelled by actors who seek to increase discord. Political representation and leadership by far-right politicians not only leads to regressive policies but legitimizes and emboldens violence against target groups (e.g. women, immigrants, religious groups), which spikes following key events such as the Brexit referendum.
Over the past decade progressive activists have mobilized on behalf of marginalized and oppressed groups, brought down authoritarian governments, exposed corruption
Mass mobilizations embody and express deep social conflicts. Some are the result of a system that is designed and built on inequality and competition, rather than common well-being and cooperation. But others are stoked by those whose anti-democratic agendas thrive in the current media landscape. Hypermediated politics replaces much political action with political communication, and when that communication loses any necessary correlation with truth, facts and evidence, democracy becomes eroded. If in addition social media platforms foster misinformation aimed at increasing polarization the climate of contention increases.
For their part, as protesters take to the streets around the world, in many cases they face brutal repression, as do the brave journalists who cover them. Repression further erodes democracy, because the right to protest, freedom of speech, and assembly are basic democratic rights. Despite this, protests continue to spread and grow, as activists defy curfews and bans in places like Iraq, Lebanon, Chile and Hong Kong, and demand greater socio-economic justice, democracy and equality. Remarkably, they mobilize not just anger but also celebration. In Iraq -where at least 264 protesters have been killed- protesters danced together in the streets; in Lebanon protesters overcame divisions that have long characterized competing political factions to unite in one demand: “They should all go”, a sentiment echoed in protests around the world. Over the past decade progressive activists have mobilized on behalf of marginalized and oppressed groups, brought down authoritarian governments, exposed corruption and malfeasance at the highest levels, and campaigned against climate change and war. Democracy is in crisis. At great personal risk and cost they have done their best to fight for democracy. It’s time for their political representatives to do the same.