Friday’s newsletter is a discussion with Max Fisher, an international reporter and columnist for The New York Times who covers conflict, diplomacy and the sweeping sociopolitical changes taking place all over the globe.
Max often delves deep into the world of ideas and where they intersect with the real world, from the rise of new social movements to the subject of today’s chat: the decline of democracy in the United States and abroad.
Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:
You recently wrote about how democracy is under threat all over the world. What did you find most worrying?
That democracy is declining more or less everywhere now. Not necessarily in every country but in every region, in rich and poor countries, old and new democracies. And the decline is incremental but steady, which means that the scale of the change isn’t necessarily obvious until you start looking at the data.
We tend to think of democratic decline as something that happens in big dramatic moments — a coup, a government collapsing, tanks in the streets. But that’s not typically how it happens anymore.
What happens is more like what has occurred in Venezuela, say, or Turkey or Hungary. Elected leaders rise within a democracy promising to defeat some threat within, and in the process end up slowly tearing that democracy down.
Each step feels dangerous but maybe not outright authoritarian — the judiciary gets politicized a little, some previously independent institution gets co-opted, election rules get changed, news outlets come under tighter government control.
No individual step feels as drastic as an outright coup. And because these leaders both promote and benefit from social polarization, these little power grabs might even be seen by supporters as saving democracy.
But over many years, the system tilts more and more toward autocracy.
That doesn’t always end up leading to full-on dictatorship. But that pull toward elected strongmen rulers is something we see happening in dozens of countries. By the sheer numbers, according to a democracy monitoring group called V-Dem, more democracies are in decline today than at any other point in the last century.
What did you find most surprising?
There’s one chart I think about a lot that was put together by the political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart. They tracked every election in Europe, at every level, going back decades. And they looked at how populist candidates did, on average in those elections, over time.
(Political scientists typically use the word “populist” to describe politicians who champion cultural backlash and oppose establishment institutions. Here’s a definition from the book “How Democracies Die,” by two academics named Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt: “anti-establishment politicians — figures who, claiming to represent the voice of ‘the people,’ wage war on what they depict as a corrupt and conspiratorial elite.”)
What Norris and Inglehart found was that, in Europe, populists have been receiving a steadily larger share of the vote, on average, basically every year since 1960. That year is important because it’s roughly when Western countries, as the colonial era ended, collectively began to embrace what we now think of as full, liberal, multiracial democracy. And that is also the moment, it turns out from this research, when populist politics began steadily rising in a backlash to that new liberal-democratic order.
That discovery is really important for understanding the threat to democracy. It shows that, for all the ways that we might think of the threat as top-down, it’s also, and maybe chiefly, bottom-up.
And though we might tie the rise of populist hard-liner politics to specific events like the global financial crisis of 2007-8 or the refugee crisis of the mid-2010s, this is in fact something much larger.
It’s a deeper backlash against the demands of modern liberal democracy — and this is something I’ve written about a lot over the past few years — both among voters who feel that they’re being asked to soften their racial and religious identities and among leaders who are being asked to compromise their political self-interest for the sake of democratic norms.
What patterns have you found abroad that you now see in the United States?
The United States fits pretty cleanly into what is now a well-established global pattern of democratic backsliding.
First, society polarizes, often over a backlash to social change, to demographic change, to strengthening political power by racial, ethnic or religious minorities, and generally amid rising social distrust.
This leads to a bottom-up desire for populist outsiders who will promise to confront the supposed threat within, which means suppressing the other side of that social or partisan or racial divide, asserting a vision of democracy that grants special status for “my” side, and smashing the democratic institutions or norms that prevent that side from asserting what is perceived to be its rightful dominance.
You also tend to see political parties and other establishment gatekeepers, who are in theory meant to keep authoritarians from rising in politics, either weaken or become co-opted. Once populist hard-liners gain enough power to begin eroding democratic checks, such as an independent judiciary or the rule of law, it’s usually a steady slide toward democratic erosion.
This trend has really picked up speed, globally, only in the last 20 years or so. So it’s hard to say exactly how common it is for countries that begin on this path to end up like Hungary or Turkey. But very few democracies have begun to slide and then reversed course.
You have a new book called “The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World.” In your reporting and research for the book, what sorts of effects on democracy did you find social media is having? I’m old enough to remember when techno-evangelists like Clay Shirky were predicting that social media would unleash a wave of democratization in the developing world. Obviously, that hasn’t happened. Or has it?
I had that same arc of initially seeing social media as a democratizing force.
So did a lot of Arab Spring activists from the early 2010s, like Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian revolutionary and Google engineer. But, within a few years, Ghonim had come to conclude, he has said in a TED Talk, that “the same tool that united us to topple dictators eventually tore us apart” by “amplifying the spread of misinformation, rumors, echo chambers and hate speech.”
A neutral social media really could be a democratizing force, in theory. But the major platforms are far from neutral. They are deliberately designed to manipulate you, and to manipulate your experience on the platform in ways that will change how you think and how you behave. These platforms do this not just by what they show you, but also by eliciting certain emotions and behaviors from you.
All this digital manipulation, at the scale of maybe hundreds of hours per year, changes you. And not just online, but in your offline life, too. It changes your emotional makeup, the way that you approach politics, your sense of your own identity — even the way that you process right and wrong.
For an individual user — and we now have hard, empirical, scientific evidence for this — the effect can be to make you angrier, more extreme and intolerant, more distrustful, more prone to divide the world between us and them, and more disposed toward hostility and even violence against people outside your social in-group.
This might change you just by a matter of degree. But when you multiply this effect out by billions of users, and often among a majority of the population, the effect can change society as a whole, too, and especially its politics, in ways that can be detrimental to democracy.
What do you think most people miss about the link between social media and threats to democracy?
One thing that social platforms have done — and it’s hard to blame this entirely on Silicon Valley — is to displace the traditional activism that is an important part of bringing about democracy or of preventing an existing democracy from backsliding.
That activism used to happen through organizing among real-world networks, like student groups during the civil rights movement in the United States, or mothers’ groups in 1970s Argentina resisting that country’s dictatorship. Now, social media allows a protest group, even a leaderless one, to skip that process and, by going viral online, to activate thousands or even millions of people overnight.
That is really effective at driving huge numbers of people onto the street, but not at much else.
With the advent of social media, the number of mass protest events in the world shot way up. A million people marching on a capital city became a more common occurrence. But the success rate of those movements fell from about 70 percent to only 30 percent.
The Yellow Vests, the French protest movement that began in 2018, exemplifies this. It was this stunning, spontaneous, nationwide uprising for political change. And it had been organized almost entirely through Facebook and other platforms. But it was also internally incoherent. For all its force, it quickly fizzled out, having caused a lot of traffic problems but having changed very little.
Partly that was because of what had been lost in the displacement of traditional organizing. But partly it was also because of the distorting effects of those platforms. Those systems, just as they do for users globally, had pulled the Yellow Vests supporters who were gathering on those platforms toward extremes: demands to bar all refugees from the country, to default on the national debt, to replace elected legislatures with fuzzily defined citizens’ councils.
It’s not the only reason the Yellow Vests mostly receded, but it is, I think, a metaphor for those platforms’ effects on our societies and democracies broadly.
What to read about democracy
Luke Broadwater and Michael Schmidt have an update on the long-shot push, led by some members of Congress and nonprofit groups, to bar Donald Trump from running for president in 2024 by invoking the 14th Amendment to establish him as an “insurrectionist.”
Writing in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik asks a provocative question: Can’t we come up with something better than liberal democracy?
The editorial board of The New York Times is reaching out to readers to ask: What concerns and confounds you about the state of American democracy? Read about the project here.
Thank you for reading On Politics. — Blake
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