Imploding Parliamentary Democracy, Social Media and the Rise of the Tribe

Across the West and beyond, traditional parliamentary democracies are in trouble, paralysed by the inability to find enough common ground from their voters, who have increasingly moved away to join ‘new tribes’. In 2019, without recognition by political leaders that the situation has radically changed, there is little chance of current political systems surviving.

The Information Age, with its power to connect people, process information and share ideas, should in theory have strengthened democratic institutions that have successfully governed Western Nations for the past 70 years or more. Yet it has done the exact opposite, with political parties unable to secure democratic majorities from a fractured and marginalised electorate. Thus governments manage (but don’t lead) divided societies, (such as in Spain with its Catalonian independence issue), and survive on either slim majorities (UK), weak coalitions (Germany, Ireland, Belgium), or govern through a deceptive election process (France). The USA finds itself virtually ungovernable with disagreements in a split Congress over federal budgets. Yet even with this stark evidence that democratic political systems are failing, politicians still seek to uphold policies that no longer resonate with enough voters (because the politicians know better.......) and strengthen failing political systems in the face of the change that the internet and social media have delivered. The results of this denial and inaction are plain to see, be it the rise of nationalistic governments in Italy and Eastern Europe, economic protests in France, anti-immigration rallies in Germany or the current the bitter divisiveness of Brexit.  We have also seen the rise of populist leaders, in which the Times has written about in ‘the Year of the Strongman’ , be that leaders such as Vladimir Putin in Russia, Donald Trump in the United States, Recep Ergdogan in Turkey, Victor Orban in Hungary or Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia.

Before the Information Age, the large, well defined, political parties controlled political agendas and were supported by a mainstream media that played its part in shaping the political narrative one way or another, in order to secure a solid majority for strong government. Yet today, with the democratisation of both knowledge and technology, individuals have been empowered to think for themselves, and then subsequently encouraged, influenced and manipulated into new groups or ‘tribes’ that represent their own particular issues and personal preferences and opinions. The politicians and mainstream media no longer have a monopoly on controlling their readers and viewers and this power now lies in the hands of the big social media companies and the opinions of a ‘knowledged society’. A few thousand supporters of any cause may not sound like a problem in a country of 60 million, but given that they can, through the use of social media, establish a virtual base, coordinate ‘rallies of rage’, public disorder and, in extreme, carry out acts of coordinated sabotage, means that they can create more publicity and attention than they really deserve, or hold a government to ransom. As the saying goes, ‘a hollow drum bangs the loudest’.

In the UK’s example, any individual now part of one of these new tribes, may be a principled Labour, Tory or Liberal supporter at heart, but they may also be a passionate Brexiteer, anti-nuclear power, a Celtic Nationalist, a hardened environmentalist, an anti-airport expansion campaigner, a champion of LGBT or animal rights, pro-life, or have religious political views; and they can now rally behind any one or more of these causes. However, if their mainstream political party’s own policies do not align to their new found beliefs, or if they feel that their chosen mainstream party no longer listens to them, then they are more likely to vote for their ‘new tribe’, such as an independent MP campaigning on a single issue, the Greens, nationalist parties, UKIP or more extreme groups. Thus the once almost guaranteed political votes of the masses (and possibly swing voters) are now spread across parties that are for want of a better expression, single issue parties, leaving traditional parties weakened and unable to form majority governments (even with the UK’s ‘first past the post system’, which was supposed to avoid the issue of minority governments).

Worryingly, political parties appear unable to recognise that the ‘democratisation of knowledge’ is not a blip or trend that will disappear any time soon. New tribal groups, built on an individual’s access to knowledge and technology, which was once the preserve of political elites, is the new normal, and in certain places risks what Defence Global call ‘wars amongst the people that have been re-energised by a pervasive access to information’. The danger to today’s recognised democracies lie in opportunistic leaders who have recognised the changes, exploited the uncertainty, and have been voted in to government by appealing to key tribal groups, what the mainstream media and politicians call ‘populism’ - a term which is used to somehow vilify and denigrate such new politics without understanding its causes. Yet populist causes such as Brexit, Scottish independence, the current governments in Italy and Hungary and of course the Trump Presidency are far from peaking and look as though they will continue to play a major role in politics of the future.

Social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter latched on quickly to the concept of personal opinion and new tribes, but have been slower to understand what their platforms have done to fundamentally reshape the way that political leaders are perceived and supported and how social media can be used to manipulate election results. The more recent abuse of personal data, as seen from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the use of fake news and the ability to target individuals with specific political messages has changed the political landscape. Perhaps now is the time to consider regulating social media, just like more traditional forms of news media are regulated. Understandably for fear of being accused of trampling on freedom of speech and imposing censorship, politicians appear cautious to step in and implement the sort of imaginative and bold policies needed to protect democratic institutions. Is it so crazy to think that some sort of careful regulation of social media might actually protect our parliamentary democracy? The spread of revolution across the Middle East during the Arab Spring, leading to unforeseen and disastrous consequences, should have been the wake up call for both the social media companies and politicians worldwide. 

The problem is that change in the Information Age happens faster and with much greater effect than our current political systems can deal with. Some of the solutions, like the statutory regulation of social media, may indeed be perceived to be unpalatable and associated with censorship. However, the option of sitting back and watching this Information Age experiment continue uncontrolled is surely not a wise way forward.

If we value the current system of Parliamentary Democracy and the stability that it delivers to society, then it is time political leaders recognise that the situation has changed way beyond how they perceive it, listen to the opinions of the new 'knowledged society' and the new tribes that have formed, and take bold imaginative steps to preserve the democratic institutions that we rely on. Strong and Imaginative Leadership is going to be required.

We should remember the words of Churchill, "Democracy is an appalling form of government, but no one has invented a better one." It's worth holding onto.

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