There is a widespread sense that liberal democracy is in crisis, and that the rapid development and proliferation of digital technology has something to do with it. But how exactly to understand the crisis, and the role of technology in it, is far from clear. Many see digital technology as an important driver of the crisis, and perhaps even as its main driver. Others – and not just technology companies and their cheerleaders – see digital technology as at least part of the solution.
This research paper focuses on the relationship between democracy and digital technology in Europe. To the extent that perceptions of a crisis in liberal democracy in Europe can be confirmed, the paper investigates the nature of the problem and its causes, and asks what part, if any, digital technology plays in it. In particular, it explores arguments that the development and prevalence of digital technology are undermining democracy in Europe. The paper further considers whether, and how, the crisis might be addressed and democracy revitalized – and how digital technology might help in this revitalization.
Until recently, fundamental questions around the state of democracy in Europe or the US received relatively little attention in the foreign policy debate. Where Western foreign policy think-tanks focused on democracy at all, they tended to consider how it could be promoted and supported elsewhere in the world. In the last few years – and in particular since the decision by the British people to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump as US president in 2016 – there has been a proliferation of projects that seek to ‘defend’, ‘protect’ or ‘secure’ democracy within Europe and the US. But these projects tend to focus on ‘foreign interference’ in Western democracies – and in particular on the use of digital technology by authoritarian states such as China and Russia to ‘polarize and pervert the politics of democratic societies’, as one Washington, DC-based think-tank puts it.
In the last few years – and in particular since the decision by the British people to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump as US president in 2016 – there has been a proliferation of projects that seek to ‘defend’, ‘protect’ or ‘secure’ democracy within Europe and the US.
It is understandable that foreign policy think-tanks should focus on this external aspect of the crisis of liberal democracy in Europe and the US. But doing so inevitably tends to suggest that the crisis is driven primarily by external actors. It ignores the internal problems with the way democracy functions and has evolved in the past few decades. This research paper takes a different approach, starting from the assumption that any crisis of liberal democracy is driven primarily by internal forces (though, of course, external actors may seek to exploit the situation). It examines these drivers and explores how the challenges might ultimately be solved by making democracy in Europe more responsive to citizens – in part through the use of digital technology.
Democracy is notoriously difficult to define beyond the basic idea of popular sovereignty – or, in the famous formulation that President Abraham Lincoln used in the Gettysburg Address in 1863, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’. There have of course been multiple forms of democracy in different historical periods and in different parts of the world. For the purposes of this paper, the only assumption about the form that democracy should take in Europe is that it must be liberal democracy: in other words, a system of popular sovereignty together with guaranteed basic rights, including freedom of association and expression and checks and balances to prevent the emergence of a ‘tyranny of the majority’.
Although the terms ‘liberal democracy’ and ‘representative democracy’ are often used interchangeably, they are actually quite distinct concepts. It is possible, for example, to imagine a more direct democracy that would also be liberal in the sense of guaranteeing basic rights. This paper does not assume that representative democracy, which emerged as the dominant form of democracy in Europe and North America in the late 18th century, should forever remain the form that democracy takes in Europe. In fact, one way of understanding the current crisis is as a crisis of the representative model, which may no longer satisfy European citizens. This paper explores, among other things, some ways in which it might be possible to move beyond representative democracy and, in doing so, increase rather than reduce the quality of democracy in Europe.
The paper is structured as follows. Chapter 2 explores three different prisms through which the crisis of liberal democracy in Europe can be understood: ‘populism’, ‘democratic deconsolidation’ and a ‘hollowing out’ of democracy. Chapter 3 examines several different ways in which the development of technology may already be impacting, and may in future impact, democracy in Europe. Chapter 4 examines in detail how democracy currently works in Europe, and in particular the complex picture of democratic institutions and processes across the continent. Chapter 5 assesses the potential for a revitalization of political parties, which have been central to the model of representative democracy to date. Chapter 6 explores experiments in participatory democracy that could complement or ultimately even replace representative democracy.
Chapter 7 draws some conclusions. However, as the chapters preceding it will attempt to show, the crisis of liberal democracy and the development of digital technology are both hugely complex subjects about which there is much uncertainty. This is despite the tendency by many who write about them to suggest there are simple answers. Defining the relationship between the crisis of liberal democracy and digital technology is extremely difficult. Rather than reaching premature conclusions, this paper aims to establish a conceptual framework for further research: to map the terrain, as it were. It argues that, while the development of digital technology is a factor in the crisis of liberal democracy in Europe, it is not, as some analysts suggest, the main driver of the crisis and may even ultimately help to solve the crisis.