It's the Institutions

17 April 2020

By Alexander Thalis and Lewis Jackson

This article first appeared on the Australian Institute of International Affairs 'Australian Outlook'

The democracies of the developed world are in the grip of a crisis. The price of failure to embrace institutional reform may be democracy itself.

As electorates splinter and divisions widen, representatives find it increasingly difficult to govern. Following their most recent elections, Sweden was without a government for four months and the Czech Republic for eight. Spaniards have been to the polls four times in the last four years without producing a stable coalition. When Italy’s most powerful politician, Matteo Salvini, announced a snap election, enough of the parliamentarians were sufficiently terrified by the likely result that they were able to form a new governing coalition to prevent the election from taking place. The UK’s constitutional wranglings over Brexit and Trump’s brand of bellicose populism complete the picture, bringing the crisis of democracy into sharp focus.

What Ails Democracy?

This crisis of democracy, we are told, has been precipitated by the advent of social media, fake news, and “post-truth” politics. Social media giants have trapped users within insular echo chambers in which fake news is promulgated and accepted without challenge. Political advertising regulation has given way to a wild west of political communication online. Cynicism and despondency have replaced the tech utopianism of the early 2000s. This tribalistic social media landscape, so the narrative goes, has enabled a new brand of “post-truth” politicians to pollute the democracies of the developed world and corrupt the previously virtuous business of government.

When scrutinised, holes quickly emerge in this account of the crisis of democracy. The prevalence of echo chambers and fake news on the internet has been widely overstated. The link between social media and support for “post truth” politicians is also tenuous. The hysteria around new media, fake news, and post truth is often permeated by paternalistic and even anti-democratic undertones. Proponents of this narrative will romantically recall an era in which venerated journalists and news anchors “impartially” delivered the news and often presume that only centrist career politicians have the knowledge and cognitive endowments required to govern.

This worldview, however, is as fake as anything found on social media. The golden age of honest politicians and veracious media never existed. Attacks on online media by traditional players often amount to nothing more than defensive outbursts of anger and frustration over these institutions’ failure to maintain the reputation and profitability they used to enjoy.

What’s so Bad About Fragmentation Anyway?

A series of more traditional political explanations for the crisis of democracy have also been put forward. These tend to mirror one’s political affiliation, with the left commonly identifying globalisation, neoliberalism, and racism as the culprits. Conservatives hark back to simpler times and associate immigration with moral decline, while liberals wish everyone could just get along. What unites these perspectives is the implicit assumption that political fragmentation constitutes political failure.

While perhaps intuitive, this is not reasonable in the present political moment. The tendency to see fragmentation as a sign of failure reflects a weddedness to majoritarian political systems that have ingrained a rather limited sense of representation. However, the flow of votes away from governing parties to new and minor parties reflects a broadening of the political agenda, and the opening of political questions previously considered closed.

Despite the bias that first-past-the-post voting creates for established parties, support for fringe parties and outsider candidates has grown.. The problem is not so much the rise of new politicians and parties, but the system’s inability to cope with ideological plurality, especially when voter groups emerge with preferences that cut across traditional party lines. Even as electorates become more diverse, the majoritarian structure of Western democratic parliaments favours stability over genuine representation until unrest grows to such an extent that majorities breakdown and governance either ceases or becomes violently binary.

Ironically, concerns about fragmentation reveal a bias for stasis. In an era of allegedly unstoppable technological and social disruption, perhaps apprehension about the widening of the ideological spectrum and yearning for stability reflect a deeper discomfort with the continued unfolding of modernity. In retrospect, many periods of great turmoil are the beginnings of positive renewal. Where change is constant, the focus of analysis should not be on handwringing about the changes itself, but on a political system’s ability to weather and adapt.

The Institutional Crisis

The political upheaval straining our democracies should be understood as a failure of institutions. What we call democracy (i.e. a nationally based system with mass enfranchisement, representative parliaments, powerful political parties, periodic elections, and an enormous state bureaucracy) is, at most, about 100 years old. Of course, democratic ideals and values can be traced back to ancient Athens. But the direct, participatory democracy of wealthy male citizens in Athens bears almost no resemblance to the democracy experienced today. Even attempts to trace the origins of our institutions back to the founding of the American republic or the UK parliamentary reforms of the 1830s fall short: can we really compare ourselves to a slave-owning republic or pseudo-monarchy with very narrow franchise?

Once the youth and historical contingency of our democratic institutions are brought into focus, their fallibility is easier to appreciate. During the Cold War, Communism gave democracies an existential enemy to rally against. Post-Cold War, the “End of History” was characterised by a dearth of competition in political ideas and the perceived victory of liberal democracy. The 2008 Financial Crash brought that era to an end, and gave way to a proliferation of new ideas and challenges to the status quo. New movements have struggled to gain recognition and representation within institutions that weren’t built to accommodate them. Institutions are now starting to buckle under the pressure

So how do we overcome this institutional malaise? To start, let’s consider two of the more successful contemporary developed democracies: Germany and New Zealand. The most notable institutional feature of these polities is their use of mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation rather than first past the post. MMP systems give citizens two votes: one to elect a representative for their constituency and another to cast for a political party. MMP systems have proven successful at giving voice to divided electorates..

But proportional voting systems are not a panacea to democracy’s ills. They are justifiably criticised for failing to provide governmental stability or the impetus needed to enact radical change. What’s needed is a radical rethink of institutions. In an era of ideological fracturing and polarisation, direct democracy could help build consensus and give legitimacy to public policy, which has had some success in Iceland. has incorporated direct democracy into their political system with some success. The idea of Citizens Assemblies is gaining traction in the UK.

But faith in democracy seems to be dwindling. The Hansard Society’s most recent audit of political engagement in the UK uncovered record support for authoritarianism. People aren’t looking for a dictator who will curtail their freedom and interfere in their private affairs. Rather, they want a strong leader who can cut through the slow, bureaucratic procedures of parliamentary politics and enact reforms that the status quo is failing to deliver. Unless institutions are reformed through popular consultation and consent, people may choose to take their chances with a genuine tyrant rather than continue to prop up a broken system. We hope institutional reform is embraced whilst democracy is still salvageable.

Alexander Thalis graduated from the University of Sydney with First Class Honours in Government and International Relations, and has completed a Masters of International Relations Theory at the London School of Economics.

Lewis Jackson is an ex-management consultant moved to Public Policy. He graduated from the University of Sydney with First Class Honours in Government and International Relations and is doing a Masters in Public Policy and Political Economy in the Netherlands and Spain.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.