In the period since the financial crisis, two intertwined realities have come to dominate the minds of democracy’s advocates. Both have been brought to a head in the United States’ great experiment with populism, and its subsequent demise; but have also shaped the UK’s own political course in recent years.

The first is the decline in trust in liberal democratic institutions, from government to the media to civil society. Concerningly, mistrust in political representatives appears to feed on political results not going one’s way, questioning the democratic contract of losers accepting losses. During the 2016 EU referendum campaign, 29 per cent of those who went on to vote leave expressed ‘no trust’ in MPs, compared to just 12 per cent of those who went on to vote remain. A study following the 2019 general election, however, found that leave supporters are now significantly more trusting of MPs and more satisfied with UK democracy than remainers. Meanwhile, the trust gap between the wealthier, more educated and more well-informed and the rest stands at a staggering 18 points.

“The terms of debate appear more fractious, with digital communication enabling us to both find our ‘group’ and shout more loudly at others”

This democratic malaise is in evidence across the world’s largest democracies, with the majority of citizens in the United States, Japan, Spain, France and the UK dissatisfied with democratic performance. All but France are new entrants to that group since the mid-1990s.

The second is the fracturing of our politics into ever more polarised debates and groupings. This polarisation does not fit neatly onto a left-right axis; instead we find ourselves polarised between pro-system and anti-system positions; economic liberalism and nationalism; liberal and authoritarian cultural values. The terms of debate appear more fractious, with digital communication enabling us to both find our ‘group’ and shout more loudly at others.

The result of these two features of modern democracy has been a succession of political events that many political insiders, using recent history as their guide, did not foresee – whether the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party, the vote for Brexit; or Donald Trump as US President, and latterly, figurehead of an attempted coup.

What is going on? The pieces in this issue explore some of the fissures in our democratic and political life. They focus in particular on two elements of the story, to both cast light and assess how we rebuild: first, our media landscape, and second how political alignments – having been thrown up in the air - may come to land.

And the truth shall make you free

The shift from traditional broadcast media (TV, newspapers, radio) to social networked media has undoubtedly brought many democratic benefits. As Andrey Mir has argued, building on the work of Martin Gurri, Moisés Naím and others, this shift has changed power dynamics in society, by stripping ‘elites’ of their power to control the flow of information. Politicians are less able to present a managed image and narrative to the public; the public is more able to talk back. The ability of political actors to ignore public opinion has, perhaps, been restricted. Social media has brought us back to a dialogue-based world; elevating those who would question and speak truth to power.

“The move to social media, Gurri and others argue, has shattered our narratives about the world, leaving us without the ability to collectively make sense of our experiences as a society”

But it has also brought harm. The move to social media, Gurri and others argue, has shattered our narratives about the world, leaving us without the ability to collectively make sense of our experiences as a society. Instead of having stories to bring us together, we each inhabit our own – often mutually incomprehensible – media environments.

This inability to make sense of complex events has consequences – for example, for our ability to hold government to account. We are likely to be seeing the consequences of this playing out now in the UK, with one of the worst pandemic death tolls in the world, but little change in the government’s ratings in the polls.

Writers have also linked the shift to social media to political polarisation. In this issue, Andrey Mir argues that the engagement-centred form of social media has driven polarisation by incentivising the expression of ever more extreme opinions in order to elicit reaction. In a similar vein, Marie Le Conte discusses the problems presented by the shift from the ‘closed’ to the ‘open’ internet – instead of conversations between communities, everyone can see what everyone else is saying. The most extreme content from left and right goes viral, giving each side a distorted view of the other, and fuelling their belief that the other is an existential threat that must be stopped.

As social media has reaped the shift online, so traditional media has struggled to update its business models to match. Andrey Mir argues that the move from an advertising-based funding model to a subscription-based one has further driven polarisation, by incentivising media firms to present themselves as players in a grand struggle of good against evil.

The collateral damage from the shift in business models could be the parts of the media that best keep our democracy functioning. Hilary Wainwright discusses the problems faced by independent print publications in attempting to break into national newsagent and bookshop chains. Similarly, as advertising goes online, and is largely controlled by a few tech giants, the risk is that public interest journalism suffers a fatal blow, if local media and high-quality investigative work are no longer able to access the funding they need. In a reinforcing dynamic, Ezra Klein has argued that growth in the sheer amount of content available to viewers – via both the internet and the expansion of cable TV – has allowed the growth of ‘infotainment’, and drawn audiences away from the less attention-grabbing business of serious news reporting.

“online content is effectively gatekept by no one, enabling a flowering of incendiary content, half-truths and conspiracies”

And of course, the shift to online forms of media has changed the extent to which the news and information we consume is regulated. Television and radio content is subject to regulation by Ofcom, while most print media is covered by self-regulatory organisations such as the Independent Press Standards Organisation. Regulation of online content is much weaker. Instead of being bounded by the judgement, integrity and social norms of editors (questionable though they may frequently be), online content is effectively gatekept by no one, enabling a flowering of incendiary content, half-truths and conspiracies.

How do you solve a problem like the internet?

A well-functioning media system is an essential part of a well-functioning democracy. But it’s not clear that our current set-up is delivering one. How can we solve this problem? Is there a way to replicate democracy-enhancing norms while keeping the benefits of free-flowing abundant information?

The debate around social media regulation has been lit up following the invasion of the US Capitol in January, the banning of ex-President Trump from most forms of social media, and the removal of Parler, an alternative social media app linked to the far right, by major platforms. Twitter and Facebook have both taken action to combat dangerous groups, while the Forum for Information and Democracy has recommended several reforms, including ‘mandatory safety and quality requirements for digital platforms’, independent fact-checking, and greater transparency around algorithms.

Outside of direct regulation, there are other ways of shifting norms. Andrey Mir floats the idea of social media design aimed at anti-polarisation – reducing the disproportionate weight given to content at the extremes versus the middle. We could also think of algorithms designed to prioritise information that users find high-quality, rather than simply what’s most attention-grabbing. Organisations such as Reset Tech and the Membership Puzzle Project are looking at similar questions. Anastasia Kavada notes, in her piece, the emergence of participatory platforms such as Decidim and Loomio. And new decentralised mechanisms for improving the quality of information online are emerging too: forecasting, political betting and holding commentators and content-creators to account for bad predictions are all rising in popularity and prominence.

A new politics?

Academics such as Robert Ford, Paula Surridge and Stephen Davies have argued that politics has undergone a long-term realignment, moving from being primarily divided by class to also or instead being divided by cultural values. Class – at least measured using the ‘ABC1/C2DE’ system of social grades, based on head of household occupation – is no longer the good predictor of voting behaviour it once was; age and education are more important factors, along with both economic and cultural values.

“wealthier voters were more likely to support Brexit, cutting across the narrative of support from economically ‘left-behind’ voters”

There are some pieces missing from this narrative – generational divides in wealth mean that occupation is no longer a strong measure of class. New research has shown that wealthier voters were more likely to support Brexit, 24 cutting across the narrative of support from economically ‘left-behind’ voters. But voting behaviours have undeniably shifted.

Right-wing parties have generally been quicker to adapt to this shift than left-wing ones. In both the US and the UK, this was driven by insurgent outsiders – Donald Trump and Vote Leave respectively.

As John Curtice argues, the Labour party now faces a choice – broadly, whether to assume this shift is temporary, and try to win back its original voting coalition; or to assume it is permanent, and try to build a new coalition around the group who voted Remain in 2016. The former puts the party in a difficult position – trying to hold together a coalition of voters divided on some of the main political questions of our time. As one participant in a recent focus group put it, the party resembles “two different parties under one name”. Such self-inflicted weakness gives Labour's opponents more license to cater to their base and break political norms with impunity.

Other pieces in this issue delve deeper into our political divides and public life. Kunle Olulode calls for government to create greater space for active participation and collaboration with citizens, while Hannana Siddiquilooks at questions of the inclusiveness and accountability of institutions in the context of the police response to ‘honour-based’ violence.

Dean Hochlaf looks at the success of the right in making their economic ideas ‘common sense’, while David Klemperer argues that we must link the rise of social atomisation to the material decline of social democratic institutions and investment.

And Martin Edobor argues that the coronavirus pandemic has led to a return to favouring expert views – of health professionals and scientists – above those of others, with positive implications for the quality of political debate.

Questions for the current moment

Overcoming Covid-19 necessitates trust in our representatives, while citizens are being asked to make extraordinary sacrifices for the good of the collective; trust in doctors and vaccinologists; and a media that reports accurate information to hold government to account. And as we have drawn back from social interaction in the flesh, so our online conversations have grown in importance, with the pandemic and how we should respond as a society providing new opportunities for division.

Five years on from the Brexit vote, the UK has left the EU, and visceral Brexit debates have given way to the centre-stage drama that is the pandemic. But questions of trust, and how our democracy functions, are more important than ever. For progressives seeking a path forward, observing these dynamics, and assessing how the pieces will fall, is essential.