Democracy or Dictatorship, Does It Even Matter Anymore?

08/07/2017 06:53 pm ET

TECHNOLOGY HAS CREATED A CHRONIC CRISIS OF POLITICAL LEGITIMACY

It’s a tough time to be a politician. In recent years, frustrated citizens have done everything from throw food at their elected officials (e.g. in Brazil, Germany), slap their politicians (e.g. in Nepal, India), set themselves on fire outside state offices (e.g. in Morocco, Greece), launch mass demonstrations to protest specific policies (e.g. in Chile, Portugal) and even bring down entire regimes (e.g. MENA). Democracy or dictatorship, citizens are clearly unhappy with their governments – and they are not afraid to show it. This is a global crisis of political legitimacy where the status quo is recurrently being challenged by citizens. But why is this happening and what does this mean for our collective political development in today’s post-hegemonic world?

First, let’s recap the obvious:

Citizens have been notably unhappy in both democratic and nondemocratic countries for awhile. Yes, post-2010, groups of citizens in the MENA region rose up after decades of dictatorship – this seemed like progress for a US-led international community that had preached democracy for years. Yet seven years later, many are still dissatisfied as governments struggle to deliver public goods in a highly sensitive security situation. But wait a minute – citizens in democracies in many parts of the world have also been unhappy about their governments for many years – think of the recurring anti-austerity protests in different EU countries or anti-corruption movements in Brazil and South Korea. Certain polls and studies even suggest citizens, especially millennials, in long-standing democracies don’t really care as much about democracy anymore. Theorists like Fukuyama who once declared democracy as the final point in our political development – or the “end of history” – now fear for its future. And of course let’s not forget it’s a post-hegemonic world where democracy promotion is no longer a major foreign policy objective of the US government. The global crisis of political legitimacy in recent years is obvious; there’s a recurring feeling among citizens that there must be a better, more legitimate way to govern in both democracies and nondemocracies. But why?

Citizens are more unhappy with their governments because they are more informed – this is of course in part because of technology. There is simply more information for citizens to consume, whether it’s the 24 hour news cycle, Facebook posts, blogs and even Tweets of world leaders (from US President Donald Trump to Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and India’s Narendra Modi). Real news or fake news, it doesn’t seem to make a difference – access to more information and more opinions has made it that much easier for the average citizen to be more knowledgeable and critical of their governments. Obviously, countries with limited Internet access and/or blocked social media are less likely to have such empowered citizens who are critical of their governments – you can guess the usual suspects; and more than four billion people, mostly in developing countries, still don’t have Internet access. But the human right of having access to technology, the Internet in particular, has still played a key role in enlightening the average citizen in many countries such that he or she is more critical of government.

Technology has of course also allowed the more informed and reactionary citizen to be more activist against government. The Arab Spring was named the Facebook Revolution after all. Social media has allowed for frustrated citizens to mobilize quicker to challenge governments when their expectation of their leaders has not been met. For instance, in Zimbabwe, youth have used social media on their smartphones to criticize President Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule – #ThisFlag has created a movement for change that persists today. In some cases, citizens even pushed their government to backtrack on certain policies thanks to social media-arranged protests – it didn’t work with the movement against the controversial contraception law, but the Polish presidency did bow to protesters’ demands on judicial reforms this year. So thanks to technology, citizens are more informed, reactionary and activist. But this has also facilitated the more rapid decline of state-society relations as citizens seem to be challenging their leaders, governments or certain policies more often. Technology is in part responsible for our global crisis of political legitimacy. So, what’s next?

Whether we like it or not, we are headed to a new type of political system in today’s post-hegemonic world – any legitimate government today, whether in the democratic or nondemocratic context, needs to account for a more informed, activist, tech-savvy citizenry. In fact, it may be time to consider more urgently how technology can empower more governments to be more responsive to citizen expectation on a more regular basis; let’s repair the strained relationship between citizen and state; technology can perhaps be built into a new social contract for a new type of political system. Otherwise we can only expect to see more frustrated citizens throwing food at elected officials, slapping their politicians, setting themselves on fire outside state offices, protesting against specific policies and even bringing down down governments in countries around the world.

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