Advanced democracies prize and demand good and strong leadership among their politicians. In a situation of perceived absence of leadership, anger and even revolt against present political elites may become popular fashion; political outsiders may seek to exploit disaffections as a political strategy to defeat established candidates. Today, this trend is ascendant in much of the Western world. In a “post-truth era” of politics, weakness of current leaderships or a situation in which “blatant lies” are “routine across society,” such that “politicians can lie without condemnation,” the resurgence of populism as a political strategy presents grave challenges for democracy. We argue that while new technologies may help us bridge the gap between voters and political elites, elites fail to use these tools as effectively as political newcomers and properly communicate with society and build a solid trust.
Leadership and Democracy in the balance
Lack of wise leadership and accurate understanding of voters’ basic needs by current political elites as well as raising of populism are one of many causes for new political movements we can witness across Western countries. Examples include the Brexit referendum in June; the election of Donald Trump as US president in November; the failure of the Italian constitutional referendum this month; and so on.
Also, major global policy initiatives now hang in the equilibrium as a result of the recent uproar: for example, the EU-Canada (CETA) and EU-US trade deals (TTIP may soon fall victim to extensive campaigning by transnational anti-globalization movements, which has resulted in mass urban demonstrations in numerous countries participating in the deal. Opponents of a freer global trade system exploit deep social fears rooted in their societies. They have argued that the trade deals are non-democratic and beneficial only to multinational companies, or that they threaten Britain’s NHS. These arguments, however, explain very little about the actual content of the deals. Worse, many of the views about them in the public opinion are simply untrue. As the European Union Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström recently lamented, opponents of TTIP are peddling falsities – for example, “the idea that [it] will lower environmental standards,” or “the assertion that we’ll be flooded with genetically modified food”.
New technology plays a crucial role in the stirring of popular anger against political elites. According to one study, Americans spend nearly one-fifth of their total time online on social platforms. (Facebook alone, which has seen a drop in posts but a dramatic rise in news consumption, accounts for 14% of the time). This is considerably longer than the time Americans spend on established news outlets.
It is amazing to see, for example, how the technological factor has impacted the race to the White House. Social media outlets gave overriding importance to issues we could never have thought so important. Take, for example, the decision of the British people to leave the EU, which will have absolutely tremendous political and economic consequences on both sides of the Channel. It was driven in large part by the dissemination of arguments that were not really true but which caught on in the popular imagination widely and almost instantaneously. As the Internet’s reach continues to expand, and as more people rely on it as a primary source of news and information about politics and their politicians, the disruptive effects of technology will only grow larger.
This future direction has many people worried. Why is there no corrective mechanism within our political systems that checks untruths and affirms truths, so that citizens can take more reasonable and fact-based decisions on crucial political and social matters? In our opinion, part of the answer concerns shortcomings in the style of leadership in our societies. Modern technology provides a big chance to engage more and more citizens in the political process, yet many political elites remain distant to the new technology – and therefore their own people. So far, those leaders who are most adept at using it – the populists – are reaping its greatest political rewards. As an art of expression, Internet communication works in a quick and direct way. It does not easily leave space for deliberative discussion and moderate political views to thrive. It promotes radicalization and short-termism instead of political consensus building. It allows challengers of the status quo to simplify and distort a social reality that is far more complicated than they describe. As European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker succinctly and famously put it: “we all know what to do, but we do not know how to get re-elected once we have done it”.
Enabling technological solutions
So, where to start searching for solutions? Moderate democratic leaders must understand that they are clearly facing a challenge of technological adaptation. Political leadership should adopt new means of communications and rethink its attitude towards Internet technology. Much as new technologies drive new movements, so too they may offer a solution to moderate leaders wishing to connect with citizens. The engagement of citizens in the early stages of policy discussion and formulation should become the new norm – possibly, by extending our concept of democracy beyond the trustee, and even beyond the delegate model, to a more direct form that makes innovative use of new technologies. For example, the application of “blockchains,” a technology consisting of blocks of incorruptible data, could enable decentralized and incorruptible data records that increase the transparency and accountability of public administration, as one academic study has argued. Thus they could increase the baseline level of trust in transactions among citizens and the government, which is why the UK government supports its adoption in public administration.
Technology itself is politically neutral; but every technology can serve as a tool to achieve some defined political or social purpose. The use of new technology to seize political advantages is not a recent phenomenon. FDR (radio), JFK (television), Barack Obama (Internet), and recently Donald Trump (social media) all exploited some new technology in their own times, providing them significant advantages in the presidential race. For many years, the public perception believed that the British government was going to Brussels to fend off threats to the interests and rights of Britons. The successes of EU membership were “nationalized” in the public discourse, while domestic failures were “Europeanized.” The lessons of this and other cases can be applied for opposite purposes. That is, moderate political leaders should similarly to seize the potential advantages of new technologies to disseminate correct and responsible understandings of pressing domestic and social needs—which are then communicated swiftly and widely and in a very modern fashion, that is, via the Internet. Technology should be a tool of ethical and effective leadership which benefit society. History shows that those who can grasp technological change and stay on the cutting-edge of it, are often the winners. In other words, technology could and should be a tool for good.