Social Movements for Global Democracy (Themes in Global Social Change)

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We use cookies to improve your experience on our website. By using our website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our updated Cookie Notice. In many Western democracies, traditional mainstream political parties are in crisis. But is democracy itself in crisis? Some point out that voters punishing politicians who have failed to represent them adequately is one of the essential virtues of the democratic process. Others argue that the current crisis in mainstream politics goes deeper, fundamentally threatening how politics works.

The chapter then looks at three challenges Western policy-makers will have to try to resolve if they are to tackle these issues successfully: how to make economic growth more inclusive; how to deliver the change voters want while maintaining continuity in systems of government; and how to reconcile growing identity nationalism with diverse societies. The chapter concludes that restoring the health of democracy may prove challenging, but some potential ways forward can be identified. The recent increase in support and influence enjoyed by anti-establishment, populist political parties and movements in many Western countries is the continuation of a trend with long roots.

But there are also common themes: appeals to national sovereignty and criticism that elites have failed to protect electorates from the negative impacts of globalization are threads that run through both left- and right-wing strands. The political impact of anti-establishment sentiment has already been dramatic. Most notably, the cluster of anti-elitism, cultural nativism and economic nationalism formed important parts of the winning campaigns in the United Kingdom UK referendum on European Union EU membership and both the United States US Republican primary and the subsequent presidential election.

This cluster has resonated particularly strongly in Europe, where Eurozone and EU problems provide fertile ground for populists calling for a return to national sovereignty. Anti-establishment politicians have not yet won many elections in Europe. Nonetheless, in many countries these movements have already succeeded in shifting the political centre of gravity, forcing mainstream parties to adopt elements of their policy platforms. In some countries — such as Spain and Ireland — they have contributed to a fragmentation of parliamentary forces that has complicated the process of forming stable governments and implementing effective policies.

There is even some contested evidence that young people, in particular, are becoming willing to entertain the idea that democracy itself is failing to deliver and to consider non-democratic alternatives. Numerous factors have been suggested as playing a role in weakening democratic legitimacy and effectiveness. While all related, they can be grouped under three main headings.

Rapid economic and technological change Statistics show clearly that globalization and trade have created growth, promoted competitiveness and efficiency, 5 cut poverty and global inequality, and narrowed the gap between emerging economies and the rich world. Overall, global prosperity is at its highest point in a decade. Evidence compiled by economist Branko Milanovic shows that those people between the 75th and 90th percentiles of the global income distribution have been the non-winners from globalization.

Counter-Hegemonic Democracy and Social Change

Traditional manufacturing hubs in advanced economies have been hollowed out by a combination of labour-saving technology and outsourcing. Deepening social and cultural polarization Issues related to national identity, cultural values and ethnic origins have been prominent in the rise of anti-establishment populism. Immigration has proven to be an extremely successful policy issue for anti-establishment populists, providing a common thread for their electoral advances across different countries.

Post-truth political debate The cultural polarization of democratic societies has been exacerbated by profound changes in the way news and information is produced, distributed and shared Box 2. Historically, relatively small numbers of media outlets provided a widely trusted common foundation for national debates. Increasingly, however, the media landscape is characterized by fragmentation, antagonism and mistrust, with individuals tending to segregate themselves according to their values and beliefs.

Companies that run social media platforms face a commercial incentive to ensure that their users are presented with content with which they are more likely to engage — which, in political terms, implies presenting content with which they are likely to agree.


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Social media can liberate, inform, engage, mobilize, and encourage innovation and democracy. However, social media has also changed the way we get informed and form our opinions, with troubling results. But news sourced in this way is subject to the same dynamics as other forms of online content, such as selfies and cat photos. It is the most popular content that spreads, regardless of its factual accuracy. As a result of disintermediated access to information and algorithms used in content promotion, communication has become increasingly personalized, both in the way messages are framed and how they are shared across social networks.

Recent studies show that, online, we seek information that supports existing viewpoints and predominantly engage with communities of like-minded people, leading to the problem of confirmation bias. With users on social media aiming to maximize the number of likes, information is frequently oversimplified. The combination of simplification and segregation provides a fertile environment for the diffusion and persistence of unsubstantiated rumours.

Misinformation has always represented a political, social and economic risk. Experimental evidence shows that confirmatory information is accepted even if it contains deliberately false claims, while dissenting information is mainly ignored or might even increase group polarization.

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This evidence suggests a real possibility that public opinion can be intentionally distorted by exploiting information overload and confirmation bias, with significant political, social and economic consequences. Strategies for mitigation remain uncertain. The problem behind misinformation is polarization — hence, we need to create synergies among institutions, scholars and communicators to reframe and smooth contrast in the information system.

There is no consensus on what needs to be done to strengthen democratic processes, but three dilemmas can be identified as particularly significant. Generating more inclusive growth The availability of good, well-paying jobs is critical to persuading people that the economic system works for them. Evidence shows that there is no trade-off in principle between promoting social inclusion and competitiveness: growth and equity can go together.

However, in practice, the current environment presents some serious challenges. Technological change is diminishing the contribution of labour to GDP growth, as machines become more able to do a wider range of work. Technology is also contributing to the changing nature of work, with secure and predictable jobs giving way to more sporadic, short-term self-employment.

As discussed in Chapter 2. Populist movements tend to focus blame for job losses on globalization rather than technology, but evidence points to technology being much the bigger factor. As shown by Figure 2.

Social Movements for Global Democracy (Themes in Global Social Change)

In the United Kingdom, the share of manufacturing in the economy has decreased — but the manufacturing that remains is higher value, 28 and cross-border services have massively expanded in parallel. Less openness is presented as a simple solution, but it would likely create more problems than it solves: trade barriers intended to protect local workers could, for example, cause job losses by increasing the cost of inputs for high value added companies. Rather than seeking to reduce globalized trade flows, governments will ultimately need to work out a viable political offer for those negatively impacted.

How best to support displaced workers is a complex problem that requires political will to tackle. Maintaining continuity in government while accelerating change The economic policies of historically mainstream political parties from the left and the right have converged in recent decades. Populist movements call for bold, dramatic action; when moderates point to public debt and overstretched monetary policy as constraining room for manoeuvre, they can be portrayed as patronizing. Rebuilding public trust in the political process and in leaders will be a difficult task.

This work needs to start with the recognition that some valid concerns underlie the rise of anti-establishment sentiment. For example, studies have shown that the preferences of constituents in the lowest third of income groups are not reflected in the votes of their representatives, which are instead overwhelmingly skewed toward the wealthy. The challenge is to deliver the short-term change voters demand, while also reforming institutions in a way that maintains the continuity of government and established checks and balances.

An increasingly common response to popular disaffection with the political process has been for elected representatives to defer to referendums: the UK vote on EU exit was one of a spate of plebiscites in However, these are an imperfect solution. Representative democracies have typically evolved mechanisms to protect the rights of minorities from crude majoritarianism, and increased use of direct democracy may upset the balance.

Countries that lack a historical tradition of direct democracy may also be more likely to struggle with the question of who should be held accountable for implementing the results of popular votes. Moreover, boiling down complex issues to binary questions is an imperfect substitute for genuinely listening to the nuanced concerns of the electorate. Reconciling identity nationalism and multiculturalism Ongoing humanitarian challenges will continue to create flows of people — and in countries where fertility rates are declining and numbers of pensioners are growing, immigration will be needed to bring in new workers.

However, as with globalization, the overall economic benefits brought by immigration are not felt by all sections of society. And immigration creates cultural tensions: there is a need to allow space for religious tolerance without opening the door to extremism, and a need to encourage the diversity that brings innovation without fostering resentment. In Western democracies, political parties are the traditional mechanism for resolving competing interests, 36 but the rise of identity nationalism has exposed splits in society that cannot be mapped against existing party structures.

This raises the need to find new ways to reconcile differences in opinion about immigration, encouraging assimilation while avoiding the risk of majorities — which represent the prevailing culture — flexing their muscles in a dangerously destabilising way. Leaders will need to face up to a debate over how to allocate economic and residential entitlements to economic migrants and refugees. To some extent, the cultural challenges associated with immigration could be tackled by getting better at communicating change: 37 data show that voters will change their views on cultural changes in society if politicians highlight the assimilation already taking place.

There is room for debate about the extent to which the rise of anti-establishment sentiment in Western democracies reflects a threat to the democratic process itself. Nonetheless, there are clear reasons to worry about the health of democracy, and challenges related to cultural polarization and economic dislocation have no straightforward answers. This could be a pivotal moment in political history, and it requires courageous new thinking about how best to manage the relationship between citizens and their elected representatives.

Chapter 2. Abernathy, N. Konczal, and K. Milani, eds. A Roosevelt Institute Report, June Aisch, G. Pearce, and B. Benton, J. NiemanLab , 9 November Brown, C. Ciampaglia, G. Shiralkar, L. Rocha, J. Bollen, F. Menczer, and A. A recently published report was the result of a study of what motivates citizens to act and participate in social campaigns and, perhaps most importantly, what encourages their continued participation. The report details a series of recommendations for campaign organizers and activists on how to best achieve impact and longevity, two aspects of social campaigns that are often at odds with one another.

Six of the campaigns and their key lessons can be found below — insights from which may have implications for other groups around the world, and for social movements in the future. With the use of a highly effective data visualization platform, I Paid a Bribe leverages user submissions of bribery requests to raise public awareness of corruption in India, and to provide citizens, policy officials and change-makers with means to track corruption across geographic regions and bureaucratic sectors. The information is vital: it pressures public officials to make procedural changes to mitigate corruption, while also informing citizens on how to recognize and avoid bribe-paying situations.


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Results from I Paid a Bribe have been very positive. With over 40, reports in cities in India and counting , the campaign has succeeded in mapping bribe requests and honest officers in various regional districts, raising awareness of the overall state of corruption. The initiative is operated by the Janaagraha organization, which employs a full-time staff for website maintenance, content creation, verification, policy advocacy, and overall strategic direction.

With the platform, the campaign leverages a highly decentralized citizen base for its reporting mechanisms, leading to a highly distributed impact structure. Occupations lasted from September 26 to December 15, , with future steps created to coincide with political reform decisions in July Beginning as a vertically structured citizen campaign, the Umbrella Movement was able to create a movement manifesto defining specific goals and requirements for campaign participants.

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This provided structure to the movement, with a common direction between the various internal student groups. The movement began decentralizing when attention increasingly shifted towards the mass participants in the streets. Overall, this strategy of central leadership with diffused support was influential. The movement suffered certain threats in the ways of digital phising and Internet surveillance tactics used by the state.

Despite the use of peer-to-peer chat services, many participants were registered as activists due to mobile network activity and even refused access into Mainland China after the protests. The case underlines the importance for citizen campaign leaders to identify digital risks within their political environment, and operate with safer strategies or more secure tools. With an estimated , people taking to the streets of New York City, and an additional 2, subsequent events occurring around the world, the PCM became the largest climate march in history.

Held just prior to the United Nations Climate Summit, the march utilized multiple social media platforms to mobilize participants within New York, and advocate for global climate change solidarity. While certainly showing widespread popular support, the campaign failed to properly wield such support into direct action in the form of specific policy change or institutional reform.

However, PCM succeeded in utilizing digital tools and tactics to ensure that their central message was not lost amidst the massive social media frenzy. Tools like Thunderclap were used to amplify PCM related tweets, while tools like Tint allowed organizers to aggregate tweets for their central website.

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PCM also showed success in coordinating a massive coalition of 1, organizations for the March, requiring intensive logistical planning and preparations. By forming a coalition, PCM was able to build strength in numbers, mobilize resources, and enhance legitimacy. The march did succeed in generating significant attention from mainstream media outlets and major political figures like President Barack Obama.

Movimiento 15 15M was a non-violent, grassroots, anti-austerity and free culture movement that swept across Spain beginning in May The 15M demonstrations aspired to end the social consequences of anti-austerity measures such as housing evictions and to create more representative, participatory, and deliberative political and financial systems. Estimates suggest that between 6. The movement spawned solidarity protests in numerous other cities. The 15M demonstrations are notable for their highly decentralized but well organized structure of distributed action.

Each plaza had its own committees, which were in charge of day-to-day activities; working groups, which drafted proposals related to certain themes; and assemblies, which voted on the proposals. Additionally, consensus decision-making was utilized, as were rotating moderators and spokespeople to prevent the emergence of leaders.