Democracy and its demands

For democracy to work, political parties must address the problems of their voters. Companies have a growing responsibility here.

Democracy means governments need two majorities: a parliamentary and a social majority. If and when they lose one of those, it’s game over, sooner or later. In most democratic countries, governing without a parliamentary majority is hard or impossible. Some countries are more accustomed to minority governments than others. Coalitions are a common way of forming parliamentary majorities.

Without a social majority, i.e. a majority of voters supporting a government’s policies, sooner or later the parliamentary majority will be gone as well. That’s the magic of elections. That is what governments must fear: being voted out of office. Rightly so, from a democratic point of view. That’s why the recent EU elections have sent shock waves through European countries.

In France, president Emmanual Macron called a snap election right on election night. After his party lost the EU election, “the word should be given to the sovereign people,” he explained. He already presides over a minority government. In Germany, calls for early elections are growing louder. In the EU elections, the three governing parties together scored only slightly more votes than the leading opposition party alone.

This indicates, along with current opinion polls, that the governing coalition has lost its social majority. Many people are concerned about the slice of votes that have gone to far-right and other populist parties, surprisingly or not. Populism is an issue in itself, and it’s fuelled by the internet:

Social media has made it easy not only to express anger, but also to amplify it. The algorithms reward content that polarises and outrages people. Everything people are angry about feeds the digital outrage machine. This puts pressure on politicians, but not in a good way. It’s quite easy to be upset about something. The inflation of upset makes it harder to find compromise and constructive solutions.

But, and it’s a big one, people are also turning to populist parties because they don’t see themselves and their legitimate interests represented by the established parties.

A change of priorities

The German Social Democrats, for example, have lost large parts of their former base among the labour force. Instead of addressing their issues, they focused on other minorities. But those can’t compensate for the losses, and certainly don’t come close to allowing the party to form a majority.

The German Greens have alienated much of their former middle-class voter base and even lost their standing with young first-time voters. This reflects a change of priorities. The last EU elections in 2019 were dominated by fears of global warming, stoked by the Fridays for Future movement. Since then, a pandemic, a war in Europe, inflation, and a stagnant economy have relegated the climate in the minds of their voters.

And we must not ignore migration, which continues to be an issue:

The lack of coherent migration policy in Europe has made it a problem for both sides of the democratic spectrum. The irony is that, done right, migration would not be a problem but a solution.

With de facto full employment in many countries and the retirement of the baby boomers, migration is the way to keep the country up and running. But to achieve this, countries need to steer and control migration while integrating migrants into the labour markets. None of this works particularly well. That creates a level of anger, justified or not, that plays well into the hands of right-wing populists and their sphere.

Meanwhile, infrastructure is crumbling. Healthcare and education are stuck in the past. Blindness towards the countryside, its demographics and its problems is now costing the urban-minded parties dearly.

Democracy demands that governments address the issues of their voters. It’s not enough to declare those topics as not worthy of consideration, or that the voters are ill-informed.

A growing responsibility for democracy

The private sector has a growing responsibility here. In the run-up to the European elections, many companies have spoken out against right-wing populism and encouraged people to the polls. What they still need to do is exert pressure for political solutions that can satisfy a broad majority. That would be something akin to the idea of the social market economy (Soziale Marktwirtschaft) that reconciled social progress with technological progress in the free-market economy of post-war Germany.

Such an approach would be a departure from pure lobbying for their own, legitimate economic interests. It would use systemic thinking to tackle systemic issues – something Germany managed to avoid for more than a decade by simply throwing money at every problem. Two of the three governing parties still dream of continuing this policy. In times of higher interest rates and an ageing population, this will probably no longer work.

Instead, governments need to set priorities, rather than pouring money over their voters with a watering can. The economy must support this prioritisation with a broad, compromise-oriented approach. This is radically different from using the political campaign du jour for your company’s social media marketing.

And then, there are the big digital platforms which must address the spread of misinformation, propaganda, and hatred. This is long overdue. Russian propaganda is spreading freely through the so-called social media. TikTok, a Chinese company, massively influences voters, especially the young. Elon Musk has turned Twitter into a hatred-driven outlet called X.

This space needs a change in the regulatory framework. In the US, the Communications Decency Act of 1996 granted platforms extensive immunity from liability for published content. This seemed appropriate at a time when the internet was still in its infancy and platforms had limited resources at their disposal. With the Digital Services Act and other legislation, the EU has already departed from the laissez-faire approach of the early days.

For democracy to survive and strive, we need to democratise digital.

Photo by Phil Scroggs on Unsplash.