The Use and Abuse of History   /   Summer 2022   /    Essays

Democracy Disrupted

Governance in an Increasingly Virtual and Massively Distributed World.

Eric B. Schnurer

THR illustration (Alamy Stock Photos: 2021 Capitol riots, Pacific Press Media, and Twitter logo; Shutterstock: stars on field of blue, Solarus, binary code, Stanislaw Mikulski, hands and smartphone, LAProd).

It is hard not to think that the world has come to a critical juncture, a point of possibly catastrophic collapse. Multiple simultaneous crises—many of epic proportions—raise doubts that liberal democracies can govern their way through them. In fact, it is vanishingly rare to hear anyone say otherwise.

While thirty years ago, scholars, pundits, and political leaders were confidently proclaiming the end of history, few now deny that it has returned—if it ever ended. And it has done so at a time of not just geopolitical and economic dislocations but also historic technological dislocations. To say that this poses a challenge to liberal democratic governance is an understatement. As history shows, the threat of chaos, uncertainty, weakness, and indeed ungovernability always favors the authoritarian, the man on horseback who promises stability, order, clarity—and through them, strength and greatness.

How, then, did we come to this disruptive return? Explanations abound, from the collapse of industrial economies and the post–Cold War order to the racist, nativist, and ultranationalist backlash these have produced; from the accompanying widespread revolt against institutions, elites, and other sources of authority to the social media business models and algorithms that exploit and exacerbate anger and division; from sophisticated methods of information warfare intended specifically to undercut confidence in truth or facts to the rise of authoritarian personalities in virtually every major country, all skilled in exploiting these developments. These are all perfectly good explanations. Indeed, they are interconnected and collectively help to explain our current state. But as Occam’s razor tells us, the simplest explanation is often the best. And there is a far simpler explanation for why we find ourselves in this precarious state: The widespread breakdowns and failures of governance and authority we are experiencing are driven by, and largely explicable by, underlying changes in technology.

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