Communication and the Crisis of Democracy
PolS 552A/Com 597D
Democracies are in trouble around the world. Nearly everywhere, citizen confidence in institutions is declining, and anti-democratic parties and movements are rising. At the same time, traditional press systems are losing audiences and credibility. Where journalism was once at the core of democratic public spheres, in many societies it is now challenged by socially divisive disinformation that undermines shared and meaningful public engagement. What is the role of disinformation (the mix of partisan news and talk shows, fake news, social media, hacking, bots, and trolls) in the disruption of democratic societies? The course will explore the relationship between factors weakening political institutions such as parties, press, and elections, and the communication processes that trigger social conflict and confusion in this moment of truth for democracies.
What accounts for these trends? The course begins by exploring how globalization and business pressures have eroded the modern era social foundations of political parties and electoral representation. An important early role of communication in this crisis involves the historical proliferation of think tanks producing ideas and policies aimed at undermining the regulatory and public interest capacities of government. These idea factories also feed communication strategies to politicians who often tell voters that government is to blame for the growing problems of society (or that government has limited power to address those problems). As government delivers fewer public benefits and more austerity, publics become increasingly anxious about who they are and where they are going. Since neither mainstream politicians nor the press generally offer coherent or credible explanations, openings are created for so-called populist movements supported by alternative ideas and the communication media that promote them.
Research reviewed in course readings shows that these disruptions of institutions and communication processes have disproportionately advantaged radical right politicians, parties and movements. In many nations (including the US, Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Austria, Hungary, Poland, France, and the UK, among others) those movements have grow in size, entered politics, and created divisions within common national democratic cultures. We will examine the reasons for the success of the radical right in so many countries, in contrast with the relative fragmentation on the left due to more diverse identity movements and the growing embrace of direct, participatory, and deliberative approaches to democracy.
While societies face mounting problems with inequality, economic transformation, the weakening of democratic processes, and climate change, among others, these historic issues are often displaced by emotional communication that appeals to racism, white nationalism, and anger directed toward sexual minorities, immigrants and refugees.
Students will be encouraged to develop research projects drawing from these broad themes. Those projects may take an American or more broadly comparative focus.