For democratic countries, Lorenz-Spreen and colleagues continue,
evidence clearly indicates that digital media increases political participation. Less clear but still suggestive are the findings that digital media has positive effects on political knowledge and exposure to diverse viewpoints in news.
On the negative side, however:
Digital media use is associated with eroding the “glue that keeps democracies together”: trust in political institutions. The results indicating this danger converge across methods. Furthermore, our results also suggest that digital media use is associated with increases in hate, populism and polarization.
Their conclusion: “Our results provide grounds for concern. Alongside the positive effects of digital media for democracy, there is clear evidence of serious threats to democracy.”
The destructive power of polarization is not limited to social media. Take the case of laws and regulations requiring transparency of government proceedings to empower the public to fight corruption and special interest influence.
Transparency (or publicity), in short, was an explicit centerpiece of the progressive program to invigorate and professionalize government while enhancing economic competition and fairness. United by their discontent with Gilded Age plutocracy and their insistence on state solutions, progressive lawyers, activists, journalists and politicians embraced transparency as a means of limiting the excesses of both private corporations and the public servants responsible for overseeing them.
Since then, Pozen wrote by email,
Partisan polarization has been both a cause and consequence of transparency’s disappointing track record. Rising levels of polarization have exacerbated the negative effects of transparency by increasing the cost to politicians of being seen to deviate from partisan scripts.
Transparency mandates, in turn, have exacerbated polarization by creating a less favorable climate for congressional deal-making and by empowering the extremes within each party coalition. Because the contemporary Republican Party is much less legislatively ambitious and much happier with gridlock, these dynamics harm Democrats more than Republicans.
Or look at another mainstay of American democracy, federalism. In “Laboratories of Democracy,” which was published in 1988, David Osborne, a journalist and senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, described how state governments had become engines of beneficial innovation and change. Thirty-four years later, Jacob Grumbach, a professor of political science at the University of Washington, has a very different perspective in “Laboratories Against Democracy: How National Parties Transformed State Politics.”
Grumbach argues that polarization has, in effect, turned state governments into “laboratories of democratic backsliding.”
In his book, Grumbach writes:
Rather than ushering in a democratic responsiveness, social harmony and economic prosperity, the shift in policymaking from the national to the state level since the 1970s has coincided with the weakening of democratic institutions, the precipitous rise of economic inequality and growing mass polarization and discontent.
Indeed, Grumbach argues, “contrary to the hopes of Louis Brandeis, state governments may not be ‘laboratories of democracy’ but laboratories against democracy.”
In an email, Grumbach described the thesis of his book:
The main argument in “Laboratories Against Democracy” is that partisan politics has become entirely national — national networks of activists and interest groups, national media, national fund-raising and voter attention focused on national identities and conflicts. So now what we’re seeing is groups, especially on the Republican side, using subnational institutions for national goals.
Richard Pildes, a law professor at N.Y.U., described how polarization and the internet have interacted to turn small dollar contributions into an instrument of partisan division and zealotry:
With cable television and social media, individual members of Congress — even in their first years in office — can now reach and create their own national constituency. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was first elected, she had over nine million followers on the main platforms; the next Democrat was Speaker Pelosi, with over two million, while no other House Democrat had over 300,000. Even in their first years in office, such figures can have an influence on the political culture (if not legislation) never before possible.
On top of that, Pildes continued,
the internet now enables members to raise vast amounts of money, outside the party structure, through small donations from throughout the country. And small-donor funding through the internet is fueled by the same toxic dynamics that drive social media more generally: Outrage and extreme positions attract attention, which unleashes a torrent of small donations. When Marjorie Taylor Greene was stripped of committee assignments, shortly after taking office, she quickly raised over $3.2 million in that fund-raising quarter from over 100,000 individual donors, who gave an average of $32 — shattering the record for fund-raising in the first quarter of a nonelection year.
In an article to be published soon by The California Law Review, “Democracies in the Age of Fragmentation,” Pildes writes:
The challenge the communications revolution poses for democracies, in my view, goes beyond now familiar issues of disinformation, misinformation or the amplification of outrage. Even if these problems could somehow be solved, the very nature of the new technology age might inherently undermine the capacity for broadly accepted, legitimate and sustainable political authority.
Technology-driven changes, Pildes continued,
mean that party leaders no longer have as significant leverage over their rank and file members. Being on particular committees is less critical than before. Rising through the ranks is no longer necessary to visibility or money. Nor is going along with the judgment of party leaders as to what positions are in the best interest of the party overall. Party leaders thus have fewer effective tools to manage differences within the party.
In a November 2019 commentary published in The Yale Law Journal, “Small-Donor-Based Campaign-Finance Reform and Political Polarization,” Pildes succinctly described the upheaval that has taken place over the past decade:
In an initial flush of romantic enthusiasm, social media and the communications revolution were thought to herald a brave new world of empowered citizens and unmediated, participatory democracy. Yet just a few years later, we have shifted to dystopian anxiety about social media’s tendencies to fuel political polarization, reward extremism, encourage a culture of outrage and generally contribute to the degradation of civic discourse about politics.