Barbara A. Misztal
Making Sense of Today’s Challenges to Democracy: The End of Politics as WeKnow It?
Since I am neither an expert on Polish politics nor on world affairs, in order to write something relevant for Concilium Civitas’s forum I shall take on one of the main tasks of sociology, which is – as Bauman (2003) has suggested – the exploration of contemporary challenges to democracy. I shall focus on some of the general, not country-specific, causes that are behind today’s widespread anxieties. These take the view that we are facing the end of politics as we know it, and that it is increasingly impossible to make sense of the current challenges faced by democratic societies.
Presently, according to the Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge University (CFD 2020), democracy is in ‘a state of malaise’ worldwide. We are witnessing the highest levels of dissatisfaction with democracy since CFD started its studies in 1995. Their ‘Global Satisfaction with Democracy Report 2020’, which relies on data collected for almost 50 years in Western Europe, and 25 years for the rest of the world, shows that global democratic discontent has become especially sharp since 2005 and is now reaching an all-time global high. It documents that today, across the globe, 57.5% of citizens in the studied nations are not satisfied with how their democracy is functioning, with 55% of the USA’s and 60.3% of the UK’s voting population lacking faith in the democratic system. Fears for the failure of democracy are also being expressed by a growing number of political scholars. The CFD report presents the main causes of ‘global democratic recession’ as connected with objective circumstances and events such as economic shocks, corruption, scandals and policy crises. At the same time, political scientists view the current crisis of democracy as a result of a decline of trust in politics, an erosion of trust in politicians, a fall in party engagement and loyalty, remoteness of the political elite and augmentation of class identities on which mass parties were built (Runciman 2020; Sasaki 2019; Stiegler 2015). Additionally, political journalists bring to our attention that today’s dissatisfaction with democracy is further reinforced by widespread waves of xenophobic nationalism, populism and fear of both migration and political polarization, in the context of the evaporation of the historical semantics of the left and the right (Maitlis 2019; O’Toole 2019).
Taken together, all these observations suggest that the peculiarity of present-day conditions is that people are increasingly losing confidence in the functioning of democratic institutions and are dissatisfied ‘not just with their political leaders, but with the democratic systems that put them in place’ (Olusoga 2020: 51). Furthermore, this feeling of dissatisfaction with democracy is also accompanied by a common opinion that we are now living in a difficult period that is overwhelming us with the challenges of resolving such problems as the climate crisis, AI, migration and ageing populations. Moreover, it is argued that digital technology, which is ‘non-geographical, decentralized, data driven, subject to network effects and exponential growth’, poses a threat to democracy, which was constructed during the era of ‘nation-state, hierarchies, deference and industrialized economies’ (Bartlett 2018: 3). While technological determinism should be rejected, we still need to recognize that social media is confronting our political systems with new problems. However, the absence of a convincing vision of the future and of a relevant model of democracy for the digital context restricts our capacity to respond to these new challenges.
One of the most perceptive descriptions of present-day societies as lacking sufficient vision for the future may be found in Olga Tokarczuk’s Nobel lecture. She confesses to feeling anxiety about today’s world, which lacks narratives making a sense of reality, as ‘[t]he flood of stupidity, cruelty, hate speech and images of violence are desperately counterbalanced by all sorts of “good news”’ (Tokarczuk 2019). In the absence of narratives of the present and the limitations of the imaginary of the future, which may be attributed to the fact that everything is changing at an accelerated pace and that we are living in a deluge of information, we do not know what will come next and cannot grasp the meaning of the present. In other words, having currently ‘too many contradictory, mutually exclusive facts, all battling one another, tooth and nail’, we lack ‘new ways of telling the story of the world’ (Tokarczuk 2019). As‘the world is dying, and we are failing to notice’, we are recklessly lurching towards danger, because we do not have narratives for today’s world, or for its future (Tokarczuk 2019).
However, even though the lack of confidence in the health of democracy is becoming universally held, it pays to be cautious. To avoid being trapped in the dominant rationalizations of today’s crisis, it is worth – apart from not forgetting that complacency and confidence in the strength of democracy have resulted in terrible consequences in the past – recalling two things. First, it is essential to acknowledge that today’s picture is not entirely negative, because in many small, high-income democracies, such as Switzerland, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands, democratic satisfaction is reaching all-time highs (CFD 2020). Secondly, it is worth remembering that the current crisis is not the first one for democracy. Therefore, instead of being frightened by democracy’s dark side (to use the title of Michael Mann’s book), we should be encouraged by examples of well-functioning democracies and embark on the long-term task of building public satisfaction with it. This task demands that, without being overconfident in the future of democracy, we should recognize the limitations of our collective imaginary, seen as such a way of understanding social life together that makes collaborative social relations possible and enables collective practices which are concerned with the common future (Taylor 2002).
A search for ways of overcoming the limitations of today’s collective imaginary should start with questions about what is behind the shrinkage of people’s imaginative and emotional horizons and how this has been changing the nature of democracy’s core institution, that is, the public sphere. While acknowledging that technology is not wholly responsible for contemporary democracies’ difficulties, it can be argued that with so much communication being mediated by digital technologies, social media are one of the new conditions framing our collective imaginary, and thus also one of the factors shaping the functioning of today’s public sphere. With the euphoria that new technology would enable a wider and deeper democracy already a thing of the past, we are only just beginning to comprehend the role of communication technologies in presenting a challenge to democracy. As it is vital to develop our understanding of how the digital environment is reshaping the public realm, in what follows we shall explore algorithmic media’s impact on the public sphere.
Illusions and disillusions with digital media
The beginning of this century saw an anticipation of political innovations created by the arrival of digital technology. Numerous studies from the first decades of digital media asserted that, by offering citizens the opportunity to engage with a diversity of views and opinions, the internet was extending the public sphere and thus strengthening democracy (Dahlberg 2007). Their authors argued that, as online participants readily sought out and deliberated with actors holding different views, the internet was playing a very central role in enriching democracy (Wojcik 2012). They viewed the consequences of the new social media, such as the development of some forms of fragmentation of power, new groups gaining a voice, an increase in online petitions, enhancement of new types of social movements and fostering of transparency, as having the potential to improve the quality of democracy. With blogging rapidly becoming the dominant form of user-generated content on the web and with the blogosphere offering universal access, rational debate and disregard of social ranks, ‘it looked as though Habermas’s idea of the public sphere – his idealised conception of a forum for democratic debate – was coming to life’ (Naughton 2019: 25). Yet, by the end of the second decade of this century, the excitement about the digital environment’s potential to enlarge democracy by increasing citizens’ opportunities to express themselves and engage politically was fading away. With the expanded control that algorithms were having over media and information systems, social media’s contribution to democratic culture became widely questioned. In contrast to earlier researchers’ enthusiasm at the internet’s ability to expand the deliberative nature of democracy, current investigators are troubled by the growing tensions between the requirements of democratic life and the consequences of media that increasingly rely on algorithms.
In democratic countries, these illusions and disillusions with digital media reflect the new media’s complex, fragmented and chaotic nature, and the fact that the online environment is increasingly controlled by commercial forces. Although today’s media context consists not only of algorithmic media, as it also includes old mass media (such as the press and TV) and co-exists with blogs, news media websites and early social media platforms, here we focus on the expanding presence of algorithmic media. With a growing number of platforms curated by algorithms pursuing profit by increasing users’ participation, online communication is increasingly functioning through ‘programmed routines’. Algorithmic media are being sustained by ‘control technologies’ and are collecting data from users’ preferences and interactions, selecting and modifying information to meet their profiled users’ ‘likes’. Consequently, they are accumulating control over the whole media environment in the hands of companies that micro-target customers and tell them that they are receiving only what they want (McKelvey 2014). Furthermore, by undermining the gatekeeping editorial role of old media, tech corporations and trolls threaten the quality of public debate (Marantz 2020). Therefore, as algorithmic media come with a number of factors that limit open and reflexive online debate – which include inequalities in access and participation, the corporate domination of online engagement and the fading power of journals, magazines and newspapers – it can be argued that they are responsible for many flaws in the functioning of today’s democracy. Moreover, the quality of political life is being perceived as endangered because of the pollution of cyberspace with hateful or even dangerous content on the one hand, and threats of digital surveillance on the other. Thus, the unregulated nature of the information ecosystem is leading to fears that if there is ‘any kind of new politics that has been disproportionately enabled by new communications technologies, it is probably international terrorism, not democracy’ (Schudson 2020: 35). Others demonstrate the danger of digital surveillance by pointing to digital technology’s contribution to increased control (subjecting people to CCTV surveillance, facial recognition, data capture) and by recalling Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013 and the recent Facebook–Cambridge Analytica scandal. The growing awareness of the potential threat that surveillance poses to democracy, and the realisation that information technology creates risks to dialogue in the public realm, all call for a systematic investigation of the role of today’s online environment in reshaping democratic processes.
In the last few years, these urgent issues have been the subject of many studies (Zuboff 2019; Greenberg 2019; Harcourt 2019; Bamberger and Mulligan 2018). For example, Zuboff’s (2019) research shows that the core tenets of today’s digital environment are surveillance and the exploitation of users’ content and relationships. According to her, ‘surveillance capitalism’, founded on predictive algorithms or mathematical calculations of human behaviour, sells ‘certainty to business customers who would like to know with certainty what we do’ (Zuboff 2019: 23). The enhanced surveillance and predictive capacities of algorithmic media – facilitated by the business models of digital platforms and their algorithmic nudges, data extraction and modification – have the potential to shape people’s yearnings and market profiles. Although Zuboff’s critical assessment of today’s digital context refers to the nature of the economic system, it also contains warnings for democracy. It argues that even though ‘surveillance capitalism’ does not try to control people’s minds, by forming desires and promising the ‘substitution of certainty for society’ it eliminates the need for politics (Zuboff 2019: 11). Other current studies, more directly interested in measuring the strength of participatory deliberative democracyin the context of digital media, demonstrate a number of shortcomings in this environment. These include the disintegration of online communication into ‘like-minded’ groups, increasing domination of online content by commercial forces that derive profits from monetizing ‘user engagement’, preservation of the dominance of the technologically advanced elite and the fact that online political engagement mainly involves people who are already politically active offline. They conclude that the World Wide Web cannot be seen as a forum for rational and transparent debate and, therefore, cannot be used for political purposes (Bartlett 2018; Fabrino 2015; Foroohar 2019; Greenberg 2019; Milan 2105).
Apart from the disappointment with digital technology’s failure to promote wider and more reflexive democratic deliberation, there is a consistent scepticism about the role that social media have played in elections. Although we have growing awareness of digital advertising’s hazardous impact on elections and despite Twitter having ceased all political advertising globally at the end of 2019, there is still a need to remain vigilant for potential threats to the election process in the digital context, given that Facebook rejects all responsibility for airing false advertisements and voter psychology is poorly understood. Moreover, new studies seem to confirm the reality of this danger. For example, Bruter and Harrison’s (2020) research suggests that internet voting makes people feel less in control of and less satisfied with their electoral experience, and therefore may affect turnout in the long term. Another study, while granting that many factors influence how individuals cast their votes, shows that social media can collect quantities of highly specific personal data on voters and can lower turnout by identifying those who have doubts about voting and persuading them not to vote (Wylie 2019).
Generally, the above studies demonstrate that the benefits of platform technology do not outweigh their political costs[…]. As the majority of the investigations into the political costs of algorithmic media do not assign technology a central role in shaping our future, the reports’ conclusions cannot be easy dismissed. By and large, these are not neo-Luddite manifestos urging us to wean ourselves decisively off the internet, our computers and mobile phones. The majority of the studies, while questioning digital media’s impact on democratic societies, acknowledge that technology cannot be seen as wholly responsible for the fragility of modern democracy and that technological change is not only triggered by socio-economic factors, but also itself triggers various responses and even counter-responses in the cultural and social spheres. In other words, the investigations recognize that, as new communication technologies enlarge the field of communications, we can expect both some democratization of the public domain and some threats to its democratic potential.
To summarize, in the 1990s it was common to hear predictions that the World Wide Web would produce wonderful political outcomes, but now many find it difficult to preserve their faith in democracy in the digital context. Yet the evidence of the negative impact of digital technology on democracy should not conceal the fact that the new media have some merits. Instead of lamenting that digital technology is killing democracy, we should recognize that the political and social practices of the internet play an essential role in redesigning democratic practices and processes, and we should question the reliability of the digital foundation of the public sphere. To answer this, we need to understand the nature of a certain ambivalence associated with algorithmic media and its impact on the public realm.
A new ambivalence at the core of the public sphere
The ambivalence at the centre of today’s public life is connected with the fact that algorithmic media construct new moods and levels of visibility, by freeing people from the constraints of co-presence (Brighenti 2010). Because of this new visibility ‘the political field is facing an ambivalent situation’, which affects the functioning of democracy (Mateus 2017: 120). It is, therefore, essential to understand the impact that the new ambiguity at the core of the public sphere may have on the quality of democratic life.
Presently, the public realm is a field of interdependent virtual public spaces where we are visible to each other online, and there is a complex space of information flows that the individual does not necessarily control. In other words, the public sphere is a ‘space of appearance’, where ‘we are visible – open to general sensory access, open to the sight of spectators, in one’s body or representation’ (Adut 2018: 17). With communication technologies inscribing visibility into social reality and political processes, algorithmic visibility, which is ‘neither simply political nor simply technological; rather it is at the same time socio-technological and bio-political’, increases the scope for participation, but it also enhances the difficulties in maintaining open, tolerant, civil and reflexive communication in the public domain (Brighenti 2010: 187).
Several studies of the impact of social media on democracy show that the fundamental ambivalence of algorithmic visibility is linked to its association with both recognition and control, and to its capacity in both cases to empower and undermine democratic processes (Brighenti 2010; Davies 2019; Mateus 2017; Thomas 2011). These investigations have concluded that ‘the mediatization of publicness’ means that today’s challenge to democracy consists ‘in making new territories through visibility’ (Brighenti 2010: 185), and that the shifting boundaries between public and private life have become ‘a new battleground in modern societies, a contested terrain where established relations of power can be challenged and disrupted, lives damaged and reputations sometimes lost’ (Thompson 2011: 49). Hence, to comprehend the ambivalence at the core of the public realm, we shall focus on algorithmic visibility’s impact on changes in the relationship between the public and private spheres, as well as on civic culture. To critically evaluate the changes in the functioning of democracy that are associated with the effects of algorithmic visibility, we shall compare today’s public domain with its normative image as formulated in many classical works on democracy.
Among the idealized versions of the public sphere, the most interesting conceptualization of the significance of visibility in the public domain can be found in Hannah Arendt’s works. While defining the public sphere as the guarantor of democracy’s strength and the necessary condition for dignity and justice, Arendt (1958) emphasizes that visibility plays an important role in the constitution of the democratic public realm, by enabling people to access the public domain and to make themselves and their causes visible to the wider public. According to Arendt (1958), visibility is not just about physically or actually seeing others, but about holding others as valid and moral agents who are worthy of esteem and freedom. It thereby lays a foundation for people’s mutual recognition. In other words, visibility’s empowering role is connected with its potential to confer recognition which, alongside transparent and symmetric communication, is an important condition of democratic participation.
Arendt (1978: 65) limits this empowering role of visibility only to visibility in public, as she stresses that the dichotomy between public visibility and private invisibility is the foundation of democracy’s health and that it should be preserved. This is because it allows the public sphere to retain a state of openness and of ‘being-with-others-in-the-world’, which are the conditions for recognizing others and respecting difference. In contrast, a life ‘spent entirely in public, in the presence of others’, namely, in full visibility, loses ‘the quality of rising into sight from some darker ground which must remain hidden if it is not to lose its depth in a very real, non-subjective sense’ (Arendt 1958: 71). When people are unable to remove themselves from being constantly seen and heard by others, they could face being threatened with ‘insanity’, which ‘consists in having lost this common sense that enables us to judge as spectators’, and hence public life could become shallower (Arendt 1978: 64).
According to Arendt (1958), the democratic potential of visibility relates not only to its role in granting recognition to people as unique beings who deserve respect, but also in its role in placing respect for difference at the heart of democracy. Visibility in the public domain is about giving your full attention to what others say in order to recognize their views and actions, even if they are different from yours. In the public sphere, people must embrace the inevitable plurality of others’ opinions, so as to transcend their own interest-driven self (Arendt 1978). It is through embracing respect for difference as the fundamental end of democracy that people can be led to act together in concert. The making of a political community springs up only ‘when [people] act together, and vanishes the moment they disperse’ (Arendt 1958: 200). In short, visibility in the public realm is politically sound and conducive to human dignity, mutual recognition and tolerance. When people are visible to a plurality of others who grant them recognition and esteem, they feel recognized as unique beings who deserve respect, and thus they have both capacity and willingness to act together in concert for a public–political purpose. In contrast, when people in the public domain are not granted recognition and dignity, they lack ‘this common sense that enables us to judge’. Hence, they are unable to deliver impartial and rational judgements in the interest of all, and such a situation can endanger democracy and societal well-being (Arendt 1978: 64).
With the emergence of new means of communication, Arendt’s identification of the public domain solely with visibility and private spaces only with invisibility cannot be sustained. Yet, as the notion of visibility is now gaining in significance, Arendt’s idea of visibility in public as the foundation of democracy offers a valuable platform for a critical scrutiny of the quality of public life in the context of digital culture – where people are afraid to be invisible, but at the same time defend their privacy and value transparency rules. There is a striking contrast between Arendt’s idea of visibility, which involves recognition and respect for difference and which promotes democratic dialogue and real citizenship, and today’s visibility, which sets the stage for ‘the flourishing of a new kind of intimacy in the public sphere’ and links recognition to data-driven ratings of users (Thompson 2011: 57). In other words, while the first type of visibility is associated with empowering democratic processes, the consequences algorithmic visibility are more ambiguous as it can facilitate both democratic dialogue (for example, by creating a space for debate) and disengagement (for instance, by increasing the scope of control and misrecognition).
As the benefits of digital media are already well known, we focus here on the many challenges that algorithmic visibility poses to democratic functioning. First, when algorithmic visibility is associated with recognition it can present a threat to society’s quality of life, because it makes recognition tangible in such forms as ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ (Thompson 2011: 57) and hence it can increase occurrences of misrecognition and humiliation and, by the same token, can undermine the conditions of justice, freedom and tolerance (Brighenti 2010; Milan 2015). As all human subjects depend on the realization of ‘undistorted forms of recognition’, incidences of disregard and disrespect undermine individual self-realization. Thus, they pose a threat to society’s well-being that is ‘proportionate to its ability to secure conditions of mutual recognition under which personal identity-formulation occurs (Honneth 2003: 174). In other words, algorithmic visibility can present a challenge to democratic functioning, because it fails to help us cultivate the values of recognition of others and respect for difference.
Secondly, when algorithmic visibility is associated with control or surveillance it provides competition for visibility in a new area of struggle for power, by creating new opportunities and risks. For example, while many institutions increasingly recognise the value in their staff having social media visibility, because it helps to advertise the company’s products and achievements, increase brand awareness or recruit, when that individual voice comes into conflict with the official stance some institutions use intimidation to silence it or suppress the visibility. Thus the new scope for ‘mediated publicness’ blurs the divisions between politics, media and business. Also, while shifting the boundaries between public and private, it enhances the general level of ambivalence, as we do not know ‘when an individual sits in the space of his or her home or bedroom and goes online, disclosing information about himself or herself to thousands or millions of others, in what sense is this individual situated in a private sphere?’ (Thompson 2011: 63). Additionally, as access to digital social networks turns ‘ordinary’ people into broadcasters, not only is there a blurring of the boundaries between public and private, but also the divisions between different genres of culture and communication become less clear.
Thirdly, by sustaining the rules of partisan epistemology, algorithmic visibility impacts on the form and content of communication in the public sphere (Thompson 2005; Mateus 2017). The fragmentation of communication into ‘like-minded’ groups can contribute to banality of arguments, because if what you believe depends on what group you belong to and you only read or listen ‘to confirm your prejudices’, you do not confront your views with contrasting or different ideas and, therefore, ‘you risk banality’ (Hadley 2018: 160). The result also damages the value of civility, because in the subsequent cacophony of voices, opposing teams shout at each other like in a reality show, with no way of sorting truth from falsehood. ‘In the end we have banality squared: banality made visible makes banality a banal activity to watch’ (Mateus 2017: 120). Thus, the visibility constituted by the logic of algorithm can undermine the democratic standards and the quality of communication in the public domain.
What is more, the visibility that is brought about by algorithmic logic also has an ambiguous effect not only on spectators in the public sphere, but also politicians, because it limits the scope of the space into which they can withdraw from the glare of public life (Adut 2019; Brighenti 2010; Mateus 2017; Thompson 2011). When visibility is transformed into an imperative of transparency, it can enrich democracy – for example, the visibility of holders of power can shine light on corruption and other unacceptable actions of the political elites. Yet, the visibility associated with increased control over political leaders’ actions many also confront them with new kinds of risks (Thompson 2005; Mateus 2017). With their increased visibility, the time and opportunity that political elites have available for deliberations and consultations may become reduced and, by making it harder for them to compromise or make concessions, this can lead to greater levels of conflict and polarization (Thompson 2011). At the same time, the higher level of visibility also offers new opportunities for status building, because by staging their self-presentation and by playing to the cameras, many politicians manage and exploit the visibility to their own advantage. As the political field becomes increasingly open to media, political leaders appear before their subjects in ways and on a scale that has never existed previously (from engaging in mediated quasi-interaction to messaging on Twitter). And as visibility becomes an object of strategic use and management, ‘the boundaries continue to blur between real and manifested truth and lies’(Graham 2019: 15). With the media landscape favouring populist messaging, ‘the champions of civility keep losing’, while the use of ‘inflammatory’ language in politics increases and public debates are getting nastier (Moffitt 2020).
Hence, algorithmic visibility is a double-edged sword; while it creates space for debate and articulation of a diversity of interests, it also narrows the possibility for broad consensus, and while it enables publicly oriented citizens to control and scrutinize power, it also causes tensions and problems (Brighenti 2010; Mateus 2017). Indeed, digital visibility is neither uniquely placed to strengthen democracy nor to weaken its functioning. Basically, by imposing ambiguity on the public sphere, algorithmic visibilitymakes the working of democracy a more complex and difficult task.
Democracy’s endless struggle
As democracy struggles endlessly for equality, freedom, decency and ‘the defense of minorities, not of majorities’ (Hampshire 2000: 47), it is far from being without problems and conflicts. One that remains unresolved is the dilemma of ‘how those elected represent people’, the difficulty of which culminates in ‘a question having to do with symbolic force’ (Ricoeur 2001: 23). The importance and autonomy of symbolic order in seeking a solution to the delegation dilemma is connected with the fact that both the demand for recognition from existing authority and the capacity of recognition on the part of the subordinated parties always rely on social trust. Due to algorithmic media’s effects on public life, settling the question of delegation by fostering societal trust has become even more difficult today than before the digital revolution.
Trust is recognized as the essential factor that ensures the flourishing of the public sphere and as a necessary element for cultivating the essential features of politics, namely, its orientation to the future, as well as to change and risk. A democratic system’s chance for stability and renewal is also connected with the existence of trust. This is because it depends on trusting the opposition to accept the rules of the democratic process, and also because political institutions’ legitimacy relies on the support of citizens, who when trustful of the political establishment vote for it. However, since political relations are not alliances in which shared interests can be taken for granted, and since tensions between antagonistic forces are the essence of democracy, ‘politics does not provide a natural environment for trust’(Warren 1999: 19), and conflicts and disputes ‘will continue indefinitely, punctuated by occasional compromises’ (Hampshire 2000: 97). Because democracy has perpetual tensions and conflicts, it is not easy to ensure that people and their representatives will work trustfully together to solve problems for the greater common good. Since the democratic rule is ‘to criticize and pay attention to the criticism of others’ (Walzer 2002: xiii) and since such criticism tends to be oriented towards ensuring democracy’s future, it is an inherently democratic and important question to ask if today’s digital context is a reliable foundation on which democratic culture and trust can flourish.
The answer to this question seems to be negative, because ‘trust in liberal democracy, government, media and non-governmental organizations declines as social media usage rises’ (Foroohar 2019). The new media ecosystem does not create conditions for trust, because the effects of algorithmic visibility, such as the absence of mutual recognition, respect and tolerance for others, mean that the deficit in social trust is substituted by virtual connections and data-driven ratings of actors. Therefore, there is an urgency to restore societal trust before the democratic system’s capacity to sustain itself totally crumples. Without having any illusion that society can be transformed by an act of political will, and recognizing that mentioning reforms is considerably easier than executing them, we should, nonetheless, call for giving consideration to legal norms and cultural conditions that could nurture people’s ability and willingness to take responsibility for their common future.
In other words, to prevent democracy from being paralysed, at least two objectives should be considered. First, there is a need for strengthening democratic oversight of the online environment through a new regulatory framework and new broadcasting laws. Secondly, in addition to reforms aiming at making the new media powers accountable, there is a need to overcome people’s feelings of powerlessness associated with their lack of control and responsibility for the future, since the long-term survival of democracy depends not only upon a just and fair institutional order but also upon civic culture. This can be achieved by finding a unifying narrative that allows engagement in discussions and negotiations on the future. Since ‘our problem lies – it seems – in the fact that we do not yet have ready narratives not only for the future, but even for a concrete now, for the ultra-rapid transformations of today’s world’ (Tokarczuk 2019), to rebuild the conditions of mutual trust and respect we need a story that, by organizing the continuous deluge of information within time and by establishing our relationship with the future, can make sense of our common life.
The enduring challenge of a democratic society is to find a secular narrative that makes sense of public life and promotes a collective commitment to the future. For such a story to be fit for political purpose, it should acknowledge the reality of ambivalence and its tensions, and it should lead to the crystallization of new trust relationships. If any change is possible through a transformed collective imaginary (Taylor 2002), we need a kind of imaginary narrative that will insert trust into the nature of institutions and the organization of social life, enabling common practices and engagement in shared projects for a better future. While we cannot strip conflicts or distrust from the narrative of our past, a social imaginary that enables us to participate in a common life and work towards the collective future, together with institutions and legal regulations that secure conditions for transparency and accountability, may be a way to nurture our ability to sustain a well-functioning democracy. But the question is, when are people going to recognize the importance of working together for the future and realize the need for change? If we agree with Immanuel Kant that it requires shock to bring us to our senses, the fear of the climate crisis may seem an obvious source of change that may affect the shape of democracy.
Thus, the tipping point is not a moral issue, but rather the emancipatory power of both the visibility of the threat that the climate crisis poses to the well-being of the whole planet and the objections against the invisibility of this most important issue of today. By making the climate emergency visible in the public domain – through education, by placing it on the public agenda, or by organizing ‘citizens’ assemblies’ as France has done – and by engaging in active protests against the invisibility of this issue, – like in the UK, where the climate emergency campaign Extinction Rebellion organizes non-violent civil disobedience to push for recognition of this issue – there is a chance to inscribe the climate crisis into today’s social imaginary. Hence, despite a dysfunctional public sphere, perhaps a harsh awakening to the climate crisis may be a first step to working together towards a better future.
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