Democracy [draft] [#digitalkeywords]

“…much of the discussion around the relationship between digital information and communication technologies and democracy has focused too little on the question of what connections exists between digital technologies and actually existing, minimalist-vision democracy and too much on extensive discussion of the possible connections that might potentially be established between digital technologies and alternative, maximalist visions for democracy.”

The following is a draft of an essay, eventually for publication as part of the Digital Keywords project (Ben Peters, ed). This and other drafts will be circulated on Culture Digitally, and we invite anyone to provide comment, criticism, or suggestion in the comment space below. We ask that you please do honor that it is being offered in draft form — both in your comments, which we hope will be constructive in tone, and in any use of the document: you may share the link to this essay as widely as you like, but please do not quote from this draft without the author’s permission. (TLG)


Democracy — Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Roskilde University and the University of Oxford

“Imagining the perfect democratic city does not exempt us from acting in the present scene of imperfection … On the contrary, this imagining is what enables us to act, that is, to exist in freedom from a despair of democracy.” ~ Stanley Cavell (1994)

If we want to understand the relationship between digital technology and democracy we need to start with democracy. Actually existing democracy is liberal and representative. It is liberal in being based on the rule of law, the separation of powers, and the recognition of basic civil liberties. It is representative in being based on universal suffrage and periodic relatively free and fair elections of representatives who in turn control government. Democracy in this basic sense offers no guarantees in terms of outcomes. It ensures neither peace, prosperity, nor personal fulfilment. It is simply a particular way of trying to structure politics-struggles over some of the defining questions facing us (who are “we”?, how do “we” live together?, how do “we” distribute scarce public resources?)-that sees popular government through broad-based and in principle equal participation by all members of the polity as the only legitimate form of government.

Liberal representative democracy is in this sense not only a name for a certain set of political regimes that approximate or lay claim to the above ideals to varying degrees. It is also a truly radical and revolutionary idea. It is today and has throughout history been a notion that challenges the very roots of illegitimate exercise of power both in actually existing democracies that fall short of their self-professed ideals and in regimes beyond them that pay at best lip service to the notion of democracy. The vision offered by liberal representative democracy may seem to be a minimalist vision when compared to various maximalist visions for more deliberative, direct, and/or participatory democracy. But it is a vision nonetheless, and for those inclined to consider such factors, it is a vision that has the relative advantage over maximalist alternatives of being able to offer not only theoretical arguments, but also proof of concept from a wide range of different countries around the world.

I open with these basic observations about democracy because my argument in this essay is that much of the discussion around the relationship between digital information and communication technologies and democracy has focused too little on the question of what connections exists between digital technologies and actually existing, minimalist-vision democracy and too much on extensive discussion of the possible connections that might potentially be established between digital technologies and alternative, maximalist visions for democracy. In my view, this is a problem in two ways. First, emphasis on alternatives at the expense of the actual limits our understanding of the world we live in. Second, abstract discussions of what digital might do for democracy seems to sometimes be allowed to serve as a stand-in for what it does do in and for democracy, in turn distorting and exaggerating its role. My basic point here is we need to find a different starting point if we wish to understand the relationship between digital technology and democracy. Actually existing liberal representative democracy and a focus on practice over potential might provide such a point.

Liberal representative democracy is, as Amartya Sen has argued, an ‘universal value”. [1] It is not agreed upon everywhere, let alone practiced everywhere, but it is an idea that is available everywhere. In reality, it is never all that we want it to be. Democracy in the full sense of the word will, as Vaclav Havel put it in his address to a joint session of the US Congress in 1990, “always be no more than an ideal; one may approach it as one would a horizon, in ways that may be better or worse, but it can never be fully attained.” Indeed, seen in light of even a minimalist vision of liberal representative democracy as an ideal, something even approximating democratic regimes are really a twentieth century phenomenon. It is an ideal whose partial, imperfect, and precarious realization depended upon successful struggles for women’s suffrage, for decolonization, and for the recognition of a wide range of civil rights building on the gains of the bourgeois and popular revolutions of the 18th and 19th century. It is an ideal that is never fully realized, as rights are always violated, as some people are always excluded, and as democratic regimes sometimes lapse or even collapse.

Freedom House estimates that 43 percent of the world’s population lives in more or less democratic countries by the basic standard provided by liberal and representative democracy. The number increased sharply in the early 1990s after the fall of Soviet communism, but has changed little in the 2000s.[2] The figure includes not only little seemingly picture-book perfect pockets of peace and prosperity like the Nordic welfare states, but also more complex cases like Brazil, Ghana, India, Serbia, and the United States. In total about 3 billion people live in such actually existing democracies. They face challenges enough to fill their days, but also enjoy a degree of respite from the combination of domination, exploitation, and arbitrary violence that characterize much of human political history, and many more around the world have in recent years struggled for this kind of minimal democracy, including people in China, Egypt, Iran, Myanmar, and the Ukraine.

Digital technologies are increasingly part and parcel both of the everyday political processes of actually existing democracies and of the organizing and mobilization of movements for democratization, just as they are increasingly part and parcel of many other parts of life. In the twenty-five years since the World Wide Web made the internet a more accessible medium for ordinary people, many in high income countries have moved from occasional access via desktop computers and dial-up modems to constant connectivity via smartphones and mobile broadband access, and digital technologies are increasingly ubiquitous as parts of family life, friendships, work, leisure, consumption-and of politics. More and more people use digital technologies as one of several ways in which they engage with political processes. More and more organized political actors, including political parties, political campaigns, and various sorts of interest groups, have integrated digital technologies in their own operations.[3] On a number of occasions, from the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street in the United States to the austerity protests across much of Southern Europe and the anti-corruption Hazare movement in India, digital technologies have been an important part of how people have organized and mobilized politically to democratize democracies they saw as falling far short of their own ideals and aspirations.[4] Similarly, people organizing and mobilizing for democracy in other contexts have, in countries as different as Iran, Egypt, and the Ukraine, relied in part on digital technologies to connect with other activists, coordinate their activities, and publicize their struggle.[5] Spend a day with someone actively involved in politics-an elected official, a trade unionist, a movement activist-and you are likely to see them rely on their cell phone, their email, perhaps social media, and almost certainly a whole suite of back-end tools whether tailor made, off-the-shelf, or cloud-based, for managing their work. (This practical reliance is of course the motivation for censoring, monitoring, and blocking such tools either permanently or from time to time, just as other means of expression and assembly are restricted.)

It is not clear, however, that the widespread practical use of digital technologies means that they have played the kind of revolutionary role in actually existing democratic and democratizing political practices that has sometimes been forecast. The precise claims made vary and it seems unnecessary to rehash them here or single any one futurist out. The overall thrust has been clear and broadly shared in a certain genre: digital technologies were expected to facilitate public debate, increase political participation, and challenge incumbent and often hierarchical and exclusionary organizations by making it easier for people to express themselves, take part in things, and to organize without formal organizations.[6] Years later, it is not clear that there is empirical support for these hopeful hypotheses. Research so far suggests that digital technologies have so far had (1) modest, (2) mostly internal, and often (3) indirect and institutional implications for democratic and democratizing practices. A few words about each aspect in turn-

First, in terms of the scale and scope of the implications, attempts to assess the effects of digital technology use on political participation have again and again found only modest effects and often a “reinforcement” tendency where digital technology use may correlate with political participation, but mostly in ways where already-engaged groups are even more engaged and less engaged groups are no more engaged.[7] Digital technologies offer easier access more than anything else, but for many, apparently, access is less of a barrier to political participation than inclination (or confidence that even trying is worth one’s while).

Second, a number of studies have shown that digital technologies are part and parcel of internal (and incremental, gradual, supplementary) changes in how political parties, political campaigns, interest groups, and social movements organize, mobilize, and communicate.[8] In contrast, the track-record of digitally-first forms of political participation so far seems sporadic and uneven, at least outside the area of tech activism.[9] The movements hailed in recent years by some as “Facebook movements” are at least as much “city square movements”-focused on contesting “meatspace” more than “cyberspace”-and while self-expression and attempts at creating an alternative sphere for democratic decision making and political practice has been part and parcel of many of these mobilizations, trying to be the change one seeks is is not new and certainly not distinct to the digital environment.[10]

Third and finally, digital technologies are integral to much wider decades-old economic and social changes that are indirectly changing the very position of democracy in the social order through the rise of transnational corporations with far-fetched supply chains and the globalization of financial markets, changes in the news industry that for all its imperfections help people follow politics from afar, and by enabling and underpinning the maintenance of extra-local communities of cosmopolitan white collar professionals as much as of diasporas and migrants.[11] (The combination of political deregulation and a globalized and highly unequal economy enabled in part by digital technologies may well change democracy far more, through what seems to be a the secular decline of popular government relative to the rise of the administrative state and private corporations, than any number of online opportunities to express oneself, organize, and get involved.) All these large-scale processes at least problematize the traditional (never unproblematic) democratic assumption of a rough overlap between an economy, a state, and a people.[12]

The point here is not that digital technologies mean nothing for democracy, or that the role they play is unimportant or not worthy of consideration. It is simply that the effects are never unambiguously or unproblematically pro-democratic. Serious analysis has left behind the utopian/dystopian dichotomy some time ago in favor of what we in lack of a better phrase might call complex realism, whether with a slightly optimistic bent or a slightly more pessimistic bent.[13] We have arrived at the “it’s complicated”-phase of our understanding of the relationship between digital and democracy. The questions now are how it is complicated, where, under what conditions, what it means, and for whom. No evidence-based and rigorous analysis that I know of has lend any credence to the more bombastic pronouncements made and sometimes taken by policymakers (and perhaps parts of the public) to represent actual analysis.

Why, then, have digital technologies fallen far short of the democratic visions that have accompanied them (as they have previously accompanied many other new information and communication technologies)? I would suggest there are three main reasons.[14]

First, the relations between digital technologies and democracy have not developed as was imagined in part because much of what was imagined was imagined on the basis of maximalist visions of democracy with considerable theoretical appeal but little basis in reality. This reflects the unhappy coincidence that both contemporary democratic theorizing as practiced in the academy and much of the public speculation offered by the digital avant-garde has been more concerned with alternative, theoretical, maximalist visions of democracy than with actually existing minimalist visions of democracy (or indeed actually existing alternative democratic innovation, experiments like participatory budgeting, etc.). As a wide range of scholars-from radical democrats like Aletta Norval to liberal democrats like Ian Shapiro-have argued, political theory has, with its professionalization as an autonomous academic field and its move away from its roots in “reflexive practice” (think John Stuart Mill versus John Rawls, or Antonio Gramsci versus Slavoj _i_ek) become more and more concerned with abstract self-referential argument and less and less interested in analyzing the intellectual and normative dimensions of actually existing democratic practices.[15] A similar flight from reality can be observed amongst many of the public intellectuals of the digital revolution. Visions of how digital technologies might enable or be part of entirely different kinds of democratic politics are common. Detailed, evidence-based arguments about what digital technologies mean for actually existing democracy are rare. Everyone has a view on the tool of the moment, whether blogs, wikis, or social media. Fewer have bothered to find out what these tools look like and how they work from the point of view of elected representatives, trade unionists, or movement activists. (Some have speculated about what drives the political economy of this kind of tech commentary.[16]) The problem with this development is not the insistence on imagining a better tomorrow. It is that the distance between reality and imagination too often seems to become an excuse for inactivity, that the logics driving the production of the most influential ideas can seem parochial and self-interested, and that our visions of digital democracy are too rarely rooted in first-hand experience with actually existing democratic practices, warts and all.[17]

Second, of course, the relations between digital technologies and democracy have not developed as was imagined in part because many other forces have shaped democracy more than the spread of relatively affordable and accessible digital technologies during the same time period. (Some of these forces in turn themselves intertwined with the development of digital technologies involved in supply chain management, financial speculation, etc.) In many countries, actually-existing liberal representative democracy today faces ever-more acute and multi-faceted problems of legitimacy, efficiency, institutional integrity, and popular engagement. These problems by and large predate the rise of digital technologies by decades.[18] The fact that more and more people in some countries seems disenchanted with democracy in an age of increased economic inequality, social segmentation, political polarization, and perhaps a loss of faith in the very idea of common solutions to common problems (and indeed the notion of a commonwealth) has little to do with digital technologies. (Though we should note that there is no systematic evidence that digital technologies have enhanced democracy more in countries that, like parts of Northern Europe, have not seen these tendencies to the same extent as for example Spain and the United States.[19])

Third and importantly, the relations between digital technologies and democracy have not developed as was imagined in part because the vast majority of digital technologies were never developed to enhance democracy in the first place. This is a simple and in a way obvious point, but one that often seems lost in public debates and social science discussions of the role of digital technologies and their implications for democracy-the internet, for example, is not a “democratic technology” the way the ballot box is a democratic technology, developed specifically to enable popular government. The internet is an infrastructure for sharing digital information developed first and foremost to underpin and enable various government activities (including security-related ones), later personal and professional communication, and increasingly business interests. The democratic effects of the internet, whatever they are, are unintended externalities, not a primary purpose. When we look at what has been invested in the development of digital technologies, digital communication practices, and the infrastructures underpinning them, billions are been spent year-in-year-out on developing e-commerce, hundreds of millions are spent on e-government, whereas e-democracy is an afterthought, subject to much talk and a few millions now and then. The Obama campaign may have spent millions in 2008 and 2012 building their own tailor-made digital infrastructure (a small investment compared to what it takes to develop patient record processing systems for a mid-size hospital system). But most political campaigns, electoral or otherwise, have to rely on their own repurposing of off-the-shelf at-hand technologies or standardized franchises offered by a handful of small tech companies and individual consultants specializing in politics. The real digital R&D and investment happens outside politics, outside democracy.

The advantage of understanding the relationship between digital information and communication technologies through the lens of the practical role of digital technologies in actually existing democracies and democratizing practices is that it, in a way, puts digital in its place, as a set of stage props and as part of the setting of the great drama of popular government, not as a main character. Media and politics are mutually constitutive and deeply intertwined, and changes in one (in this case media) invariably influence the other (politics), but not necessarily for the reasons or in the ways often and most prominently suggested, and always in combination with other forces. It also reminds us that democracy is simultaneously enormously disappointing and absolutely amazing-a peculiar outlier in human history-and that the main democratic struggles of our day are not primarily digital. They are primarily democratic. They involve tools of all sorts, analogue and digital, but are driven more than anything else by what Stanley Cavell gestures towards in the quote used as an epigraph here-the tension between people’s visions of perfect democracy (liberal and representative or otherwise), their perception of the present scene of imperfection, and their belief that they can change it for the better.


1. Sen (1999). As Keane (2009) shows in in his magisterial history of democracy, it is, contrary to what is sometimes said, not a “western phenomenon”.

2. See Freedom House’s annual “Freedom in the World”-report. The Polity VI data set suggests the same basic trend.

3. Bimber (2003).

4. Bennett and Segerberg (2013).

5. Howard and Hussein (2013), Yang (2009).

6. I will leave side here the parallel track of technological pessimism that has predicted digital media would fragment public debate, encourage people to opt-out of political processes, leave us isolated and at home, etc.

7. Schlozman, Verba, and Brady (2009), Boulianne (2009).

8. Karpf (2012), Kreiss (2012), Lievrouw (2011), Nielsen (2012).

9. Coleman (2013), Milan (2013).

10. Pleyers (2014), Melucci (1996)

11. This point was made twenty years ago by Manuel Castells (2000, first edition 1995).

12. Sassen (2006).

13. Compare, for example, Chadwick (2013) and Hindman. (2009)

14. A fourth might be time. If the digital revolution is comparable to the print revolution, we are now in the early 15th century, with larger and more substantial changes ahead of us than the ones we have already experienced.

15. Norval (2007), Shapiro (2003).

16. Farrell (2013).

17. Some would suggest the situation is even worse, that the tech industry is conspicuously flaunting their democratic jargon as part of a 21st-century, sunny, upbeat, and decidedly West Coast but equally self-interested version of the “what is good for General Motors is good for the country”-position common to large businesses (Packer, 2013).

18. Pharr and Putnam (2000), Norris (2011).

19. Vaccari (2013).


Bennett, W. Lance, and Alexandra Segerberg. 2013. The Logic of Connective Action: Digital Media and the Personalization of Contentious Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bimber, Bruce A. 2003. Information and American Democracy: Technology in the Evolution of Political Power. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Boulianne, Shelley. 2009. “Does Internet Use Affect Engagement? A Meta-Analysis of Research.” Political Communication 26 (2): 193-211.

Castells, Manuel. 2000. The Rise of the Network Society. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Cavell, Stanley. 1994. “What Is the Emersonian Event? A Comment on Kateb’s Emerson.” New Literary History 25 (4): 951-58.

Chadwick, Andrew. 2013. The Hybrid Media System: Politics and Power. New York: Oxford University Press.

Coleman, Gabriella. 2013. Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. Princeton, NJ; Woodstock: Princeton University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 2005. Rogues: Two Essays on Reason. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Farrell, Henry. 2014. “The Tech Intellectuals.” Democracy Journal. Accessed April 3.

Hindman, Matthew Scott. 2008. The Myth of Digital Democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Howard, Philip N., and Muzammil M. Hussain. 2013. Democracy’s Fourth Wave?: Digital Media and the Arab Spring. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Karpf, David. 2012. The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Keane, John. 2009. The Life and Death of Democracy. 1st American ed.. New York_; London: WWNorton & Co.

Kreiss, Daniel. 2012. Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lievrouw, Leah A. 2011. Alternative and Activist New Media. Cambridge, UK_; Malden, MA: Polity.

Melucci, Alberto. 1996. Challenging Codes: Collective Action in the Information Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Milan, Stefania. 2013. Social Movements and Their Technologies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Nielsen, Rasmus Kleis. 2012. Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Norris, Pippa. 2011. Democratic Deficit: Critical Citizens Revisited. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Norval, Aletta J. 2007. Aversive Democracy: Inheritance and Originality in the Democratic Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Packer, George. 2013. “Change the World.” The New Yorker, May 27.

Pharr, Susan J, and Robert D Putnam, eds. 2000. Disaffected Democracies: What’s Troubling the Trilateral Countries? Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Pleyers, Geoffrey. 2014. “From Facebook movements to city square movements.” Open Democracy, April 3.

Sassen, Saskia. 2006. Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Schlozman, Kay Lehman, Sidney Verba, and Henry E. Brady. 2010. “Weapon of the Strong? Participatory Inequality and the Internet.” Perspectives on Politics 8 (02): 487-509.

Sen, Amartya Kumar. 1999. “Democracy as a Universal Value.” Journal of Democracy 10 (3): 3-17.

Shapiro, Ian. 2003. The State of Democratic Theory. Princeton, NJ; Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Stoker, Gerry. 2006. Why Politics Matters: Making Democracy Work. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Vaccari, Cristian. 2013. Digital Politics in Western Democracies: A Comparative Study. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Yang, Guobin. 2009. The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online. New York; Chichester: Columbia University Press.

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