Talking Points

Why is political discontent destabilizing the democratic world?

We have many ways to describe the turbulent character of the political present: the populist moment, democratic backsliding, the authoritarian turn. But if a new analysis of global trends in public opinion from the Pew Research Center is correct, it might be more accurate to say that ours is primarily a time of rising political discontent. 

Pew's core finding is that large numbers of people in a long list of countries are dissatisfied with how their democracies are working — and this restlessness is fueling a drive for more radical change. As Pew puts it, "A median of 56 percent across 17 advanced economies surveyed in 2021 say their political system needs major changes or needs to be completely reformed. Roughly two thirds or more express this opinion in Italy, Spain, the U.S., South Korea, Greece, France, Belgium, and Japan."

That's a lot of discontent and a lot of potential political radicalism directed against an unhappy status quo.

The most pressing and mysterious question left unanswered by these findings is: Why is this happening now, and why in so many different places at once?

Journalistic and scholarly examinations of present gloominess tend to focus on the specific discontents of single countries: Americans elected former President Donald Trump because Democrats moved left on cultural issues, alienating working-class voters. The U.K. voted for Brexit because of overly intrusive bureaucrats in Brussels. A plurality of Hungarians support Viktor Orban's antiliberal nationalism in reaction to post-Cold War depopulation. And so forth.

Yet the simultaneous rise in dissatisfaction across so much of the globe seems to point to a single change or set of changes at work nearly everywhere. One possibility is that governments truly are becoming worse at getting things done and representing people's interests. Another is that public expectations for competence and representation are rising, leading to increasing discontent with fairly typical outcomes. Both things could, of course, be happening at the same time as well.

But why would that be? What could be making governments more inept or democratic citizens more impatient (or both) in so many places at once?

As I've argued on previous occasions, the single most likely candidate is social media. It helps both to unite and divide people within and across national boundaries in new, expected ways that can cause political instability. It's possible the ubiquity of smart phones and social media apps is behind much of the rising discontent, though more study and analysis will be required to establish the truth of the thesis, let alone to begin devising effective responses.

In the meantime, Pew's trove of data is a great place to start.