Why is it so hard to name the primary forces driving democratic backsliding?
Normally I don’t spend any time on the old doom machine1, because it’s absolutely horrible for my mental health. But this week I had to log in to do some work promos, and I came across an interesting thought from my friend and former boss Eli Pariser:
I was immediately tempted to answer “of course it’s X!” But then I realized there were maybe 10 X’s I could put in that sentence, all of which seem necessary, but not sufficient, to explain the crisis.
Among them: the last decade’s complete overhaul of global human communication systems, “the trauma of living through real conspiracies all around us,” institutional capture of political systems by the global right, climate-change driven migration increasing nationalist sentiments, wealth inequality, late capitalism, hypernormalization, Newt Gingrich, and the list goes on and on.
The problem, of course, is that all of those potential causes are hopelessly intertwined. You can hardly think about one without finding yourself going, “yes, well, but that’s caused by this,” and so on, in an endless loop of causation.
Maybe the answer is that there aren’t any primary causes. Or, as one Twitter responder put it, democratic decline is a sort of “hyperobject,” nearly impossible to explain concisely because it’s such an obvious, all-encompassing problem.
In some ways, that line of thinking can be freeing. Maybe it’s all of the above. Maybe all of the ways we’re standing against it are valuable. And maybe, just maybe, absent a simple cause or explanation, we might be able to let go of the idea that there’s any singularly sinister effect at work beyond us, the couple of billion people on this rock, and, building on that realization, collectively decide to move on to something better than what came before.