The End of History is Over, But Don’t Despair

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The end of history is over.

The end of history is over. Democracy has gone through three major changes — a deep and lasting transformation of the public sphere; a shift from party to movement-based politics; and a global convergence of political priorities — that have finally dispensed the long-held, comfortable but misleading belief that all humanity has left to witness is the unstoppable spread of this system to all corners of the world. But all is not doom and gloom, as some would suggest. The same changes that brought the future of democracy into question have also opened new opportunities for agility and collaboration that could provide us with means to address the issues we now face, for which the old models seem to be failing us.

1. A Deep and Lasting Transformation of the Public Sphere

Digital communications moved a large share of the public discourse onto the Internet. The beginning of this transformation can be traced back to the early message boards and chatrooms of the mid 1990s that eventually evolved into social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter by the mid 2000s, and then gained mass acceptance of digital communication with the widespread adoption of smart phone technology in the early 2010s. The digitalization of the public discourse amplified the voices of individuals and well-organized groups, giving both a way to bypass traditional media and reach mass audiences directly through personal communication devices. With the advent of metadata analysis and sophisticated marketing algorithms came the ability to identify effective message points for diverse constituencies and distribute them with a precision never before witnessed in any other form of communication.

2. Shift from Party to Movement-Based Politics

With the digitalization of political discourse came a change in politics. Parties that were once indispensable for electoral campaigning increasingly lost relevance as new communication tools enabled charismatic leaders to directly appeal to the electorate and quickly develop movement-like structures on which they could rely to do the work previously done by party members. Soon enough, challengers from within parties who adopted this new approach for primary elections, such as Barack Obama and Donald Trump, managed to stage successful upsets and win their party’s nominations for public office against much better resourced opponents. Similarly, challengers from outside party structures, such as Emanuel Macron in France, applied this very same method to challenge their country’s major parties and create entirely new majorities, mostly out of disenchanted voters, that would propel them to power. Both groups inserted agility into systems that were otherwise ossifying, but the end result of their disruption is yet to be determined.

3. Global Convergence of Political Priorities

Inequality, tax evasion, race and gender relations, demographic change, economic disruption, and social disorientation have all become shared concerns for most societies around the world, with each having the potential to galvanize the others through digital technology, as Lora Berg and Megan Doherty’s opinion piece on the #MeToo movement clearly shows. This convergence of concerns has also opened up new opportunities for cross-border collaboration, allowing actors to pull their resources together and advance change in their respective countries as a common front. Examples of this include the partnership of media outlets and nongovernmental organizations for the synchronized release of Panama Papers and Paradise Papers dealing with tax evasion, as well as the various initiatives of GMF’s Alumni Leadership Action Projects. But the global convergence has not all been civic and positive. Extremist groups have also been using their shared challenges as rallying points for exchange of best practices and partnerships. Terrorist organizations have relied on digital technology to recruit membership and launch attacks. And Russia has been using complex digital strategies to deepen the divisions in other societies and undermine democracies, as research by the Alliance for Securing Democracy at GMF shows.

Barring a highly improbable reversal to these three major changes to democracy, leaders are left with very little choice but to learn how to navigate the new complexities to achieve their vision. There is no doubt that moving forward, public discourse will increasingly take place in the digital space, political landscapes will increasingly become more fluid and agile, and cross border interaction will have a more significant impact on any given place. These new trends do not favor any side — the future is no longer predetermined. Circumstances will continue to change with advances in technology, algorithms, and firewalls, but they will also offer new possibilities for partnership and collaboration, especially where previous models have stopped being of benefit.