With Boris Johnson becoming United Kingdom (UK) prime minster, parallels between contemporary American and British politics have come under scrutiny and prompted attempts to explain this phenomenon in the Anglosphere. In a commentary on “The Crisis of Anglo-American Democracy,” Jeffrey Sachs pondered how “the world’s two most venerable and influential democracies . . . end up with Donald Trump and Boris Johnson at the helm.” According to Sachs, this outcome reflects “a common political flaw” in the British and American “mechanics of political representation, notably both countries’ first-past-the-post voting systems.”
This claim does not explain how the United States and UK became venerable and influential democracies while operating flawed voting systems for a very long time. Why has the purported crisis in Anglo-American democracy only emerged now? Could the integration of the internet and cyberspace into democratic politics in both countries provide an explanation?
The impact of digital technologies on democracy is, of course, complex and contentious. Expectations that the internet would foster more citizen participation, improved information transparency, better civic deliberation, and increased confidence in democratic processes have been disappointed. Instead, through social media and other cyber means, politicians, activists, and factions in the United States and UK have blown apart the web of institutions, ideas, interests, filters, practices, and norms woven together over long periods of time that structured and cultured political activity. The success of President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson emerges from this cyber-enabled transformation of democracy’s political dynamics.
The result in both the United States and UK has been an intensely polarized population, constantly distracted political debate, a deliberately misinformed body politic, and dysfunctional political institutions. This divided and divisive environment heightens the potential for very small portions of the voting populace to determine an election and a nation’s fate. Put differently, the most democratic information and communications technologies ever developed have contributed to less representative and democratic outcomes in the United States and UK.
The impact of cyberspace on British and American politics does draw attention to the “winner-take-all” nature of elections in these countries because this impact helps empower small numbers of voters. However, the political pathologies associated with the emergence of Trump and Johnson do not arise from first-past-the-post elections. As Sachs observes, political scientists predict that winner-take-all elections contested by two main parties will typically see both parties move “to the political center to capture half the votes plus one.” Most general elections in the UK and United States over time provide support for that prediction. President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson have defied logic and history by not seeking to occupy the political center. Without social media and other cyber channels, pulling off this political magic trick might have been impossible.
To be sure, the integration of the internet into democratic politics does not, and cannot, explain everything about what has happened in the United States and UK since Trump’s election in 2016 and the Brexit vote. In the UK, hostility in the Conservative Party towards Britain’s membership in the EU pre-dates the age of social media. Similarly, discontent in parts of the United States with globalization’s impact on employment and culture cannot be fobbed off on Facebook. What seems clear is that cyberspace provided new and long-simmering ideas and emotions—some legitimate and unaddressed, some sinister and believed buried—with an enabling environment different in scope, nature, and possibilities from what came before.
In his commentary, Sachs suggests that allocating political power in the United States and UK through election systems based on proportional representation might be a good idea. Would such a change address the political dynamics unleashed by the internet and social media in those countries? Skepticism is in order. Proportional representation can also create disproportionate influence for small political parties and factions in the formation of governments and the adoption of legislation. More importantly, neither the United States nor the UK is likely to adopt proportional representation in general elections to solve any political problem.
If cyber technologies contribute to the crisis of Anglo-American democracy, what is to be done? As champions of free speech, the United States and the UK are as likely to embrace censorship in cyberspace as they are to implement proportional representation in election systems. Legal actions against technology companies under privacy or anti-trust laws are not designed to address the problems associated with the political use and abuse of social media. Attempts by social media platforms to regulate political speech have poured more fuel on the fires of political division in the United States. Self-restraint by political parties, activists, and factions does not seem on the cards. Even foreign efforts to meddle in elections have not created political common cause in the United States or UK.
Thus, given President Trump's and Prime Minister Johnson's prowess with the disruptive potential of online technologies, the special relationship between the United States and the UK now becomes another means for fomenting cyber-facilitated trouble within Anglo-American democracy.