Despite the divisiveness riddling contemporary American politics, most political observers have come to agree on one point: that democracy in the United States stands on shaky ground. Dissatisfaction with the national political system has increased to record levels. A 2021 survey from the Pew Center suggests that as much as 85 percent of Americans say the political system needs major reform or a total overhaul. An NPR/Ipsos poll taken in early 2022 finds that 64 percent of respondents agree that American democracy is in crisis and at risk of failing. It’s perhaps small comfort that the 2021 Pew survey reveals a similar sentiment throughout much of the democratic world. The problem, it seems, is international in scope.
The long-time work of political philosopher Charles Tilly is useful here. For much of his later career, Tilly argued persuasively that a democratic system of governance is never inherently stable nor a necessary outcome of social progress. Instead, he charted patterns of “democratization” and its antithesis— “de-democratization” —suggesting that democracy demands continuous maintenance and revision and can just as easily recede as expand. We would appear, then, to be in a moment of significant recession. The international organization Freedom House, which measures the vitality of democracies across the world, currently rates the US at an 83 out of 100, a score down from 94 slightly more than a decade ago. A recent Morning Consult study finds that more than a quarter of all Americans—a much greater percentage than in other western democratic nations—can be classified as “highly right-wing authoritarian,” a political stance at odds with the core tenets of democracy. In their provocative work on democratic “deconsolidation,” the political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa similarly note that fewer than a third of Americans under the age of 35 say that living in a democracy is essential to their own well-being.
Scholars of politics and political media have long worried about a developing crisis in representative democracy, tracking an ongoing collapse of trust in its core institutions. According to Gallup, only 23 percent of Americans report having a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in the office of the presidency. Trust in the US Congress is radically lower, at 7 percent. Trust in the news media, which in theory provide the necessary resources for democratic citizenship, is similarly low. Gallup’s tracking poll finds that only 16 percent of the population trusts the information they receive from newspapers. For television news, the number falls to 11 percent. And importantly, all those numbers are down year-over-year.
How, then, can we make sense of all of this? One way is to dig into the concept of “representation” a bit more. At the least, in a system of representative democracy, the citizens elect their political representatives. But we’re quite unhappy with the people we (or they!) choose. Aggregate data from Real Clear Politics finds that no national political leader is seen positively by the majority of Americans. More importantly, we have lost any sense of agreement on what credentials a representative—that is, the qualities or experiences that indicate someone is fit to serve in an official representative capacity. (For example, many now seem to hold that actual experience in public office is a disqualification—that only “outsiders” can fulfill the representative function.) To complicate the matter, we don’t actually agree on what the function of a political representative even is. The political theorist Michael Saward argues that there has been “a significant shift in the primary political sense of representation as a practice and concept.” The very act of representation, he contends, has become less about what a representative does—the arguments they endorse and the decisions they make—and more about what, or who, they stand for. Representatives often function less as agents working on behalf of a constituency, and more as performers, deploying aesthetic symbols and cultural gestures to construct what Saward calls their “representative claims.”
For contemporary theorists of political representation such as Saward, much of the work of representation is generative, using language, rhetoric, and public performance to create a vision of the world in which that person can represent these people and solve those problems. All three of these—the representative, the constituency, and the problems presented as needing to be addressed—are defined, and perhaps brought into being, through the practice of representation. From this perspective, representation becomes inseparable from mediation. The scholar James Carey reminds us that media depict the political world to us, and in so doing, help give it order and make it meaningful, which is to say knowable in the first instance. Representative democracy is always, and fundamentally, mediated—it is generally unavailable to us except through media outlets and forms. We learn about, come to understand, and determine how to act politically through the symbolic resources our media provide. Moreover, we forge connections to (and against) one another in large part with the media that shape our habits of communication. Carey and others have pointed out that communication is the root of community—communities are formed around shared meaning, and realized through communication.
We live, though, in a time of tremendous flux, in which our media systems and communicative practices are undergoing extraordinary transformation. For much of the twentieth century, the mass media occupied the central space in the national imagination, delivering information, focusing attention, and forging consensus (or at least the appearance thereof) about our system of representative governance, its boundaries, and the rules of the game. That hegemony, however, has fractured. Legacy news organizations compete for attention and for explanatory power (or what we could call representational authority), with any number of digital native news and conversation sites. And all of those are subject now to what media scholars call platformization—the fundamental reshaping of news, information, and political discussion to fit the patterns, processes, and economic incentives of massive technological platforms such as Google and Facebook. In part, the fragmentation of the mass media and the turn to platformization has empowered communities that were long overlooked or excluded from earlier modes of representation. At the same time, though, these forces have divided us into incommensurate, and one suspects, increasingly irreconcilable communities built around disparate spaces of information, conversation, and imagination.
At the root of the crisis in representation, then, is the problem of incompatible political imaginaries. Democracy itself is always at root “imaginary.” That’s not to say it is unreal, a fiction or fantasy, but rather that imagination—our ability to think it and our will to want it—forms the conceptual preconditions necessary for the realization of an actual political order. Through history, some imaginations become institutionalized and taken-for-granted, while others remain, for the moment, unimaginable. But imagination is never fixed, it is always remade through processes of negotiation and struggle. From this perspective, the democratic imagination has become increasingly contested. Our current crisis exceeds the common concern for partisanship, polarization, or “fake news,” and instead forces us to seek new answers to profound questions about representation itself, in both its political and mediated forms. That is the challenge of our times.