“Democracies in the Age of Fragmentation”

The California Law Review has now published this article of mine with the above title. It was also gratifying to see Tom Edsall quoting from this piece in his essay in today’s NYTimes.

The article is part of a Symposium on challenges to democracy today, with other articles on American and comparative perspectives on democracy from Steven Levitsky, Tom Ginsburg, Miriam Seifter, Richard Albert, and Roberto Gargarella. Here’s the abstract from my piece:

American democracy faces profound challenges in our era. Some of these challenges stem from features in the institutional design of democracy that are hard-wired into the Constitution; those challenges, unique to the United States, are the ones Steven Levitsky focused on in his provocative lecture. But other major challenges confronting American democracy are common to most major democracies in the West today. It is those more general challenges on which I want to focus in this Essay.

Over the last generation, democratic governments across the West, including the United States, have entered into a new era of politics that I call one of “political fragmentation.” By political fragmentation, I mean the myriad ways in which political power today is now effectively dispersed among so many different hands and so many different centers of power—political parties, organized outside groups, non-organized groups, and even individual actors—that it becomes difficult to marshal enough political power and authority for democratic governments to govern effectively.

This political fragmentation reflects widespread dissatisfaction with the performance of democratic governments. Yet perversely, fragmentation also makes it that much harder for these governments to deliver effectively on the major issues their citizens care most urgently about. In exploring the underlying causes of the rise of political fragmentation, the most significant question is whether it is a temporary, contingent fact about democratic politics today or whether it is likely to be a more enduring one—and if so, what the consequences for democracies going forward is likely to be.

Part I describes the nature of political fragmentation and documents its rise across the major democracies of the West, including in the United States. Part II briefly explains the major economic and cultural issues that fuel the emergence of political fragmentation. Part III then focuses extensively on the role of the communications revolution—the rise of cable television, the internet, and social media—in driving fragmentation in political parties and democratic politics. After identifying the new phenomenon of political fragmentation and suggesting its major causes, this Essay concludes with the question of whether this fragmentation is a temporary, contingent fact about the nature of politics today or is more likely to be an enduring characteristic of modern democracies.

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