Dean Starkman is a fellow at Center for Media, Data and Society and a visiting lecturer at the School of Public Policy at Central European University, Budapest. He and Ben Novak discuss the challenges facing public interest journalism, the transformation of journalism as whole, and where things are going from here.
One of the issues dividing the two main parliamentary blocs is whether there should be a cap on profit margins for publicly funded private schools.
The Swedish school system has received considerable internationalattention in recent years due to alarming test scores in the OECD’s international PISA study
Segregation is one of the most serious social problems facing Sweden and many other wealthy nations.
A recent report (the English title would be “A Nation Divided – School Choice and Segregation in Sweden”) that I have co-authored for the Stockholm based think tank Arena Idé shows that well-educated and Swedish-born families increasingly opt out of schools where the children have parents with lower educational attainments and an immigrant background. We also show that this “white flight” in Swedish municipalities throughout the country is increased by school choice and other reforms introduced in the early 1990s, whereby publicly financed private schools are allowed to compete with municipal schools for school vouchers allotted to each individual student.
The results in our study should be viewed in light of two recent reports: one from the OECDand another from UNICEF, both highlighting the inequality in the Swedish school system.
The results make it painfully clear that the Swedish school system effectively works against the very idea that schools should level the playing field for students from all backgrounds and give every child equal opportunity. Even after the rise of right-wing populism in Sweden, our established political parties have proven themselves unable, or unwilling, to rein in the highly unregulated Swedish school market.
“The reason we are inundated by culturally alien [kulturfremden] peoples such as Arabs, Sinti and Roma etc. is the systematic destruction of civil society as a possible counterweight to the enemies-of-the-constitution by whom we are ruled. These pigs are nothing other than puppets of the victor powers of the Second World War….” Thus begins a 2013 personal e-mail from Alice Weidel, who in this autumn’s pivotal German election was one of two designated “leading candidates” of the Alternative für Deutschland (hereafter AfD or the Alternative). The chief “pig” and “puppet” was, of course, Angela Merkel.
Xenophobic right-wing nationalism—in Germany of all places? The very fact that observers express surprise indicates how much Germany has changed since 1945. These days, we expect more of Germany than of ourselves. For, seen from one point of view, this is just Germany partaking in the populist normality of our time, as manifested in the Brexit vote in Britain, Marine le Pen’s Front National in France, Geert Wilders’s blond beastliness in the Netherlands, the right-wing nationalist-populist government in Poland, and Trumpery in the US.
Like all contemporary populisms, the German version exhibits both generic and specific features. In common with other populisms, it denounces the current elites (Alteliten in AfD-speak) and established parties (Altparteien) while speaking in the name of the Volk, a word that, with its double meaning of people and ethno-culturally defined nation, actually best captures what Trump and Le Pen mean when they say “the people.”
Like other populists, Germany’s attack the mainstream media (Lügenpresse, the “lying press”) while making effective use of social media. On the eve of the election, the Alternative had some 362,000 Facebook followers, compared with the Social Democrats’ 169,000 and just 154,000 for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
Tiresomely familiar to any observer of Trump, Brexit, or Wilders is the demagogic appeal to emotions while playing fast and loose with facts. In Amann’s account, the predominant emotion here is Angst.
For eight of the last twelve years, Germany has been governed by a so-called Grand Coalition of Christian Democrats—Merkel’s CDU in a loveless parliamentary marriage with the more conservative Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU)—and Social Democrats. This has impelled disgruntled voters toward the smaller parties and the extremes. The effect has been reinforced by Merkel’s woolly centrist version of Margaret Thatcher’s TINA (There Is No Alternative), perfectly captured in the German word alternativlos (without alternatives). It’s no accident that this protest party is called the Alternative.
Yochai Benklerexplains: “The various formats of the networked public sphere provide anyone with an outlet to speak, to inquire, to investigate, without need to access the resources of a major media organization.”
Democratic bodies are typically elected in periods of three to five years, yet citizen opinions seem to fluctuate daily and sometimes these mood swings grow to enormous proportions. When thousands of people all start tweeting about the same subject on the same day, you know that something is up. With so much dynamic and salient political diversity in the electorate, how can policy-makers ever reach a consensus that could satisfy everyone?
At the same time, it would be a grave mistake to discount the voices of the internet as something that has no connection to real political situations.
What happened in the UK was not only a political disaster, but also a vivid example of what happens when you combine the uncontrollable power of the internet with a lingering visceral feeling that ordinary people have lost control of the politics that shape their lives.
Polarization as a driver of populism
People who have long entertained right-wing populist ideas, but were never confident enough to voice them openly, are now in a position to connect to like-minded others online and use the internet as a megaphone for their opinions.
The resulting echo chambers tend to amplify and reinforce our existing opinions, which is dysfunctional for a healthy democratic discourse. And while social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter generally have the power to expose us to politically diverse opinions, research suggests that the filter bubbles they sometimes create are, in fact, exacerbated by the platforms’ personalization algorithms, which are based on our social networks and our previously expressed ideas. This means that instead of creating an ideal type of a digitally mediated “public agora”, which would allow citizens to voice their concerns and share their hopes, the internet has actually increased conflict and ideological segregation between opposing views, granting a disproportionate amount of clout to the most extreme opinions.
The disintegration of the general will
In political philosophy, the very idea of democracy is based on the principal of the general will, which was proposed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century. Rousseau envisioned that a society needs to be governed by a democratic body that acts according to the imperative will of the people as a whole.
There can be no doubt that a new form of digitally mediated politics is a crucial component of the Fourth Industrial Revolution: the internet is already used for bottom-up agenda-setting, empowering citizens to speak up in a networked public sphere, and pushing the boundaries of the size, sophistication and scope of collective action. In particular, social media has changed the nature of political campaigning and will continue to play an important role in future elections and political campaigns around the world.
more on the impact of technology on democracy in this IMS blog: