National Centre of Competence in Research Democracy

When Influence Migrates

The National Center of Competence in Research «Challenges to Democracy in the 21st Century» is investigating how globalization and the media affect democracy. Current research by the Center’s political and communication scientists reveals: Nation-states are losing influence as the media gains in importance.

Adrian Ritter

The media in democracies is taking on an increasingly significant role, and the NCCR Democracy has identified a variety of trends. (Image: iStockphoto)

What goes first: Federal or international law? Should more signatures for popular initiatives be required? Swiss democracy frequently finds itself the subject of controversial debate. At the National Center of Competence in Research Challenges to Democracy in the 21st Century (NCCR Democracy), some sixty researchers from eleven universities have been measuring the pulse of democracy . Launched at the University of Zurich in 2005, the NCCR Democracy is currently in its third and final phase, which lasts until 2017. Time to take stock.

Questions of democratic legitimacy

Political and communications scientists believe democracy is primarily facing two major challenges: Globalization and «mediatization», meaning the increased orientation of politics toward the logics of media. 

While the concept of democracy is traditionally used with regard to nation-states, in the wake of globalization, political decisions are increasingly being made on other levels: International bodies like the EU, transnational bodies with financial market oversight, and regional organizations are gaining influence. One example of a regional body is the Zurich Metropolitan Conference, where cantons and municipalities from the Zurich Metropolitan Area debate – and make decisions on – general issues such as public transport.       

The problem: Not all of these bodies are elected by the people, meaning that citizens cannot hold them directly accountable for their actions. Such organizations have no democratic basis.

Anchoring decisions

A project co-run by Francis Cheneval, professor of political philosophy at the University of Zurich, looked into ways to increase the legitimacy of international bodies.  

The researchers argue that international political processes, rules, and institutions should be organized so as to take into account the existence of many nations – as is done in the EU. It is not a single “demos” that needs to be considered, but many «demoi». 

The studies reveal that the EU institutions implement the principle of «demoicracy» well. All citizens are represented in the European Union and are entitled to the protection of their human rights. They have political rights both as members of individual nations and as EU citizens, the latter being guaranteed through representation in the European Parliament. The constitutive people of Europe are represented in the European Council as a collective.

Yet, despite the solid structures, the member states have no real control over their country’s ministers and heads of government when these represent their country in EU issues and make decisions. 

Wanted: A European audience

According to the researchers, the best possibility of remedying the EU’s democratic deficit is to anchor decisions made in EU issues more strongly in the democratic institutions of the member states. The individual national parliaments, for instance, should have more of a say when it comes to developing pan-European rules.   

The NCCR researchers also believe that another key prerequisite for the creation of democratic structures in the EU is the development of a European identity and a European audience. The project Concepts of European Identity reveals that little headway has been made in this regard and that European groups often only expresses unity in terms of a common anti-EU stance.

The media steps in

When decision-making processes are transferred from national bodies to other organizations, media play an even more important role in compensating for the lack of democratic control because they provide a forum via which political players can be held accountable for their actions and decisions. Three separate NCCR projects – on international climate negotiations, regulatory body networks, and governance networks in agglomerations – confirm this result.

An individual logic

In all democracies, the media is observed to be assuming an increasingly important role in politics. It has become an independent player, acting autonomously and according to its own logic. At NCCR Democracy, researchers examined how political reporting has changed. 

According to the Mediatization of Political Reality project , the results are ambivalent: On the one hand, a trend towards objective, analytical, and well-founded reporting is evident – a highly desirable factor for a democracy. On the other hand, however, there is a trend toward spreading more emotional, sensational, and personal information.    

Interestingly, over time, both trends are on the increase, albeit with major differences between countries: In Italy, for instance, the objectivity of media reporting is low and sensationalism very pronounced, which reflects the country’s polarized and emotional political culture. In Swiss media, by contrast, the objectivity level is high (albeit lower than in American and German media) and sensationalism comparatively low – the picture of a rational and consensual political communication culture.   

Serving democracy

As a rule, politicians are believed to be increasingly adapting to the demands and objectives of the media – especially in private and commercially oriented media. In Switzerland, as the researchers in one project discovered, politicians on the fringes of the political spectrum resort to strategies with public appeal far more frequently than those from centrist parties.  

This condition could lead to populist political communication and media reporting. Consequently, it is important to remind the representatives in politics and the media of their responsibility to serve the needs of democracy – including the existence of a well-informed public.  

Populism under the microscope

In its third and final research phase currently underway, the NCCR Democracy is building on previous research findings. It is investigating how two developments are connected: The shift in decision-making away from the nation-state and the mounting populism in established democracies. 

NCCR Democracy: Publications and knowledge transfer

nullnullTwo books outline some of the NCCR’S research results to date:  null Democracy in the age of globalization and mediatization provides an overview of present forms of democracy and the social, cultural, economic, and political demands for democracy. It examines the democratization of authoritarian nations, the state of established democracies, and how international bodies like the EU can be democratized. null Democracy: An ongoing Challenge is an illustrated book that examines the history and development of democracy and provides insight into current debate on the topic. nullVarious projects, for example, in political education, help transfer the NCCR’s research findings into society.  null

Adrian Ritter is editor of UZH News.

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