Our analysis

“American citizens are not just dissatisfied with the performance of particular governments; they are increasingly critical of liberal democracy itself.” This is the gloomy picture painted by American political scientists Fao and Mounk in their article “The Signs of Deconsolidation”.

Has democracy lost its persuasiveness? Is it no longer a desirable form of government – or is it so self-evident to Europeans and Americans that they simply ignore it?

These are the questions we wanted to explore. The Condor software developed by Galaxyadvisors reveals if, where, and how democracy is being discussed on the internet. The software, which is used each year to compile the Thought Leader Index, shows, for instance, links from Wikipedia pages, thereby visualising the importance of a certain topic. It can also reveal to us the significance of specific websites returned by Google searches.

The website network: democracy achieves little resonance

From previous experience with the Thought Leader Index, we know that large news outlets such as CNN or The New York Times crop up in a Condor-generated network as soon as the topic being researched achieves public resonance. If large online media are excluded from our website analysis, the topic of democracy is not very important to the public.

The links of the first 50 websites returned by a Google search (in English) for "democracy" were examined. Except for the British magazine "The Economist", we see very narrowly focused topical websites rather than big news producers. Upon closer examination, some of these websites are lacking in professionalism and have very limited reach. Democracy, therefore, is not regarded as an issue in its own right within the English-speaking public sphere.

Condor Wikipedia

Google Trends: other countries, other debates

But what’s going on in other regions around the world? Are there continents or countries more concerned with the issue of democracy? Google Trends offers a glimpse into the relevant search queries. The online tool reveals how often people search for a certain term on Google, providing an idea of how important the search term is to the population of a certain region.

The graph below is an impressive illustration of how the concept of democracy is, in fact, a less frequent search term in the USA and Europe than in other countries. Countries in Central and East Africa and Central and South America rank at the very top, as does Indonesia.

What is striking is that most of these countries do not rank particularly high on the Democracy Index or the Corruption Perception Index. People in states without (stable) democracies seem to talk much more about democracy.

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Google Ngram Viewer: democracy used to be an issue

Google Ngram Viewer demonstrates that democracy was once an issue in the West, too. The online tool shows how frequently a term occurs in the entire online corpus of Google Books – from 1500 to 2008. We decided to analyse English-language books from the years 1800 to 2008. For comparison, we also analysed the terms "Internet’" and "Bible".

What is highly revealing is that democracy appears never to have enjoyed a particularly great deal of attention when compared to "Internet" or "Bible". But we also see that more is written about democracy when the world is in greater peril: during the turmoil of the Second World War, more books tackled the issue of democracy than at any other time.

The Wikipedia network: various ways of talking about democracy

If democracy is not discussed as an issue in its own right today, we have to ask ourselves whether the concept is perhaps simply a subtextual topic in other discourses. Observing Wikipedia is a good way to get a picture of the constellations of topics that actually deal with democracy.

The encyclopaedia platform explains our world today and has long been a standard reference work. If we know where the term democracy appears on Wikipedia, we can postulate which fields of knowledge are important for democracy.

The Condor software from Galaxyadvisors allows us to visualise the relationships between various Wikipedia pages. As a result, we can see how the "Democracy" page on Wikipedia is linked to the pages of other people and concepts, where topical clusters form, and how important individual pages are for the topic of democracy.

Condor Wikipedia

A cluster calculation clearly highlights five topical focuses in the network, all of which deal with democracy differently.
  • The green cluster consists mainly of American, Polish, Russian, Greek, and Scottish Enlightenment thinkers. Here, democracy is presumably considered the ultimate goal of Enlightenment movements.
  • The Wikipedia pages highlighted in blue are topics situated somewhere in the fields of political philosophy, political science, and sociology. The pages that turn up include Karl Marx, Immanuel Kant, and Niccolò Machiavelli, as well as liberalism and socialism. 
  • The nodes in orange represent the political sciences. Here there are pages discussing federalism, political organisation and political systems. Democracy is not discussed here, but rather studied.
  • The purple group of Wikipedia pages deals with countless specific forms of government, from edemocracy, liberal democracy and Islamic democracy all the way to democratic socialism or absolutism. This topical area discusses democracy as one of many different types of states.
  • The red cluster is surprising. Suffrage appears to be more often discussed independently of the other topics – despite the fact that modern democracy is inconceivable without the right to vote.

The Wikipedia network: living thinkers?

The question now is how actively people are currently discussing the topics found on Wikipedia. Are these areas of knowledge still evolving and producing new ideas, or is old knowledge simply being replicated?

To answer these questions, we took a closer look at the pages that describe specific people. The purple nodes represent deceased thinkers related to the topic of democracy. Living thinkers are shown in blue.

Condor Wikipedia

What is very clear is that democracy on Wikipedia is a topic mainly characterized by the ideas of dead thinkers – with a few exceptions. Many of the thinkers leading the discourse on youth suffrage are still alive (the small cluster on the left).  

Several of the thinkers in our cluster who can be most closely linked to political philosophy or the social sciences are still living as well. These include linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky, French philosopher Alain Badiou and the retired Austrian professor of philosophy Hans Köchler. 

In other words, democracy is not a topic that is being actively discussed and dealt with in Wikipedia’s many articles – with the exception of the field of youth suffrage.

Has democracy lost its persuasive power? - Conclusion

The English-speaking world does not discuss democracy as a topic in its own right. This we saw in our network analysis of websites. However, Google Trends has shown that there are indeed countries in which the population actively engages with the subject of democracy. But the state of democracy in these countries is much worse off than in the USA and Europe.

With Google Ngram Viewer, we found that there was at one time a greater interest in democracy in the West than there is today – during the Second World War, when functioning democracies were the exception. 

An analysis of the interlinkages relating to the topic of democracy on Wikipedia also showed us that we are dealing with a “dead” topic. The ideas of dead philosophers are discussed, concepts are debated, and traditions of thought are highlighted.  But not much new is happening – except in the field of youth suffrage.

Thus, our findings support the thesis put forth by political scientists Fao and Mounk, who provide one possible explanation as to why people in the USA and Europe have taken an increasingly critical stance towards liberal democracy: we are not interested in democracy as a topic and thus don’t talk about it because today we take our democracies for granted. And when we talk about democracy discussions are of the times concerned with Fake news, Front National or a ban on burkas.

This development is, however, by no means part of a linear progression towards the decay of democracy. History has shown that interest in democracy can rise sharply whenever a state is subjected to persistent pressure. 

Whether discussions about democracy will once again become a more common occurrence here at home, too, remains a hypothesis – but it is looking more likely in light of the recent political upheavals in the USA, Great Britain, and France.

On 29 May 2017, we will meet with Tyler Cowen, one of America’s most eminent economists, and Parag Khanna, geostrategist and former adviser to the US government, to discuss the topic "Inertia, gridlock, populism: democracy in crisis".