Communication And Democracy Research Paper

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Democracy can be defined in many different ways. This is one reason why so many different kinds of democratic states have existed. It can be an empirical scientific term, referring to the common people’s participation in the political decision-making process, but it can also be a normative ideological concept referring to an ideal political system. In order to make historical and international comparisons possible, the term ‘democracy’ is used here in the empirical scientific sense, referring to the phenomenon by which all eligible members, directly or indirectly, participate in the decision-making process of the society to which they belong. Here the term democracy is not used for an ideology or a political goal.

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The first half of this research paper reviews how the development of communication technologies, and the spread of both communication media and education among the masses, contributed to the evolution of democracy. The second half of this research paper deals with how modern communication media, especially mass media, function in a pluralistic democracy.

1. History

1.1 Democracy Before The Mass Media Age

In major civilizations before the seventeenth century, the majority of the population was illiterate, and in early medieval times so were some European kings. The Vatican initiated a campaign in 527 AD to increase the number of literate priests. Even in late sixteenth century England, the illiteracy rate was as high as 80 percent among men and 95 percent among women (Parker 1980).

Under such constraints, ‘democracy’ as defined above was possible only in small communities or societies in which individual members could discuss the issues face to face. The ‘direct democracy’ of the ancient Greek city-states is the best known example of this. However, a long list can be made of other ancient and medieval civilizations with similar systems or practices: the first century German tribes (according to Tacitus), the Swiss cantons, the New England town meetings, and yoriai (meeting) in traditional Japanese villages.

While small-scale direct democracies at the city or village level existed, democracy at the empire, kingdom, or state level did not exist anywhere in the world before the seventeenth century. The main reason for this is that it was technically impossible.

1.2 Evolution Of Democracy As A Result Of Mass Printing

The illiteracy rate in Europe dropped rapidly in the seventeenth century. In England it declined to about 55 percent for men and 75 percent for women by the early eighteenth century (Parker 1980). This was true in some non-Western countries as well. In Japan, for example, the illiteracy rate was very high before the seventeenth century, even among the elite samurai (warrior) class. Peace during the early seventeenth through the nineteenth century, however, gradually ‘civilized’ ordinary people. As early as the late seventeenth century, Ihara Saikaku (a popular novelist, 1642–93) describes an illiterate samurai in one of his novels as ‘sadly behind the times’ (Dore 1965).

A natural consequence of an increasingly literate population was an ever increasingly open expression of political opinions and criticisms by middle-class intellectuals: low-ranking aristocrats, rich farmers, successful merchants, and so forth. The almost predictable response from the traditional political elite was repression, which was very severe and cruel in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but became gradually less so during the following two centuries. During this time, at least some constructive opinions and policy suggestions by middle-class intellectuals gradually came to be tolerated and incorporated into the policy-making considerations of the political elite.

This process started in England, with the reinstatement of a parliament in 1640 that demanded assurances against a resumption of the ‘absolute monarchy’ of Charles I, and spread to Western Europe and North America. Similarly, although later and slower, changes took place in some non-Western countries as well. For example, Japanese media historians point out that the control of publications by the central government became more relaxed and less widespread during the nineteenth century compared with the seventeenth century, due chiefly to the remarkable increase in the number of publications, which included private news media such as the kawaraban, the first of which was established in 1615. By the early nineteenth century nationwide networks for the distribution of private primary school (terakoya) textbooks had been established, and political books banned in Tokyo flowed unhindered to distant and remote areas of the country through the textbook distribution pipeline (Konta 1977).

The increase of publications intensified the need for intellectuals and experts in the government bureaucracy who could understand and evaluate all of these published books and documents. This was especially noticeable in the fiscal, monetary, agricultural, and foreign policy areas as well as in the judicial system. Consequently, experts and scholars serving government came to be recruited based on their merits and competence rather than on their lineage. Specialization led to the creation of government agencies that dealt with defined and narrower policy areas. This division of responsibility within the new ‘meritocratic’ establishment meant the greater participation of lower ranking people in the political decision-making process.

As Cooley ([1909]1993, p. 75) stated, ‘Printing means democracy, because it brings knowledge within the reach of the common people; and knowledge, in the long run, is sure to make good its claim to power.’ This is equally applicable to the histories of both the East and the West.

1.3 Crisis Of Democracy In The Mass Media Age

As discussed above, premodern undemocratic governments assumed that the masses should not participate in the political decision-making process; therefore they suppressed publications that criticized them and also any efforts at free expression on the part of their subjects. However, they did not attempt to operate their own mass media to influence the masses. This only began to happen with the emergence of new types of undemocratic governments that resulted from the development of mass media. Most of them took advantage of democratic tenets, such as free elections and freedom of expression, to seize power. Once they had seized power, however, they abolished or drastically restricted those fundamental democratic rights and became dictators. With a twisted logic, some of them persisted in calling their regimes democratic because the majority of the population once supported them. Fascist, Nazi, ultra-nationalist, militarist, communist, and radical socialist governments in the twentieth century all belong in this category.

When newspaper readerships were limited to well-educated middle-class intellectuals, they contributed to the evolution of democracy (as Cooley [1909]1993 points out); however, when newspaper circulation expanded further to include the general masses, newspapers sometimes changed to engines of mass agitation and exerted a dangerous influence on national policies.

In the past, nearly every modern democracy has had some experience of this. For example, it is well known that the sensationalism and jingoism of the William Randolph Hearst newspapers were responsible for the Spanish–American War of 1898. The British news-papers were largely held responsible for the unreason-ably onerous reparations imposed on Germany at Versailles following the First World War (Nicolson 1969).

Chauvinistic, ethnocentric, and racist newspapers helped undemocratic political parties to seize power in Germany and Italy. In Japan, even though both the Emperor and the civilian government tried to curb Japan’s military actions in China, many newspapers supported the military (to expand their circulation) and helped them take over the government.

When socialist or communist parties (hereafter ‘socialist’ includes communist) took power in Russia (1917), in China (1949), and many other countries, the majority of the masses were still very poor and illiterate. So when socialist governments emerged as the result of violent revolutions they were at first regarded as another variation of democracy, because the revolution enabled the traditionally repressed classes such as farmers and manual workers to participate, for the first time in their history, in the political decision-making process at the national level. When these socialist governments were first established, they were vulnerable and feared a counterrevolution by reactionary feudalistic forces. As they firmly believed that justice and truth based on Marxist socialist scientific theories were on their side, they did not permit any political parties other than their own, nor any antisocialist expressions, nor a free and open press, and certainly not free and secret elections. Socialist governments operated their own propaganda machines to educate the masses in an effort to catch up with the more economically and technologically advanced capitalist liberal democracies.

The socialist system that started off as one more variation of democracy, however, soon became more and more undemocratic as the power of the state came to be monopolized by a handful of the socialist party elite. These elites gradually evolved into special privileged classes such as the ‘nomenclature’ in Soviet Russia. In the most extreme cases, such as those in North Korea and Romania, the position of head of the state was completely privatized and was passed on, or an attempt was made to pass it on, to the head of state’s son. The maintenance of a dictatorship by the socialist party elite depended on the strict control of mass communications, and widespread surveillance and coercion by the secret police.

Although these dictators managed to control the domestic mass media, it became harder to control the inflow of information from foreign countries as communication and transportation technologies developed. Contact with foreigners through tourism, conferences, letters, the telephone, and other communication channels steadily increased in all socialist countries.

People trust the mass media only if their contents are congruent with their own experiences and observations. If the output of the mass media and the people’s direct experiences and observations are incongruent over a long period, the credibility of the mass media is gradually lost. If the government operates the mass media, the credibility of the government is then jeopardized.

Based on the recognition of this reality, the Soviet Union leadership started the liberalization of information, called glasnost, in the late 1980s. The initial purpose of this policy was to allow free flows of information, a free press and freedom of speech within the socialist democratic system. Soon, however, it became obvious that a one-party dictatorship could not coexist with the policies of glasnost.

Wherever there is a free flow of information, freedom of the press and free speech, many divergent political ideologies and policies emerge and compete with each other for public support, thus making it impossible to maintain a one-party dictatorship. Some of these parties might be ethnocentric, racist, fascist, or even fanatical, and therefore undemocratic as the socialists have always claimed. However dangerous they might be, they do constitute a part of a modern ‘pluralist democracy’ that many countries in the world, including former fascist and socialist countries, have reached only by paying the high cost of social unrest, wars, and violent revolutions.

2. How Do Communication Media Function In The Modern Pluralist Democracy?

What is evident from a historical review of the relationship between the forms of communication (especially mass media) and the power elite is that in any society with a well-educated population criticisms of government policies and demands for participation in the political process are bound to be heard. There are only two ways to deal with this eventuality: either to suppress these criticisms and demands or to coexist with them. Historically, political leaders of almost all the countries in the world have chosen the former option at first. In countries where printing developed earlier than in other parts of the world, however, the latter choice, coexistence, was preferred, but only after much struggle and bitter experience. Thus, ‘free criticism of the government,’ which is practically the same as ‘freedom of the press,’ became the paramount prerequisite for a modern pluralist democracy.

In modern societies where communication technologies are highly developed and the freedom of the press is permitted, mass media have to compete not only with each other but also with all other forms of communication media and information flows. If a mass medium loses credibility with its consumers, it will lose their support. Under the capitalist market system this could lead to financial ruin, whereas under a one-party dictatorship this could mean the loss of the people’s trust in the party and a subsequent toppling of the government.

As discussed elsewhere, the mass media appears to have some influence on individual attitudes, opinions, and behavior under certain conditions. However, even if it is proved that people are influenced by the mass media that they are regularly exposed to, the political implications for society as a whole are not quite clear because the mass media in pluralist democracies represent such a diversity of opinion. As long as the mass media remain diverse, their influence on actual policy and decision making is unclear. The political implications of mass media’s influence on individual opinion become clearer only when the entire mass media become monolithic or united in a common cause. In what kinds of situations do mass media coalesce their opinions and have a marked influence on government policy and decision making?

2.1 Agenda Building

For the reasons mentioned above, the persuasive effects of a particular journalist or mass media company on political leaders are limited and may be marginal. However, when the mass media continually dwell on problems that the government is supposed to have solved but has not, due to negligence, then they can have a direct impact on government policies.

This phenomenon usually takes place in areas such as the environment, the rights of minority groups, and the handicapped. These issues tend to be ignored or forgotten partly because they do not always have powerful lobbying groups to promote them. Just by pointing out the existence of these problems through their investigations, the mass media sometimes succeed in mobilizing government agencies and politicians into creating a solution. This is the ‘agenda-building function’ of mass media’s ‘investigative reporting.’

2.2 Enforcement Of Social Norms

It is said that while the police and prosecutors enforce laws, mass media enforce morals and ethics. There are many immoral or unethical acts committed for which people may not be arrested or prosecuted but which they do not want exposed. Money and sex scandals are typical examples. Lazarsfeld and Merton (1960) called this social function of the mass media ‘the enforcement of social norms.’ The power of the mass media is so feared by political leaders just because celebrity scandals are more newsworthy than those of ordinary people.

Personal scandals do not always stay that way. When they are perceived as symptomatic of ‘organizational corruption,’ the subsequent revelations can have a direct impact on government policies. The introduction of competition into traditionally monopolistic areas, and drastic reforms of government organizations and systems, are often the result of widely reported exposes of such organizational corruption.

2.3 Mass Media–Public Opinion Congruence

Apart from basic social norms, public opinion is clear and decisive on certain issues. Taxes and war or military involvement are good examples. On these issues, the mass media tend to follow public opinion (partly because of their fear of losing circulation or ratings) and the mass media as a whole become less diverse as a result. Competition among relatively monolithic mass media further reinforces public opinion, and their combined demands and criticisms of the government become intensified. The term ‘climate of opinion’ has been used to explain this pressure. Under these circumstances, the government is often obliged to concede to the wishes of the mass media–public opinion alliance. This alliance is democratic in principle and, therefore, usually desirable. As described above, however, the possible danger of such an alliance in a mass society should not be ignored.


  1. Cooley C H [1909] 1993 Social Organization. Transaction, New Brunswick, NJ
  2. Dore R P 1965 Education in Tokugawa Japan. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  3. Konta Y 1977 Edo no Hon’ya-san (Bookstores in Edo). Nihon Hoso Shuppan Kyokai, Tokyo
  4. Lazarsfeld P F, Merton R 1960 Mass communication, popular taste and/organized social action. In: Schramm W (ed.) Mass Communications, 2nd edn. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, IL, pp. 492–512
  5. Nicolson H 1969 Diplomacy, 3rd edn. Oxford University Press, London
  6. Parker G 1980 Europe in Crisis, 1598–1648. Harvester Press, Brighton, UK
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