Center-right political parties occupy a precarious position in liberal democracies. On the one hand, their core identity and policy positions tend to align with economic elites. On the other hand, center-right parties must compete in democratic elections where majorities matter. Political historian Daniel Ziblatt calls this circumstance the “conservative dilemma.” The dilemma is deepened during times of rising socioeconomic inequality, demographic change, and social justice activism. As political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson put it, “How [are conservative parties] to side with the elites who were winning big, yet attract the support of voters losing out?” 

Historically, the answer has involved 1) finding emotionally compelling issues that cut across class divides and 2) developing manageable relationships with allied surrogate organizations to help champion cross-cutting issues. Yet what happens when cross-cutting issues are radicalized—or involve narratives unanchored by reality—and party surrogate organizations become unmanageable? And what happens when this process moves online?

From QAnon to Breitbart to r/thedonald, digital surrogates may have unique properties that make them distinct from traditional, “offline” surrogate organizations, even as they overlap, intersect, and interact. Moreover, the sui generis nature of what Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg call “communication as organization” may make them even more difficult to control with traditional party levers, especially as traditional institutions are met with declining legitimacy in the eyes of the public. In this context, conspiracy theories and disinformation thrive.

This project, convened by the Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics (IDDP) at the George Washington University and the Social Science Research Council’s Media & Democracy program, held two workshops to chart a research agenda for studying the causes, effects, and mechanisms by which digital surrogate organizations shape party politics in liberal democracies. The project will result in an open-access volume, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.