What impact is capitalism having on Democracy: from an Emile Durkheim functionalist perspective

By Emmanuel Bazimya 

Emmanuel Bazimya, an LLM student in International Banking and Finance Law at UCL, considers the impact of capitalism on democracy in light of the recent presidential election in the United States.

It is a well-established right that individuals in a democracy have the right to information that allows them to make informed decisions with regards to their governance. Following the recent presidential election in the United States, the question this post is trying to ask is if this basic right under a democracy is being threatened due to the growing influence of capitalism on key social institutions. To examine this notion, I rely on Emile Durkheim’s functionalism theory with the use of the media as a structural institution with a manifest intention of informing the electorate so that they may make an informed decision when they cast their ballot in a general election.

Emile Durkheim’s Functionalism attempts to explain social behavior in a society from a macro level perspective. This theory views society as an organism in which each structure as a component of this organism contributes to the stability of society as a whole. His theory is premised on the assumption that society is made up of inter-connected multiple structures that work to form a state of equilibrium at any given point in time and once a significant social change occurs then the institutions that serve these needs must adjust to such change to bring society back into that state of equilibrium. Capitalism is this significate social change that brings about competition and the need to maximize profits by corporations. The question is whether the media is making the necessary adjustments to address this shift caused by the need of mass media outlets to maximize profitability for their shareholders.

One of these structures are the institutions that are meant to serve the needs of society such as the Judiciary, Education institutions like a University, the core Family, Government and for our purposes the Media among others. Another such structure are Social facts which are ways of thinking, values, cultural norms and attitudes that transcend any one individual, that existed before anyone individual and will continue to exist for generations after. These social facts have a subconscious effect on an individual in that the individual will not release the influence being exerted by such social facts unless they attempt to resist their influence such as the law or religious beliefs. These structures have known manifest functions which serve to keep society in a state of stability, but they also have unintended functions known as latent functions.

In this case the mass media in a democracy during an election season would serve the manifest function of informing their electorate to ensure that they make better informed decision about their governance when they cast their ballot.

However, due to commercial nature of mass media outlets these corporations also seek to maximize profits with the unintended consequence of not properly informing their viewers on issues that matter but rather focusing on coverage of issues that will increase the network’s rating and boost profits. Les Moonves, executive chairman and CEO of CBS during a speech at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media and Telecom Conference said “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” in reference to all the coverage Donald Trump was getting over racist or xenophobic remarks as opposed to any inquiries as to details of his policy suggestions. There have been reports of foreign leaders being uncertain of Donald trump’s foreign policy plans in spite of the estimated 4.4billion U.S dollars of coverage that the 2016 Presidential election received.

The Atlantic put together a daily dashboard tracking national television coverage of the 2016 presidential election using data from the Internet Archive’s TV News Archive and processed by the GDELT Project, based on the number of mentions each candidate received. To no surprise Donald Trump received about 193,608 more mentions than the next candidate from both major parties. Research shows that there is a correlation between the number of times a candidate gets mentioned on the news and their popularity. The causation is however debatable as to whether it is the popularity that causes the increase in coverage or if it is the coverage that causes the increase in popularity.

Media coverage seems to be driven more and more by its latent function as opposed to its manifest function in a democratic society. This can be best illustrated by the spike in the polls and media coverage of Donald Trump after he suggested placing a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the United States. During the 2016 Presidential election, the press seemed to dramatize Donald Trump’s controversial remarks to keep the attention of its viewers.


Number of articles mentioning UKIP (orange) versus percentage who say they would vote for UKIP (blue). Source


While others factors play a significant role in whether a person votes and whom they vote for such as their party affiliations and the personal qualities of the candidates, these factors, whether the public is aware of it or not, are informed to a larger extent by the media coverage they are exposed to.

While Functionalism theory is not without criticism such as not giving enough regard to the function of the individual in society and being unable to explain social change, it remains a useful tool to demonstrate how inter-connected and inter-dependent people in a society are. The media has to adjust to the social changes being brought about by the need for the media to maximize profits while still serving its manifest function of keeping its electorate well informed, to enable them to make productive decisions with regard to their governance.

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