Lecture series on democracy

In Defense of Democracy

This figure shows the number of countries that have experienced a siginificant decline in VDem's Liberal Democracy Index.

In this series of three lectures, I want to assess and explain why there is a crisis of democracy. Following the rise of populist parties, many observers have painted a dark picture of the state of democracy. Not few of them recommend less democracy as a reaction to these trends. If citizens turn towards parties that challenge liberal democracy, so the logic goes, one has to minimize their influence on political decisions. Against these claims to save democracy from citizens, I aim to defend democracy and democratic equality. If democracy does not work the way it is supposed to, one should seeks ways to improve it rather than blaming those who are disappointed and feel poorly represented. Doing so means to ask how substantive and descriptive representation are linked and how many decisions can be delegated to non-majoritarian institutions without hollowing out democracy itself.

1) After the End of History

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama famously predicted the End of History. Although not all countries were democratic at the time, he maintained that there were no more credible rivals to the idea of “liberal democracy” left. Free markets and political freedom were close allies from his point of view. Empirical research about the spread of democracy supported Fukuyama’s bold claims: In several waves, the total and relative number of democracies had been rising across the world to unprecedented levels. However, since the 1990s, a much soberer view has replaced his teleological optimism. In some of the most long-standing democracies, there are signs of a decay of democracy. In this lecture, I will discuss the reasons for the contemporary sense of crisis and look at empirical evidence for democratic decline across the world.

2) When Representation Fails

In the second lecture, we will focus on the concept of representation and empirical data that measures opinion differences between elites and different groups of citizens. Representation means acting on behalf of the represented in a manner responsive to them (Pitkin). Parliamentarians are neither mere delegates who simply put into action their constituents’ preferences nor trustees who can act totally independently of citizens’ preferences. While they are free in each individual decision, they still have to explain and justify their choices—in particular, if those diverge from citizens’ demands in crucial areas or over an extended period of time. Following the theoretical discussion, I will look at the gap between decision-makers’ and citizens’ preferences and then discuss potential explanations.

3) The Populist Revolt

Many rich democracies have been experiencing a rising tide of populism. Most explanations of populist success focus on economic or cultural reasons. Globalization, as proponents of the former perspective argue, threatens those with lower skill levels because either their jobs can be done elsewhere or cheaper workers (or robots) will be ready to do the same task for less (or no) money. Therefore, “globalization losers” will turn towards populist parties to protest against (future) welfare losses. In contrast, the cultural explanation argues that value change is the driver of populism. As societies increasingly adopt postmaterial and multicultural values, those who cling to more traditional worldviews feel marginalized and excluded. These “modernization losers” turn to populist parties as they long to preserve the society that putatively existed when they were young. Despite their differences, both of these explanations understand social change as an almost inevitable, automatic process. Yet, governments could react in many different ways to globalization and value change—accelerating either one is just one option. In contrast to these prominent explanations, I will offer a third view that focuses on “representation losers” to explain the rise of populism. Those who feel poorly represented turn towards populist parties to voice their protest against political exclusion and unresponsive decisions.