Challenges to Democracy

The Weatherhead Research Cluster on Global Populism/Challenges to Democracy focuses on the different and similar threats to democracy faced by nations around the world. Our aim is to foster conversation between scholars of developing and established democracies, including America, Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Formerly known as the Weatherhead Research Cluster on Global Populism, the Global Populism/Challenges to Democracy cluster has broadened its mission under the leadership of Bart BonikowskiSteve Levitsky, and Daniel Ziblatt.

Beginning with the so-called “third wave” of democratization, and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many analysts and policymakers believed that authoritarianism was on the wane and that democracy had become, as the phrase commonly went in the 1990s, “the only game in town.” That era of self-confidence has passed. Not only is authoritarianism alive and well in China, Russia, central Asia, and much of the Middle East, but democratic breakdown in Thailand and Venezuela and democratic backsliding in countries like Ecuador, Hungary, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Poland, and Turkey has triggered debates over whether we have entered a period of global democratic recession. With the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the rise of populist, Eurosceptic, and anti-immigrant forces in Europe, some observers have begun to worry that even the world’s most established democracies may be at risk. We are faced, then, with one of the most pressing issues of our time: can liberal democracy around the world survive?

Our goal is to facilitate a more systematic conversation among Harvard faculty of different disciplines and schools. Our programming is built around monthly panels of diverse guests to address broad issues that currently sit at the forefront of concern for democracy scholars. To create a multigenerational community we also host an undergraduate study group and a graduate student advisory group to encourage students to pursue the study of challenges to democracy. Ultimately we plan to disseminate the knowledge and ideas that emerge out of the cluster’s activities to the broader public and to policy makers.

Our research focuses around the following five broad topics:

1) Overcoming polarization
While some partisan polarization is healthy for democracy, one of the key drivers of democratic decay in new and established democracies is intense polarization, where political opponents begin to regard each other as existential enemies, allowing incumbents to justify abuses of democratic norms to restrain the opposition, and encouraging the opposition to use “any means necessary” to (re)gain power. If citizens remain loyal to a political party even if it violates key democratic norms, political polarization represents a genuine threat to functioning of democratic accountability. A key question for students of democratization and democratic erosion is how such intense partisan polarization can be overcome. Many students of advanced and developing democracies have highlighted institutional reforms (e.g., electoral reforms, reforms to systems of candidate selection), but others have highlighted the importance of deeper social, economic, and even the need to rebuild democratic norms.

2) Immigration and the challenge of sustaining multiethnic democracies 
The challenge of sustaining multiethnic democracies is one of the most significant challenges facing democracies of all types today. The politics of redistribution has also been notoriously complicated by ethnic diversity, but the growing ethnic diversity of both new and old democracies, driven in part by immigration, have generated different forms of right-wing populist backlash and has exacerbated political polarization. This poses dilemmas for parties of the right and left. For parties of the right, there are temptations to exploit issues of cultural diversity to gain power, which also may lead to restrictions and unequal representation of ethnic minorities, diminishing the quality of democracy. For parties of the left, this same politics has stimulated much discussion in recent years of whether the welfare state is compatible with ethnic diversity. In fact, many on the left have argued that the left needs to reopen debates about immigration in order to diminish the appeals of the populist right. Our central focus in this strand of our work is to use cross-national experiences to focus on challenges and innovative ways that multiethnic democracies can be sustained in the face of a dangerous populist-fueled polarization.

3) Globalization, economic inequality, and democratic discontent 
A third major theme is the threat economic inequality, often driven by global economic forces, poses to the survival and viability of democracy. We explore the pernicious and indirect ways in which unequal economic resources diminishes the quality of democracy, through voting, institutional design, campaign spending, and media. We examine how shifts in the global economy may have accelerated this. Additionally, we explore whether and how slowed economic growth over the past forty years in advanced democracies have generated new antidemocratic populist backlash at the level of mass opinion and political party development. We track the economic roots of democratic discontent across new and old democracies.

4) The causes of populism and its consequences for democracy 
In the past several years, there has been renewed attention to the upsurge of populist parties and movements from Latin America and North America to western and eastern Europe. The ambiguous relationship of populism to democracy is a difficult and important topic of research. Many populist outsiders come to power speaking on behalf of “the people” but often doing so in ways that seem to challenge basic norms of liberal democracy. We interface and work collaboratively with existing groups on campus but with a focus on the consequences of populist parties and movements on democracy and de-democratization. How can demagogues be kept out of power? What are the best institutional and organizational responses to groups and parties that use the language of democracy to undermine democracy?

5) Debates over institutional solutions 
Another set of debates regards whether institutional reforms can provide solutions to some of the problems afflicting established democracies. Many Western democracies maintain constitutions, electoral systems, and other democratic institutions whose origins lie in the early twentieth, nineteenth, and even eighteenth centuries. The age of these institutions is often a point of pride for many citizens (think of Americans’ attachment to their constitution and even dysfunctional institutions like the Electoral College). But existing institutions may be ill-suited for the challenges facing contemporary democracies. Thus, we bring together constitutional scholars and students of electoral and other institutions to examine institutional innovations aimed at improving the quality of established democracies. These include electoral reforms (e.g., debates over ranked preference voting systems), participatory institutions (participatory budgeting), the use of referenda and other forms of direct democracy, and institutional reforms aimed at enhancing – or restricting – intra-party democracy. Many of these innovations emerged out of new democracies in Latin America and elsewhere and are only recently being debated in established democracies.

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