What you should know about democracy today

We have compiled for you key takeaways from our Berlin Lecture 2023 and the new Convoco Edition on the topic:

The Global Status Quo

If we try and map the state of democracy [based on regime types in the world], then authoritarianism is neither in retreat nor in advance … We’re looking at a shifting patchwork world, and nothing is going to be resolved any time soon.

Is war a good indicator of democracy’s strength?

David Runciman: In some ways, war is the ultimate contest between democracies and authoritarian regimes … The war in Ukraine has become, through the rhetoric of politicians in the West, a war that has to be fought and won for the sake of democracy. But history does not suggest that this is the way to judge these things:
  • The First World War was a war fought for democracy, and democracy was said to have won. But that war was a catastrophe for democracy, and democracy’s victory turned out to be an illusion.
  • The Second World War was not a war fought for democracy, and it was won in part by Stalinism. But it was this war – a pragmatic, compromised, hybrid victory – that secured democracy for the second half of the 20th century.

Do people still believe in democracy?

Pro-democratic attitudes are currently declining at least in a number of countries … Several findings are disquieting:

  • In the United States, less than a third of millennials believe that it is important to live in a democracy.
  • In the EU, citizen support of the EU and trust in its institutions have been declining at least temporarily during the financial crisis. The debtor countries Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Portugal, Italy, Slovenia, and Ireland have seen the largest growth in proportions of “detached” citizens.

Is electoral success a good indicator of democracy’s strength?

David Runciman: In Western democracies there is an unhealthy fixation on elections [in the sense that] elections are often taken as a marker of where we are, what we’ve achieved, and what’s coming next. But elections almost never tell you where things are heading and what’s happening:

  • The election of Barack Obama in 2008 produced a huge outpouring of hope and optimism that the election was going to mean a fundamental shift to a new and potentially better kind of politics. But it didn’t. Nothing changed because Obama was a continuity candidate.
  • Donald Trump spelled doom and calamity for democracy … But whereas Obama, with hindsight, was the continuity candidate, Trump turned out to be the incompetence candidate. … The guardrails of American politics seem to have hold.

In sum: Elections are bad guides as snapshots of the relative strength of democratic as opposed to rival forms of politics.

Is democracy showing its resilience?

Somewhat paradoxically, the transformation of democracy, its crisis, and the attacks on it have brought to the fore some quite unambiguous features of democracy:

  1. A new appreciation for elections
  2. The centrality of human rights
  3. The importance of the rule of law

Looking at the political situation in Western countries, and certainly in Germany – if less so, for example, in the United States – democracies have not turned out to be as fragile as it may have looked a bit earlier … The populist and authoritarian challenge has produced a democratic counter-reaction. Of course, there are defectors. But a population of homogeneous believers is not what a democracy would want to be.

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