Essays

In our meetings, we discuss challenges to democracy. The Democratic Anxieties Paper Series documents selected aspects of these discussions. After each event, we will add new papers to the series.

Armin Schäfer: Return with a Vengeance | Working Class Anger and the Rise of Populism

Across Western democracies, we are witnessing the rise of populism. And with its ascendance, anger returns to politics. Right-wing parties mobilize “angry white men” who believe the elite do not care about them and who deeply mistrust establishment parties. It has been frequently noted that supporters of these parties are disproportionately drawn from the working class. Donald Trump’s staunchest supporters are white males, with low to medium levels of education and working class occupations. In Europe, the same holds true for the voters of the French Front National, the German AfD, the Norwegian Progress Party, the Dutch Freedom Party, the True Finns, and the Sweden Democrats. The working class no longer votes automatically for the Left but…

Jan-Werner Müller: The Wrong Way to Think about Populism

Today, the deeper meaning of every election in Europe (perhaps even around the globe) appears to be judged by the answer to one question: Is it a win or a loss for populism? Until the Dutch election in March 2017, the image of an unstoppable populist wave—or, as Nigel Farage put it, a populist “tsunami”—dominated the public conversation. Then, following Emmanuel Macron’s big wins in both the presidential and the legislative elections in France, pundits and politicians have frequently been telling us that we are already living in a “post-populist moment.” Both diagnoses are wrong and merit the very label which is usually attached to populism itself: simplistic.

Claudia Landwehr: Disturbances Take Precedence | Why We Need to Regain the Procedural Consensus

Democracy is group decision-making writ large. It rests upon norms of reciprocity and trust in these norms. Only if we can trust in one another’s reciprocity is the procedural consensus on a system of government based on majority rule possible. Even if majority rule in modern democracies is complemented with different sets of checks and balances, support for a decision-rule that enables decisions without explicit consent from those bound by them is anything but self-evident. Yet, in our heterogeneous and pluralistic societies, only this procedural consensus enables the peaceful management of conflict. Only mutual trust in reciprocity and the procedural consensus that builds on it guarantees that losers in majority decisions remain loyal to the democratic regime. They remain…

Regina Kreide: The Loss of (Democratic) Visions and the Unequal Future

Social inequality is marked by a paradox. On the one hand, after two centuries, the seemingly unbridgeable prosperity gap between the “global North” and the so-called developing countries has shrunk. The real incomes of a majority of the middle class, especially in Asia, rose by 40 percent, which corresponds in part to a doubling of incomes. On the other hand, real incomes fell for parts of the middle classes in wealthy countries—the United States, Japan and European countries. They are the clear losers of globalization. What does this mean for social integration in our societies and what does it mean for democratic politics? To answer this question, we have to delve into three different forms of inequality—economic, political, and cultural—and how they are related.

Christopher F. Karpowitz and Tali Mendelberg: Democracy and Influence in Small Groups

Among the most important—and distressing—trends in American politics is how elected officials and political institutions respond, or fail to respond, to public preferences. In an age of rising economic inequality, it appears that the preferences of wealthy citizens are far more influential on elite decision-makers and, ultimately, policy outcomes than those of the middle class or poor. But, in a democracy, disparities of influence are not merely a problem for representation—the vertical relationship between ordinary citizens and their elected officials—but also for citizens themselves as they convene in discussion groups, committees, boards, clubs, associations, town hall meetings, or other similar gatherings. Settings where citizens get together to…

Katherine Cramer: The Competence of Others | Understanding Perceptions of Others’ Civic Abilities

Democracy is closer to its ideal when it is more open, accessible, and representative. However, everyone does not participate equally in politics. Upper-income and more highly-educated people are more likely to participate. This is a problem, because in many advanced democracies, it is only the preferences of the wealthiest that are reflected in public policy. How, then, do the voices of others matter in governance?
One solution might be…

Elisabeth S. Clemens: Distrust in Distant Powers | Misalignments of Political and Social Geography in American Democracy

In November of 1960, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy competed to succeed Dwight Eisenhower as president. The results were close and charges of fraud flew. Yet, this did not interrupt the steady climb in the positive response to a question the Gallup poll had begun to ask a few years earlier: did survey respondents “trust the federal government to do what is right just about always/most of the time…?” Despite a tense international context and growing recognition of daunting domestic challenges…

Larry M. Bartels: Political Inequalities in Affluent Democracies

“A key characteristic of a democracy,” according to Robert Dahl, is “the continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals.” Much empirical research over the past half century, most of it focusing on the United States, has examined the relationship between citizens’ policy preferences and the policy choices of elected officials. According to Robert Shapiro, this research has generated “evidence for strong effects of public opinion on government policies,” providing “a sanguine picture of democracy at work.”
In recent years, however,

Brigitte Geissel and Anna Krämling: Direct Democracy and Economic Inequality in the World

New forms of democratic decision-making such as direct democracy spread worldwide. They are seen as complements to representative democracy and expected to cure some of current democratic malaises, e.g. growing economic inequality (Norris 2011; Geissel/Newton 2012). Democracy has been traditionally considered as a political system enforcing equality, i.e. leading to more equal income, wealth and education. Over the last decades this seems to be no longer the case and socioeconomic inequality increased in many democracies (Bartels 2008; Piketty 2014).
Can direct democratic reforms inhibit this development?