Democracy in crisis – and prospects for renewal


With the advent of authoritarian leaders and the simultaneous rise of populism, representative democracy appears to be caught between a rock and a hard place, yet it is this space that it must occupy, argues AC Grayling (above), if a civilized society, that looks after all its people, is to flourish. Prompted by the EU referendum in the UK and the presidential election in the USA, he investigates in Democracy and its Crisis why the institutions of representative democracy seem unable to hold up against forces they were designed to manage, and why, crucially, it matters.

“My aim is to explain why the concept and the actuality of ‘representative democracy’ emerged, what its justification is, what has gone wrong with it, and how it should be fixed,” Grayling said.

We are experiencing an organic crisis of democracy that is international in scope, notes the Albert Shanker Institute. In response, a conference is being convened that draws together intellectuals and activists from across the globe to examine and explore different dimensions of that crisis. The speakers will venture into a deeper analysis of the political forces and dynamics at work, with an eye to identifying opportunities to strengthen democratic institutions and democratic practices.

As to the main causes of the crisis, three tensions related to citizens’ disengagement, new social imbalances, and pre-electoral definition of policies are of the utmost importance for their effect on our institutions and their political development, argues Matteo Laruffa, a visiting fellow at Harvard University:

  • First, western societies had been mainly committed to collective loyalties and material issues since the 1930s until the end of the 1960s. For many decades after World War II, political participation was highly ideological and based on collective loyalties as those ones of nation, democracy, union, party, etc. At the same time, policies were oriented to pursue material interests like economic rights and employment….[But] a historical shift happened when western political systems became more committed to identity issues rather than material ones, and to personal loyalties rather than collective loyalties. Both identity issues and personal loyalties opened the way to controversial political debates and individualism, dividing our societies in a clash of values and ethical judgments.
  • With reference to the radicalization of politics, a second hypothesis can be derived from the research made by the Harvard economist Branco Milanovic, who warned: “The existence and function of the middle class is under attack by rising inequality. …Since their democratization, this is the first time in which there is a contraction of the middle class in western societies. With reference to their political impact on democracy, its stability and chances to flourish, Milanovic follows Francis Fukuyama [right] and other scholars who contributed to a complete understanding of the importance of middle class and civil society. 
  • Finally, particularly noteworthy are the changes engendered by both strategies of supranational/international integration and ever larger tendencies to policy convergence. These two main dynamics have substantially transformed functions, powers and roles of national governments and policy-makers.. ….These changes can be described as three parallel shifts:
    • Firstly, there has been a shift from national to supranational decision-making processes. Policy-making processes are ever less national institutional ones and ever more mixed or supranational ones.
    • Secondly, there has been a shift from political to independent technical institutions for the control of many decision-making processes, their policies and implementation.
    • Finally, there is a third shift of power towards those states which are the primary actors writing the rules that regulate global or international convergence processes.

Meghan L. O’Sullivan, a senior fellow at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center and Deputy National Security Advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan under former President George W. Bush, said she was “optimistic” that liberal democracy is not in crisis. She instead pointed to political parties as declining, the Harvard Crimson reports.

“I don’t see an actual and vibrant debate about whether or not liberal democracy is the best form of government for this country,” O’Sullivan said, “I would not say that we are having a crisis of liberal democracy. I would say that we are having a real crisis in our political parties.”

Speakers at the Shanker event will explore such themes as:

  • the nature of the populist challenge;
  • the relationship between growing economic inequality and the loss of political trust in the capacity and purpose of government;
  • the intersections of race, class, religion, ethnicity and immigration in Trumpism, Brexit and other populist movements of the right;
  • the decay of political parties (especially of the left and center-left) and civil society (declines in organized religion, organized labor, community and neighborhood associations), on the one hand, and the rise of authoritarianism, on the other;
  • the relationship between protest movements, political action and power in the resistance to authoritarianism of the right;
  • the ways in which a number of reactionary and racist initiatives, from voter suppression initiatives to attacks on immigration and immigrants, are centered on redefining citizenship in exclusionary and restrictive ways;
  • the most effective ways for citizen activists to organize and respond, both in the U.S. and abroad.


  • Sheri Berman, Columbia University [a regular contributor to the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy]
  • Colin Crouch, University of Warwick, Max-Planck-Institut für Gesellschaftsforschung
  • Shuli Dichter, Hand-in-Hand Schools, Israel
  • Rob Goodman, Columbia University
  • Han Dongfang, leader of independent unions in 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, China Labour Bulletin
  • John Judis, Talking Points Memo
  • Robert Kuttner, The American Prospect
  • Sarah Leonard, The Nation
  • Mac Maharaj, former cellmate of Nelson Mandela, African National Congress of South Africa
  • Anton Shekhovstov, general editor, “The Exploration of the Far Right” book series; visiting fellow, Institute for Human Sciences
  • Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers
  • Joseph Schwartz, Temple University
  • Ken Surin, Duke University
  • Fred Van Leeuwen, Education International

Democracy in Crisis Conference

Thursday, Oct 05, 2017 | 3:00pm

Thursday October 5 to Friday October 6,2017

Washington Court Hotel, Atrium Ballroom

525 New Jersey Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20001

The conference is free but registration is required


Print Friendly, PDF & Email