How democracy can win


The experience of post-war Europe shows that if democracy is effective and responsive, there will be little constituency for explicit antidemocratic or radical appeals, and governments and other political actors will be able to enforce the democratic rules of the game. In such contexts radicals have only two choices: marginalization or moderation, notes Sheri Berman, Professor of Political Science at Barnard College and the author of Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day.

By failing to understand this process, scholars and commentators risk only reinforcing the movements they are concerned about, she writes for Foreign Affairs:

  • For one thing, alarmist discussion of the populist far right may foster fear and polarization. Calling a party “fascist” creates panic among those who do not support the party in question and resentment among those who do; it is also likely to have very little effect on the party’s vote share.
  • Second, labeling a party “antidemocratic” contributes to misunderstandings about what is going on with democracy today. Despite pervasive pessimism, most of the West’s wealthy, long-established democracies remain robust and flourishing. Indeed, the United States is less an example of a general trend than an outlier, as one of the only countries in this category in which democracy is in significant peril. 

When democratic norms and institutions are weak, extremists may have little incentive to moderate, since they will be able to gain supporters and even actual power without playing by the rules, adds Berman, a Journal of Democracy contributor. But where democratic norms and institutions are strong, extremists will be forced to moderate because there will be little constituency for explicitly antidemocratic or radical appeals and because if they don’t, other political actors and institutions will be able to keep them from power in any case. RTWT

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