Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania

"Democracy in Trouble?" Conference Papers

Ruth Ben-Ghiat

OURS IS THE AGE OF THE STRONGMAN. In Hungary, Russia, and many other places, authoritarian leaders attempt, with varying degrees of success, to undermine the rule of law, purge state bureaucracies of non-loyalists, make public office a vehicle for private profit, use propaganda to spread their versions of reality, and target sectors of society that uphold the integrity of facts, evidence, and inquiry. Even if they hold elections, they use intimidation and a mix of semi-legal and legal tactics to get the outcome they need to be able to claim that their repressive agendas are the expression of popular will. Wherever they rule, a culture of corruption and “brutalism and intolerance” spreads like blight to incentivize allies to help them dispense with their enemies and to encourage everyone else to adopt the self-censoring and compliant behaviors that make their colonization of state and society easier.

The strongman’s ascent in our time reflects the weakness of his biggest nemesis: democracy. His politics of “resentment and retrenchment” and his redefinition of the nation as bound by faith, race, and ethnicity rather than rights appeal to those who are skeptical of liberal democratic visions of collective governance and security, humanitarianism, and international cooperation.

Studies of populist movements and political systems help us to understand our time of transition by examining how and under what circumstances democracy fails and how to interpret those new political entities that have shot to power (like Italy’s Five Star Movement) but may still be difficult to classify.


Jason Brennan

THE BMW 3-SERIES IS WONDERFUL, OFTEN THE BEST IN ITS CLASS, BUT IT NEVERTHELESS HAS SIGNIFICANT FLAWS. BMW’s engineers acknowledge its shortcomings and continually attempt to improve it. Consumers love the car, but also recognize in a given year that competitors may be better, and often buy the competitors instead. Iron Maiden is a wonderful metal band, but some of their albums are awful. The band avoids playing bad songs from those bad albums live.

I’m a fan of democracy the way I’m a fan of the BMW 3-series and of Iron Maiden. Democratic forms of government have generally been the best performing systems we’ve had so far in human history. But democracies also suffer from pervasive and systematic deficiencies, flaws built into democracy itself. Democracies perform well compared to dictatorships, single-party communist states, feudal systems, or oligarchies. But most such governments are terrible, so saying democracy is superior is setting a low bar. Most political systems throughout history existed more for the purposes of extraction and exploitation rather than for human development.

Democratic systems of government do a better job. Nevertheless, they also greatly underperform compared to their potential. For instance, the economic argument for radically increased immigration is overwhelming, but democratic communities around the world engage in extreme restrictions to movement.


Francis Fukuyama

[Orignally published in Foreign Affairs]

BEGINNING A FEW DECADES AGO, WORLD POLITICS STARTED TO EXPERIENCE A DRAMATIC TRANSFORMATION. From the early 1970s to the first decade of this century, the number of electoral democracies increased from about 35 to more than 110. Over the same period, the world’s output of goods and services quadrupled, and growth extended to virtually every region of the world. The proportion of people living in extreme poverty plummeted, dropping from 42 percent of the global population in 1993 to 18 percent in 2008.

But not everyone benefited from these changes. In many countries, and particularly in developed democracies, economic inequality increased dramatically, as the benefits of growth flowed primarily to the wealthy and well-educated. The increasing volume of goods, money, and people moving from one place to another brought disruptive changes. In developing countries, villagers who previously had no electricity suddenly found themselves living in large cities, watching TV, and connecting to the Internet on their mobile phones. Huge new middle classes arose in China and India—but the work they did replaced the work that had been done by older middle classes in the developed world. Manufacturing moved steadily from the United States and Europe to East Asia and other regions with low labor costs. At the same time, men were being displaced by women in a labor market increasingly dominated by service industries, and low-skilled workers found themselves replaced by smart machines.

Ultimately, these changes slowed the movement toward an increasingly open and liberal world order, which began to falter and soon reversed. The final blows were the global financial crisis of 2007–8 and the euro crisis that began in 2009. In both cases, policies crafted by elites produced huge recessions, high unemployment, and falling incomes for millions of ordinary workers. Since the United States and the EU were the leading exemplars of liberal democracy, these crises damaged the reputation of that system as a whole.


Hélène Landemore

DEMOCRACY IS IN TROUBLE, OR SO WE ARE TOLD. In this essay I argue that the crisis of democracy as we know it—which has come to be symbolized by Trump or Brexit—is a sign of its vitality as a normative ideal. People the Western world over resent, distrust, and sometimes rebel against their political personnel and institutions precisely because these institutions fail to deliver the promise of democracy: people’s power. The silver lining of otherwise disenchanting events is that they tap into an obvious desire to regain control and wrest power from run-away elites, seen as no longer responsive to, and responsible for, the wishes of the population.

It is misguided to reject democracy in response to recent events. All in all, we simply don’t know what a genuine democracy is capable of. The only two versions we’ve experimented with so far are fifth and fourth century BC Athens and the various versions of electoral democracy we’ve iterated since the eighteenth century. But Classical Athens was profoundly exclusionary (of women and slaves among others) and in some ways too direct, allowing for oligarchs to take over the Assembly and bring down the democracy twice. And today’s democracies are so imperfectly representative that they generate in turn authoritarian and populist backlashes that also bring up the risk of tyranny. We can do better.                                                

Democracy is, in theory, the only regime type that empowers us all equally. Why is that still worth defending today?  For one thing, it makes us smarter. In the face of uncertainty, a fundamental circumstance of politics, we are better off, as a collective, giving everyone an equal right to speak up and thus a chance to contribute a possibly crucial argument, perspective, or piece of information—no matter who they are, what they look like, how articulate they sound, or how well they do on standard political science quizzes. Including all on equal terms in deliberation about our collective fate is, in that sense, smarter than any alternative decision-making process.


Steven Levitsky

Defending our constitution requires more than outrage

[Co-written with Daniel Ziblatt, this essay originally appeared in The Guardian]

BLATANT DICTATORSHIP – IN THE FORM OF FASCISM, COMMUNISM, OR MILITARY RULE – HAS DISAPPEARED ACROSS MUCH OF THE WORLD. Military coups and other violent seizures of power are rare. Most countries hold regular elections. Democracies still die, but by different means.

Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves. Like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Ukraine.

Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box. The electoral road to breakdown is dangerously deceptive. With a classic coup d’état, as in Pinochet’s Chile, the death of a democracy is immediate and evident to all. The presidential palace burns. The president is killed, imprisoned or shipped off into exile. The constitution is suspended or scrapped.


Cas Mudde

POPULISM EMERGED IN THE MID-NINETEENTH CENTURY IN RUSSIA AND THE UNITED STATES BUT REMAINED ALMOST IRRELEVANT TO EUROPEAN POLITICS UNTIL THE 1990S. Since then, populism has become a major political phenomenon throughout Europe. Today, we live in a “populist Zeitgeist” (Mudde 2004), in which populist parties and rhetoric dominate the public debate. Although there is a growing conflation of populism and nativism in academe and media, there is no doubt that populism is an important, if not necessarily the most important, aspect in the rise of so-called populist parties and politicians.

Up until recently populism could be defined as an essentially contested concept, but in recent years a growing consensus has emerged on an ideational approach, which sees populism, first and foremost, as a set of ideas focused on a fundamental opposition between the people and the elite. Whether this set of ideas constitutes a political discourse, ideology, or style is still very much debated. In many cases, however, this distinction is fairly secondary, if not irrelevant, to the question at hand.

I define populism as a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite,” and argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people (Mudde 2004; Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2017). The core features of the populist ideology are monism and moralism: both “the people” and “the elite” are seen as sharing the same interests and values, while the main distinction between them is based on morals (i.e. “pure” versus “corrupt”). Populists claim that they, and they alone, represent the whole people (Mueller 2016), while “the elite” represent “special interests.” Obviously, “the people” is a construct, which can be defined in many different ways (see Canovan 2005).


Alina Mungiu-Pippidi

ON APRIL 6, 2018, THE FORMER SOUTH KOREAN PRESIDENT PARK GEUN-HYE WAS SENTENCED TO 24 YEARS IN PRISON FOR ABUSE OF POWER AND CORRUPTION. The same day, South Africa's former President Jacob Zuma was charged with corruption, racketeering, fraud and money laundering linked to a 1990s arms deal, after he had enjoyed immunity for many years. The next day, April 7, former Brazilian President Ignacio Lula was arrested after being sentenced to 12 years in prison for money laundering and passive corruption. In the afternoon of April 7, I got a call from a British host of a popular talk-show who wanted to discuss fighting corruption (not a frequent occurrence). Anti-corruption efforts had clearly become newsworthy. “We want to know” she said, “how you guys do it.”

At first, it did feel like a field day (and year) for the international anticorruption movement and a culmination of the global demand for better governance which erupted into headlines with Brazil’s World Soccer Club in 2014. We had sparkling wine that evening with a few friends from the global movement for fiscal transparency gathered in Amsterdam. Fiscal transparency is a significant determinant in controlling corruption, particularly if it is combined with media freedom or civil society activism. One calls for the other. After all, the world should never forget that the drive for government rationalization in the whole world, the French Revolution (as the British entertained no thoughts of exporting their government model at that time) started due to fiscal transparency. The Finance Minister Jacques Necker made the first French budget public in 1781, creating an outcry when the huge royal expenditures, the many debts, and the numerous privileges were revealed. Maybe the fiscal crisis could have still been averted—the jury is out on this one—but the legitimacy crisis could not.