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Home World Nonfiction book on the crisis of democracy: The populist temptation

Nonfiction book on the crisis of democracy: The populist temptation


How do you fight authoritarian populism? Armin Schäfer and Michael Zürn want to provide answers in their book “The Democratic Regression”.

Significantly weakened: the lived democracy – also in EU countries like Hungary or Poland Photo: Mateusz Wlodarczyk / imago

Democracy is being challenged from different directions these days. The rise of China has shredded the idea that economic success is necessarily linked to the connection between democracy and a free market. China shows: There is another way. In some countries in the Global South, this is seen as an attractive model.

Above all, however, democracy is under attack within democratic states themselves. The rise of authoritarian populists who claim to represent the will of the people all by themselves indicates a dissatisfaction with pluralism of opinion and the representative system. Populists, in turn, focus on destroying debates and damaging democratic institutions. The images of the storming of the Capitol in Washington are still all too present.

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The political scientists Armin Schäfer and Michael Zürn therefore begin their book “The Democratic Regression” with sobering results. With the help of an index that takes into account criteria such as co-determination, the degree of representation and power control, they show that democracy has been weakened significantly in a number of countries over the past ten years, including EU countries such as Hungary and Poland.

“For a long time the decline of democracy was something that, from the perspective of Western European women, only took place in distant countries, the impact is now getting closer,” they write.

Weaknesses in the negotiation process

So what to do The authors argue that the political causes have been largely overlooked in the debate about authoritarian populists. So far, two explanatory models have dominated: The cultural declaration sees support for Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán and Co as a backlash to social liberalization processes. Because white straight men see their privileges at risk, they would turn to politicians who promise a return to the image of society of the 1950s.

The economic explanation, on the other hand, emphasizes the growing inequality in the OECD countries. The losers of globalization are particularly vulnerable to populism.

Armin Schäfer / Michael Zürn: “The Democratic Regression”. Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin 2021, 247 pages, 16 euros

Both declarations largely ignored the political sphere, criticize Schäfer and Zürn. How a society reacts to the changes brought about by globalization and modernization is not determined in advance, but always part of a political negotiation process. But it is precisely in this that the two recognize shortcomings: “Anyone who wants to explain populism must not turn a blind eye to the weaknesses of democracy.”

Armin Schäfer is Professor of Political Science in Münster, Michael Zürn heads the Global Governance department at the Berlin Social Science Center. They use numerous political science studies and data sets for their argumentation, skilfully alternating between detailed consideration and large narrative.

Almost only academics in parliament

They work out two main points for alienation from democracy. For one thing, the composition of parliaments does not reflect that of the population. And that has worsened over the past few decades. Today there are almost only academics in the Bundestag, other work biographies, and even migration experiences hardly occur.

Now one can say: a lawyer can also do politics for a master baker, what’s the problem? Schäfer and Zürn show, however, that this imbalance has concrete consequences. The finding is clear: the Bundestag is more likely to implement a certain policy if it is endorsed by groups with a higher social status and level of education.

The other point of criticism is the tendency to push political issues away from parliaments to institutions that are not subject to the majority principle – institutions such as constitutional courts, central banks and international organizations. Many decisions are made in such bodies, especially at the EU level.

This leads to legitimation problems because those who decide here are not under the same pressure to justify themselves as parliamentarians who have to answer to their voters. The result is badly explained decisions and the impression that many citizens have no influence at all through elections.

More democracy and committed citizens

Schäfer and Zürn propose a range of measures to counter this alienation. Parties would have to change their recruitment patterns, which could lead to more diverse parliaments. In addition, international organizations should be democratized as much as possible – they should legitimize themselves through elections.

And it is important to resist the “technocratic temptation”. Political questions have to be decided in parliaments, not in expert groups.

There is an overarching idea behind the various proposals: to fight authoritarian populism, more democracy is needed, not less. And Schäfer and Zürn emphasize that well-informed and committed citizens are required. Without them, a democracy just doesn’t work.

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