“Democracy and Its Discontents“ Examines Global Challenges to Democratic Principles

October 14, 2015

Democracy, although it has spread dramatically over the past few decades, faces serious challenges around the world today. At the “Democracy and its Discontents” conference at Central European University (CEU) October 9 and 10 in Budapest, scholars came together to discuss the nature of these challenges and the future of democracy and its institutions. Hosted in cooperation with Stanford University’s Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), the conference was part of CEU’s Frontiers of Democracy Initiative, a two-year series of events of open debate on the key questions facing democracies today.

“In 1991, there was optimism about the power and inevitability of democracy as the countries of Central and Eastern Europe instituted free elections and implemented new constitutions,” said John Shattuck, president and rector of CEU, which was founded in 1991 based on that optimism. “But there was nothing certain about that transition. It didn’t inevitably lead to democracy. And there’s nothing certain about democracy itself.”

Shattuck set the stage for opening remarks by Francis Fukuyama, director and Olivier Nomellini senior fellow at CDDRL.

“The real struggle is that there are two models at work in Europe today: the illiberal nationalist model that appeals to xenophobia and excludes refugees…and the liberal regionalist model that recognizes the value of diversity and burden-sharing across countries and nations,” Shattuck said. “The future of democracy in Europe will depend on the outcome of the struggle between these two models.”

Hungary was one of the first countries to make the transition to democracy, having opened its borders with Austria to East Germans in one of the first steps toward the fall of the Berlin Wall and communism in the region. It swiftly joined the European Union in 2004, and seemed to be “unproblematic,” Fukuyama said.

“It’s disappointing not just in terms of poor performance of democratic institutions, but (Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor) Orban’s speech in principle saying Hungary did not want to be a liberal democracy was a shock,” said Fukuyama, whose most recent book is “Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2014).

The conference sought to bring a comparative perspective to the question of the erosion of democratic values and performance, bringing together experts on European and U.S. political structures and behavior.

“The question is whether this is really a recession, like a stock market condition, where the basic trend is upwards, or whether this represents a fundamental turning point in the legitimacy of democracy around the world,” Fukuyama said. “I think it is more of the latter.” 

That said, the problems the U.S. and Europe face are quite different – although the allocation of powers is effective, the U.S. suffers from gridlock, while European institutions are far too weak, with strong executive powers given in areas that aren’t as important to economic growth, Fukuyama said.

Francis Fukuyama during his speech at CEU's conference Democracy and Its Discontents. Image credit - MTI / Zoltan Balogh
Francis Fukuyama during his speech at CEU's conference Democracy and Its Discontents. Image credit - MTI / Zoltan Balogh

“Unless both Europe and the U.S. get their act together, the fate of democracy in other parts of the world is not going to be secure,” Fukuyama said.

The first two panels addressed the phenomena of “hollowing” of democracy, meaning diminishing popular involvement in political parties, and “backsliding,” which refers to a reversal in the quality of democratic institutions and the direction of development.

Empirical evidence shows various combinations – such as diminishing participation that leaves institutions untouched, as in Estonia, or “a vicious circle in which hollowing occurs simultaneously with backsliding,” such as in Romania and Bulgaria, according to Bela Greskovits, university professor in the Department of International Relations at CEU. The happy medium, with neither manifest in the extreme, are the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Greskovits said.

The behavior of parties is at the core of the hollowing phenomenon, according to Hans Keman, professor of comparative politics at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Vrije University, Amsterdam.

“People at a certain stage don’t trust and believe in the system as it is, and the established parties are in the wrong direction, because they do not act responsibly in their relationship to the party and producing peace and prosperity,” Keman said.

In the U.S., there is a “perfect storm of democratic dysfunction,” said Nathaniel Persily, James B. McClatchy Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. This is caused by the extreme decentralization of the electoral system, while at the same time, those supervising elections are elected or appointed by a partisan official. 

The next panelist, Diane Stone, professor of politics and international studies at the University of Warwick and a visiting professor at CEU’s School of Public Policy, indicated that the hollowing out process is deliberate.


Diane Stone speaking at CEU's conference Democracy and Its Discontents. Image credit - CEU, Daniel Vegel
Diane Stone speaking at CEU's conference Democracy and Its Discontents. Image credit - CEU, Daniel Vegel

“Depoliticization is a form of statecraft,” Stone said, pointing to the supra-national institutions. “This is part of a technocratic exclusion of wider societal voices in international institutions and transnational policy networks.” 

The current crisis is due to a discrepancy between the elite and the masses, according to Zsolt Enyedi, professor in the Department of Political Science at CEU, speaking on the subsequent “Backsliding” panel. While the current reaction is to ride a wave of populism and introduce authoritarian responses, this does not necessarily mean a fundamental breakdown or lack of faith in democracy, Enyedi said.

“The current crises do pose a serious test to Western democracy – a test that can go both ways,” he said. “The parties that used state power to undermine democratic competition are parties that have been in opposition before. So it is not the case that they inherited their power, they grew popular through a semi-open process. The lesson… is that we shouldn‘t think that hybrid systems are actors that produce particular parties – political actors produce hybrid systems. There has been too much blaming of elites and systems. We must now extend the blame to citizens, that is, to ourselves.”


Zsolt Enyedi speaking at CEU's conference Democracy and Its Discontents. Image credit - CEU, Zoltan Tuba (Kepszerkesztoseg)
Zsolt Enyedi speaking at CEU's conference Democracy and Its Discontents. Image credit - CEU, Zoltan Tuba (Kepszerkesztoseg)

Isabela Mares, professor of political science at Columbia University, presented research on an important pervasive element in democracies – voter coercion. While vote-buying has been the focus of most research, Mares looked at other forms of coercion such as offering incentives such as social benefits or threats to take away those benefits, i.e., use of the tools of the state to coerce voters. These practices are widespread at the local level even in countries with a high level of voter secrecy, such as Hungary, Mares said. 

In the U.S., the key threat to democratic performance is “austerity by gridlock,” according to Vanessa Williamson, fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“Tea party members don’t see compromise as part of the process, but that is part of democracy,” she said. “Even a minority population in government completely unwilling to compromise means a minority can bring government to a halt.”

Conclusions are difficult to draw, since the U.S. does not show a serious drift toward becoming something other than a democracy, while some EU member states have taken marked steps toward illiberalism and early degrees of authoritarianism.

“We see, here, in Hungary and other parts of Central and Eastern Europe, and with certain actors in the U.S., clearly with the Tea Party and some of the spectacle with the Republican party debates so far, defection from the norms of open society,” said Larry Diamond, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and former CDDRL director. “Illiberal democracy is on the rise both in the U.S. and in Europe in different ways to different degrees.

The investigation into the erosion of democracy continued with a panel on “Money and Politics,” chaired by Stephen Stedman, deputy director of CDDRL.

“The influence of money on public opinion is more selective and subtle than many believe,” said Bruce Cain, professor of political science at Stanford University. “People won’t change their opinion on abortion, or guns because of that.”


Bruce Cain speaking at CEU's conference Democracy and Its Discontents. Image credit - CEU, Zoltan Tuba (Kepszerkesztoseg)
Bruce Cain speaking at CEU's conference Democracy and Its Discontents. Image credit - CEU, Zoltan Tuba (Kepszerkesztoseg)

Cain differentiates between the classic form of material corruption that uses money to bypass the electoral system and the method which operates through the democratic system for private purposes, using the “currency of democracy” instead of money. According to Cain, the classic approach is all but extinct, while in the case of the latter method, it is often difficult to identify from what degree it is undesirable. Analyzing the effects of lobbying, Cain cited research that has found that money coming from big corporations tends to be distributed more evenly between political parties than money from individual donors. The balance between the amount of corruption and ideology is not necessarily clear-cut either, and the reform movements aiming at purifying the lobbying system have created “an America that we wished for, but we do not want,” he said.

“Throughout Europe citizens are convinced that corruption is widespread in their countries, only the strength of their belief varies,” said Agnes Batory, professor of public policy at CEU’s School of Public Policy. “Unfortunately we know from research that even the belief in corruption is detrimental to democracies.” 

Reviewing the different forms of state corruption ranging from bureaucratic bribery to the full-scale state capture of the Italian mafia state, Batory admitted that there is very little reliable data on corruption, as both parties are interested in collusion. She was also critical of the different solutions offered to reduce corruption. Political competition is believed to be effective in reducing corruption, because the parties are interested in uncovering each other’s illicit practices. In reality, though, parties often form “cartels” behind the scenes. 


Agnes Batory speaking at CEU's conference Democracy and Its Discontents. Image credit - CEU, Zoltan Tuba (Kepszerkesztoseg)
Agnes Batory speaking at CEU's conference Democracy and Its Discontents. Image credit - CEU, Zoltan Tuba (Kepszerkesztoseg)

Electoral accountability is also problematic as corruption unfortunately does not necessarily alienate voters, while the success of regulations is very much dependent on the political culture. “The Scandinavian model is very lax, while Croatia and Serbia has exemplary legislation. In reality, though, we see the opposite outcome,” said Batory.

“Funding by interest groups and lobbying was a non-subject in Europe before the Maastricht Treaty of 1992,” said Sabine Saurugger, professor of political science at Sciences Po Grenoble. Saurugger confirmed Batory’s assertion about the lack of reliable data on corruption stating that the Maastricht Treaty’s relevant rulings were based on “anecdotal evidence”.

“That is why preference and funding were given to public interest groups instead of private ones,” said Saurugger. Evidence points public interests groups as slightly more successful in lobbying than private groups. Research shows that lobbying in the EU is most effective in coalitions, and public groups are more than willing to form coalitions with other types of groups. 

“The composition of such coalitions can be surprising. It is not unheard of for a green organization to team up with car manufacturers,” said Saurugger.

Questions and answers session during CEU's Democracy and Its Discontents conference. Image credit - CEU, Daniel Vegel
Questions and Answers Session during CEU's Democracy and Its Discontents conference. Image credit - CEU, Daniel Vegel

The rules of lobbying in the EU according to the Maastricht Treaty require a professional approach from interest groups. This has resulted a strong professionalization of the field, which means that organizations with more resources and a history in lobbying can assert more influence. “One of the consequences is that more than 50 percent of public interest groups gaining funding from the EU are from Western Europe,” Saurugger said. 

There are more fundamental underlying concepts than democracy that are currently under threat or transformation – namely, citizenship, sovereignty, and territory, according to Saskia Sassen, Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, speaking in a keynote address concluding the first day of the conference.

“Citizenship is an incompletely theorized contract between a sovereign and its constituency,” she said. The rights of citizens, never clearly defined, are even fuzzier today, and other actors are taking those rights, she said. “The regular citizen is losing rights and corporations are gaining rights.” 

The demarcation of sovereignty is also unclear in today’s world, as trade agreements, investment and other treaties reassign sovereign authority in some measure to corporations, financial institutions, and supranational organizations, Sassen said. What territory means is also changing, as nation-states and private individuals sell land and property assets to foreign individuals and corporations. These are the effects of globalization, and ordinary people have allowed this to happen, she said.


Saskia Sassen delivering her keynote speech at CEU's Democracy and Its Discontents conference. Image credit - CEU, Zoltan Tuba (Kepszerkesztoseg)
Saskia Sassen delivering her keynote speech at CEU's Democracy and Its Discontents conference. Image credit - CEU, Zoltan Tuba (Kepszerkesztoseg)

“Citizens are waking up to the hits they’ve received. Every resident of a country should get deeply engaged,” Sassen said. “We have failed miserably. We have been out to lunch, we citizens.”