Academics discuss challenges facing democracy

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November 29, 2018

Three authors met to discuss their separate research on the state of democracy and to evaluate how all of their works intersect in a panel event, “Democracy in Danger,” on Nov. 19 in Rapaporte Treasure Hall. Quinn Slobodian, Nancy MacLean and Yascha Mounk agreed that the United States’ current political system is flawed in representing its electorate and the future of the global economy is at risk.

The panelists are all recent authors on the topic of the current state of democracy, and discussed challenges facing democracy in the modern world.

“There are very frightening, populist regimes that are coming to power and reflecting this crisis of liberal democracy,” said MacLean. “I think where we all come together in [our beliefs] is that there is a crisis in which capitalism, at least envisioned and desired by some very powerful people, is parting ways with democracy.”

Slobodian said that he wasn’t sure if democracy was necessarily in danger, but that multi-level governances, which serve to protect democracy, are in danger. While these systems were designed to de-democratize government, they served to give more power to representatives so that the power of private interests would be limited and democracy could be protected against a select few groups, according to Slobodian.

“Multi-level governances serve, to some level, constrain their own space of decision-making in the interest of the long term good of the whole and often as a way to prevent squabbling within their states and the power of special interests,” said Slobodian. “The need to de-democratize is being called into question again, and those of us on the left find it very troubling.”

The panelists continued to discuss how liberal democracies can transition into illiberal democracies, and eventually, dictatorships. Panel mediator Sabine von Mering (GRALL/ENVS/WMGS) led a discussion of whether the United States was truly a democracy, and the pitfalls of money driving politics.

Slobodian emphasized that immigration and globalization remain issues for democracies, but that finance and trade are often driving forces of other conflicts.

After the panel, von Mering took questions from faculty members in the audience.

Last year, MacLean, professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University, published her book, “Democracy in Chains.” The book was a finalist for the National Book Award for nonfiction, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award in Current Interest, and the winner of the Lannar Foundation Cultural Freedom Award. In 2018, Slobodian, associate professor of History at Wellesley College, authored “Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism” and Mounk, executive director at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, wrote “The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Democracy is in Danger and How to Save It.”

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