In this new contribution to the Democracy Papers, Elisabeth Clemens discusses what she calls the “(mis)alignment of social and political geography” in the United States as an unrecognized source of democratic anxiety. Taking an historical perspective, Clemens traces the increasing distancing of citizens and lived communities from infrastructures and geographies of governance. “Antistatism, federalism, and repeated redistricting,” she argues, render opaque the identification of “effective channels of influences or … responsibility for good or bad governing.”
Can representative democracies be strengthened to govern more effectively? The SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy (AOD) program is motivated by a concern about whether the core institutions of established democracies that connect citizens and civil society to the political system—elections, mass media, political parties, interest groups, social movements, and, especially, legislatures—can capably address large problems in the public interest. The Democracy Papers makes available short essays and works-in-progress from the events AOD organizes and the broad network of scholars and practitioners it mobilizes. Previously located on AOD’s website, past Democracy Papers are available there while new ones will be published as part of SSRC’s Items essay forum.
Armin Schäfer reflects on what populism’s rise in Europe and the United States implies for how we view social class as a basis for voting and political partisanship. Drawing on recent studies, Schäfer shows growing disaffection among the working classes in established democracies concerning their sense of their ability to influence the policy decisions that affect them. Other research provides some evidence that the working class perceives their lack of political efficacy correctly—governing institutions respond far more to the preferences of the wealthy. In such a context, populist anger points to genuine democratic deficits.
Rarely do we get a sense of how conservative white working class Americans view the civic competence of urban-based liberals. Katherine Cramer provides such a perspective in this Democracy Paper, building on the extensive research for her book on rural Wisconsites with follow-up visits during the 2016 election campaign and the early days of the Trump administration. Cramer finds a very deep and mutual lack of faith, a chasm that makes the possibility for building alliances, or even dialogue, across polarized groups a difficult one.
In this Democracy Paper, Regina Kreide traces the different ways in which social inequality can, and is, undermining democratic politics. Kreide breaks down inequality into three dimensions—growing economic cleavages, deepening political segregation, and cultural invisibility. These trends combine to diminish many citizens’ faith in the future and open the door to populist appeals. The author argues that reversing democratic decline and ultimately inequality itself will take more thoroughgoing collective action beyond piecemeal reforms.
Over the next months, Items will publish essays based on research presented at a spring workshop on the theme “Democratic Participation: A Broken Promise?” cosponsored by the SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy program’s Participation group and the German-based Democratic Anxieties. Claudia Landwehr, co-organizer of Democratic Anxieties, describes the fraught efforts of democracy to deal with “disturbances”—deep tensions that put at risk agreement on democratic procedures and the norms of reciprocity that undergird it. Landwehr argues for practices of “meta-deliberation” to draw publics into discussion about the norms through which reciprocity and procedural consensus are produced.
Over the next months, Items will publish essays based on research presented at a spring workshop on the theme “Democratic Participation: A Broken Promise?” cosponsored by the SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy program’s Participation group and the German-based Democratic Anxieties. Here, Larry Bartels, cochair of the AOD Participation group, draws on recent work on the extent to which established democracies are disproportionately responsive to the preferences of their wealthiest citizens. While this is not news for observers of the United States, Bartels finds very similar patterns across what are often assumed to be the more egalitarian democracies of Europe.
Why has climate change been so difficult to address through democratic institutions and processes? The SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy program established a working group to engage this question. Robert O. Keohane and Nancy L. Rosenblum, cochairs of the working group, provide a sense of the issues that have animated its work thus far: mobilization for climate change, the politics of mitigation strategies, and the often neglected role of emotion in democratic participation.
This essay by Charles Taylor draws from a lecture sponsored by the SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy program, called "Ways Democracy Can Slip Away," on October 17, 2016, at Roosevelt House in New York City, and is copublished in The Democracy Papers. Taylor was the program’s 2016 Democracy Fellow. Speaking in the weeks before the 2016 US election, Taylor discusses the character of modern democracies and their vulnerability to what he call “spirals of decline.” He concludes with a reflection on the present populist moment.
Nancy Rosenblum’s Items contribution is based on her response to Charles Taylor’s October Roosevelt House lecture, "Ways Democracy Can Slip Away," and also appears in The Democracy Papers. A member of the Anxieties of Democracy program’s Advisory Committee, Rosenblum reflects on Taylor’s arguments through the lenses of history and political philosophy. She ends on a note of contingent hope, emphasizing that democracy’s contemporary vulnerabilities are related to genuine advances in the quality of democracy over time.