Podcasts / Democracy in Question

Democracy in Question

Most of the world’s population lives in a formal democracy today. But in both established and new democracies, trust in parliaments and political parties is plummeting. Worldwide, they are being torn apart by inequalities, political polarization and a politics of hate. Citizens are using the streets and the courts to challenge authority and to seek the accountability that is often missing at the ballot boxes. The form, content, institutions, practices and, ultimately, the very principles of liberal democracy are being called into question from India to Hungary and from Brazil to the US.

Hosted by Shalini Randeria, Rector of the IWM, Director of the Centre at the Graduate Institute, and Excellence Chair, University of Bremen (Research Group: Soft Authoritarianism). It features some of the most important voices in contemporary academia. Together they reflect on democratic experiences and experiments the world over and explore whether this crisis of democracy represents a historically unique challenge or whether parallels to political crises in the past can be discerned. Why have democratic institutions lost their legitimacy along with their capacity to mitigate inequalities by righting the wrongs of economic, racial and gender injustice? How can the disenfranchisement and disillusionment especially of impoverished and marginalized sections of the population be transformed into enthusiasm for democratic participation? And in the midst of crises, can we also see tendencies that point to a renewal and reform of democracy? While each episode addresses issues concerning the contemporary challenges to democracy in different contexts, the series is also committed to exploring themes in the longue durée of democracy that have occupied social scientists for decades.

Join Shalini Randeria and leading scholars for an exploration of the dilemmas facing democracies worldwide. Subscribe now, wherever you get your podcasts!

This podcast series is co-produced by the Graduate Institute’s Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy and the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) Vienna, in cooperation with Research Group: Soft Authoritarianism, University of Bremen and in collaboration with Richard Miron and Anouk Millet (Earshot strategies).

When and how is power visible in politics?

Power is a crucial, if essentially contested, concept. Its nature and exercise in democratic politics are not always easily grasped. Understanding who holds power, how it is used, and the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed, is critical in any political system. Professor Steven Lukes (formerly NYU) helps us figure out how to map power in politics and explains when and how it is visible.

How can we structure digital spaces more democratically?

Digital technologies have changed and are changing our world. But the euphoria about these technologies improving not only connectivity but access for all along with creating a global public sphere have given way to caution about their impact. With the increasing monopolization of digital infrastructure and accumulation of power by a few giant Big Tech companies, there is also increasing concern over its impact on our freedoms, as well as the ways in which it shapes how we live our lives and perceive the world. In this episode, Evgeny Morozov (founder of the content recommendation website The Syllabus) helps us understand how we can structure digital spaces more democratically while harvesting the transformational potential of these technologies.

Can democracy survive in Hong Kong?

The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong is facing its most severe crisis today. The Chinese government has been tightening its grip over the island slowly but surely to stifle political protest, impose restrictions on freedom of press, and hamper free and fair elections. Activists have been fighting for civil liberties and democratic rights, e.g. from the Umbrella Revolution of 2014 to the huge anti-extradition law demonstrations in 2020. Jean-Pierre Cabestan (Hong Kong Baptist University) explores the events leading up to the backlash against civic activism, the current state of democracy in Hong Kong and its future prospects.

Since the recording of this episode, the Apple Daily News has been forced to close. It was the last print news outlet openly critical of the Chinese government.

What keeps democracies alive?

Over the series, our focus has often been on the serious challenges that democracies face all over the world today. We have also highlighted how they can and are degenerating and morphing into authoritarianism. But this episode flips the perspective to understand how we can foster and nurture democratic spaces and practices in our societies. Professor Till Van Rahden (Université de Montréal) discusses why we should move beyond an institutional view of democracy as a system of government. We explore with him how democracy is a fragile way of life that needs constant care and how it can be protected.

What is the legacy of Egypt’s Arab Spring, 10 years on?

10 years ago anti-government protests in Tunisia sparked a wave of spontaneous uprisings against authoritarian regime’s in the Middle East and North Africa. The Arab Spring was met with repression by governments in the region, but ultimately led to the ousting of rulers such as Ben Ali in Tunisia, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. But the hope that these changes would usher a new era of democracy in the region has been belied. Michael Wahid Hanna helps us understand the turbulent events of 2010 in Egypt, what changes they led to and why prospects for democracy in the country still appear bleak

What ails Indian democracy today?

Speakers: Shalini RanderiaYogendra Yadav

Most western academics were skeptical about the future of India, the world’s largest democracy, throughout the 1950s to the 1970s. It succeeded beyond all expectations in mobilizing large-scale electoral participation, especially among poor and illiterate voters, though paradoxically they benefitted the least from it economically. And yet today its very existence seems to hang in balance as the country faces a deep crisis of liberal, secular democratic norms, values and institutional practices. Freedom House even downgraded India from a free democracy to a "partially free democracy" last year. So what ails Indian democracy so suddenly? How deep are the roots of the massive challenges it must overcome? Must it revitalize itself using Indian civilizational ideas instead of, or melded with, western norms of liberalism and secularism?

Yogendra Yadav (a leading political theorist and leader of the Swaraj India party established in 2016) helps us make sense of the past, present and future of democracy in India.