Is this how democracy ends? After the Cold War, scholars were quick to proclaim the end of history and the triumph of liberal democracy over its ideological rivals. A wave of democracy was washing across the world and by 2002, according to the Varieties of Democracy project, the number of democracies outnumbered the number of autocracies for the first time ever.

Today, however, the tide seems to have turned. Liberal democracies around the world are now struggling to respond to increasing levels of disinformation, polarisation, erosion of political norms, lack of media plurality, and even full-blown democratic backsliding (including the undermining of civil rights and rule of law). History, it seems, may outlast liberal democracy after all.

What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Sara, who wonders what it would actually look like if democracy were genuinely under threat. How could we tell? How can we measure the ”health” of a democracy?

To get a response, we put Sara’s comment to David Runciman, Professor of Politics at Cambridge University, author of the book How Democracy Ends, and host of the Talking Politics podcast. How would he respond?

At the risk of being pedantic, I think ‘measuring the health of democracy’ and ‘democracy being under threat’ are not the same thing. So, I think there are lots of ways we could measure the health of democracy, and there’s not one measure, there are many, and there’s lots of polling data: trust, engagement, participation, and so on.

The thing that’s harder is democracy being under threat, that is the idea that it might fail or cease to function. Because democracy can be – like human beings – unhealthy but still functioning. But there’s that wider anxiety at the moment: ‘How would we spot the signs of impending collapse?’, and my own view is that we are over-sensitive to that. I don’t see an impending risk of collapse, and I’ve felt for a while that what we tend to view as the signs are out of date.

So, we have a 20th century perspective on this; we are preoccupied with the 1930s and 1970s, this feeling that when democracy goes wrong it kind of collapses in a historically-recognisable way. And I think the big mistake we make is to assume that what we’re looking for are the signs of a re-run of the 1930s: fascism, war, violence, and so on. I don’t think that’s coming; I think if it goes wrong for us, it will go wrong in new ways, so we should be alert to new kinds of signs, not the familiar ones.

Next up, we had a comment sent in from Esther, who argues that democracy is about more than just voting in elections every few years. She believes elections must go together with human rights and the rule of law, and democracy cannot sustain itself if one of those is missing. Is she right?

We put Esther’s comment to Annika Silva-Leander, Head of Democracy Assessment and Political Analysis (DAPA) Unit at International IDEA, where she oversees the Global State of Democracy Report.

Next up, we had a comment sent in from Joseph, who argues:

Image of a citizenThe major problem is that most people… misunderstand what true democracy is. It is not simply having a vote every 4 or 5 years and then, in between, whomever wins doing anything they please. That is a one-party state, an elected dictatorship.

True democracy is having debates with the opposition, having an independent judiciary who block unconstitutional changes and having the freedom to express every viewpoint. This is frustrating for the supporters of the ruling party because it slows and even stops some of the things they want to do. While that may seem ‘undemocratic’, as the ruling party were elected by a majority, it means that decisions are made carefully considering the differing viewpoints throughout the country.

How would Annika Silva-Leander respond?

Finally, we had a comment sent in from Eleni, arguing that our conception of democracy needs to change:

Image of a citizenFirst of all, we need an actual, contemporary redefinition of the term ‘democracy’, one that takes into account current social and political needs, trends, changes, developments… Today’s democracy cannot and should not be the same as yesterday’s.

How would Professor David Runciman respond?

I don’t think we need to do some big redefinition exercise. People often say the problem with democracy is that we don’t all agree what it means – well people have never agreed on what it means, and you’re setting the bar too high if you’re waiting for everyone to agree what it means. But, I think where we do go wrong is we take this democracy we’ve had for about 100 years (and, in most places, it’s much younger than that) and we think that’s what democracy is, this particular kind of politics: representative, party-based, primarily happens at the national level, runs through elections as its primary means of changing things, presupposes a certain kind of information space (so, things like newspapers and national television and radio stations have been very important to it). It is a twentieth century phenomenon, and we think this is what democracy is. And it’s what democracy has been for most of our lifetimes, and it’s been fantastic and has worked incredibly well in the places where it’s worked. But the idea that that’s all it can be is ridiculous.

It’s true that democracy is thousands of years old, and even if it’s got another century of life left in it, it’s not going to be this. And yet, at the moment, because we are the generations who have had the best of that system, we are so – relatively speaking – prosperous and peaceful in our lives, and so well-off, basically, we are very reluctant to tinker with it and change it. We feel like we have to hold on to this thing or it’s all going to fall apart. I think what we need to do is be much more open to the idea that that form of democracy is coming to the end of its life, and that doesn’t mean the alternative is ‘no democracy’, anti-democracy, or authoritarianism. The alternative should be other forms of democracy, and we should think that the idea is more varied than we currently think it is.

So, not that democracy has to change to some new definition, but that it’s going to be lots of things; democracy is going to have lots of different aspects to it, some much more radical local democracy, some more direct democracy, some parts of our lives might have less democracy in them, questions of international democracy, different kinds of political movements replacing political parties. That version of democracy that worked really well in about 1995 is not done yet, but it’s close to being done, and we should be open to the thought that what comes next is not anti-democracy, what comes next is more varied democracy.

Is democracy coming to an end? Do most people misunderstand how democracy works? Do we need to update how democracy works? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: Randy Colas on Unsplash; PORTRAIT CREDITS: Runciman (cc) Central European University

44 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar

    Yes, it is coming to an end. The Revolution against the criminals who have not only betrayed their country but humanity as well is coming. I am talking about an unequal system and those who actively keep it that way, which makes it not a democracy, it is an elected dictatorship. The most important value in our current system is that the principle of redistribution of wealth does not exist anymore. We are tired of being treated like we are stupid. We are tired of seing a system in which someone can steal millions but steal a banana and you will go to prison. We are tired of seing 2 people commit the same crime but one gets away because he has more money for a better lawyer. This is not justice nor democracy, especially when the wishes of the very large majority of people is not listened to but only that of banks, elites, etc. The Revolution is coming and those who betrayed humanity will pay dearly.

  2. avatar

    The leftists of the EU are and were Always against the Democracy

    • avatar

      that’s not how democracy works. And it seems you are already failing it.

    • avatar

      the left- wing people and parties will be always against the blackmail values, called “democracy” by corporations, military complex, Banks and richs liberals, owners of State siege.

    • avatar

      thats the way I think, sorry

    • avatar

      I am against mainstream Gramsci society.

    • avatar

      I don’t see why you would say sorry instead of into some deep thinking about what you are saying and how ludacris it is.
      I can assure that with a right government you might have rights on paper but not in real life.
      But this black n white thinking is wrong to it’s core.
      . So please use arguments than simple statements that say nothing.

    • avatar

      I understand your general thought as and wide common social class domination.
      There is the reason of existance Gramsci heritage and others.

    • avatar

      I dont know enough English to discuss such matters with you
      But I read a lot and I live in a Socialist country. I also loved in a dictatorship- authoritharian Regime. So I have the experience also

    • avatar

      that’s oke but your country isn’t the EU. The EU is run by all memberstates. So I find it abit hard to accept that they all are extreme leftists.
      And with the the EU is not a doctatorships so dno what that has to do with it.
      We also experienced endless wars but now we have the longest peace as we are forced to talk to each other through the EU. It ain’t perfect but it sure as hell is better than the endless wars.

  3. avatar

    The best argument against democracy is a 5-minute conversation with ordinary voter.

    • avatar
      Social biped

      even so it is still the best system we have!

    • avatar

      yet it’s not as there is no alternative.

  4. avatar

    Democracy is in crisis because EU and governments don’t listen to what people want or decide. For exemple we don’t want mass Muslim migration and you back it.. If you go on like this democracy will die…

    • avatar
      Debating Europe

      HI Olivier, who is “you” in this case?

  5. avatar

    Comunims has demonstrated to be stronger than the virus and democracy will be stronger? we will see…

  6. avatar

    We see day after day that Democracy cannot exist anymore as other factors (Elite, Superpowers) influence the correct democratic decisions.

  7. avatar

    As long as you still have the right to post polls and comment,we are good..

  8. avatar

    The biggest danger to democracy is apathy…both from voters, but also from those wishing to stand for elections.
    In the upcoming municipal elections here in sud gironde (France) this weekend, 45% of towns with more than1000 population only one party is standing, ie voters have no choice.

  9. avatar

    Depends: have there been many referendum-worthy decisions that have been taken by politicians instead?

  10. avatar

    The biggest threat to democracy is ignorance and disinformation. Social media plays a role here.

  11. avatar

    There has never been democracy only how you are treated in any country depends on how much money you have at least India is open about this in the cast system every country in the world has the same system if the poor rise up they call them communist

  12. avatar

    Just remember in most areas of the world,China,Russia and most of Africa and South America democracy has never existed.
    In Europe and the US what is now coming to an end is not democracy but Liberal democracy,for the simple reason it has gone way to far,way to quickly,and the populations of these nations are starting to rebel,that’s how you get Donald Trump and an explosion of right wing parties being elected in practically ever country in Europe.

  13. avatar
    Ana Lima

    In my opinion, Democracy may be coming to an end, or at least a “renovation”. For example, I agree that although democratic systems of government are supposed to reflect the interests of ordinary citizens, and not some shadowy political elite, that’s not always what happens in reality. More and more, we see the influence of big money and special interest groups in so-called democratic politics, while income inequality and voter suppression grow. This political system was born centuries ago, back in the greek empire days. It’s true, it has changed a lot since then, but do you really believe it changed enough? Like I said before, centuries have passed, and a lot has changed, especially people’s minds. That’s why I think it’s time to, at least, renovate the whole system. We all need to take a step back and look at the pros and cons of Democracy, see which Democracy principals and measures fit the nowadays’ society and which didn’t work as well. As we know, our freedoms are now being tested, due to the atypical pandemic situation that we are currently experiencing, namely the freedom of movement, but I think that this is something that we will have to endure in the name of a greater good, which is our health. When this situation is over, hopefully soon, we will claim our freedoms again. All of us, in our everyday actions, must act so that the concept of Democracy evolves in the true sense of the word, always making sure not to forget the freedoms and rights that belong to each one of us.

  14. avatar

    If we talk about main values, then definetly its not end of democracy. The paradox of modern world is that despite we being more wealthy, more healthy, more smart, more free than ever before in history (well, at least in cases of most countries), we get perception skewed to believe that we are worse off than in x point in history.
    I mean its quite evident looking at how democracy has evolved over the last 100 or so years in various countries to see how far we have come.
    However there is one thing that could end democracy as we know it- if we would be able to find a way of goverment that would be more effective but also would keep peoples freedoms intact.

  15. avatar

    Democracy as a principle shouldn’t even ve under debate because it’s the most equitable form of organisation. Doubting about the fact people should be the owners of their destiny and assuming that a dictatorship would work better in their interest is a nonsense especially when we know from the history that by vast majority it didn’t happen so. As the article says the main issue is that democracies, by their system of work, are fragile and the main risk is that they can be corrupted relatively easily.

  16. avatar

    We never had democracy. We had oligarchy. I wish democracy will shine. But it takes culture and education at its best.

  17. avatar

    Ask EPP they support such a regimes in EU. Example: Boyko Borissov – prime minister of Bulgaria fot 10 years – corrupted to the bone, serves oligarchs, his party controls all the institutions and they are trying change the constitution in their favor and also rig the upcoming elections by making them 2 days long.

  18. avatar

    democracy as a fiction or a function? As a fiction sure, as a function it is hard to tell, mostly because most of the people render it as a fiction- otherwise it takes a lot of personal effort

  19. avatar

    politics are so much corrupted

  20. avatar

    Still wondering if coming to an end!!!? 😂😂😂😂😂😂 ended long time ago people

  21. avatar

    You must make the leave deal slow and incremental by insisting strictly on EU’s intetests and benefits. This means time is not important as long EU’s intetests and values are important. The leaving member should not press you for time. Its their problems not yours.

  22. avatar

    Probably we are going to find true freedom, democracy started to be used by some to grab power using the people for their own needs or wants as if they belonged to them.More, they even put their people in harms way to try to keep their false status. True leaders that care for their people are appearing in most countries.

    • avatar

      bolsonaro? duterte? erdogan? lukashenko orban? putin? trump? São estes os verdadeiros líderes a que se refere?

  23. avatar

    People will never accept authoritarianism because authorities have consistently proven not to prioritise people and to actually harm them instead. Authorities treat people as expendable cash cows that should be forced to shut up if they don’t agree.

  24. avatar

    The only danger I see for the future is to have an Islamic state thanks to EU uncontrolled migration policy..

  25. avatar

    Probably we are going to find true freedom, democracy started to be used by some to grab power using the people for their own needs or wants as if they belonged to them.More, they even put their people in harms way to try to keep their false status.

    • avatar

      True leaders that care for their people are appearing in most countries.

    • avatar

      bolsonaro? duterte? erdogan? lukashenko orban? putin? trump? São estes os verdadeiros líderes a que se refere?

  26. avatar

    Still wondering if coming to an end!!!? ended long time ago people

  27. avatar

    It will come to an end like it has before and before and before that
    Political systems exist in cycles based on social needs and problems

  28. avatar

    Democracy means to accept different idolize why the democracy won, this post is the end of democracy.

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