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Democracy in Crisis

Democracy in Crisis
The Neoliberal Roots of Popular Unrest

Boris Vormann and Christian Lammert. Translated by Susan H. Gillespie

2019 | 144 pages | Cloth $24.95
Political Science
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. No Alternatives?
Chapter 2. Failed Promises and the Logic of Necessity
Chapter 3. Democracy in America
Chapter 4. Europe Disunited
Chapter 5. The Beginning of History


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Publishing an updated English-language version of this book in 2019 has a decisive advantage over the German publication that came out just a short time after the Brexit vote and Donald Trump's election victory: we don't have to spend much effort convincing readers that we are in a deep crisis. Two years on, pessimism and doomsday scenarios are ubiquitous, and crisis metaphors dominate political debates and media discourses. Prominent political figures warn of resurgent nationalism, even fascism, and societies are divided by deep cleavages that seem almost impossible to bridge. And yet, we think there is an alternative to defeatism and inner exile. it rests on taking stock of the crisis we are facing to envisage more hopeful political futures. What exactly is this crisis about? answering this question has become more difficult since the first edition of our book appeared. The more the crisis has metamorphosed over time, the more its causes seem disjointed and indecipherable. On the book market, national perspectives and country-by-country analyses dominate, and, as we would contend, distract our view from more common, cross-national problems.

A case in point: Germans often see the crisis of democracy as a result of a decade and a half of Angela Merkel, a partially failed reunification, institutional shortcomings, and illiberal remnants from a predemocratic past. But if that were so, if this particular crisis really were a German phenomenon, arising from distinct traditions and path dependencies alone, why is there a national front in France that easily made it into the last round of the presidential elections, and why was there a referendum for Brexit, at very much the same time?

Also, a pan-European view wouldn't be much more helpful. One could of course point to the refugee crisis as the common denominator of Europe's predicament. Obviously, if you look at the programs of right-wing extremist parties across Europe, that certainly seems to be a rallying point. But if that were the sole cause of the crisis of democracy, why do we see similar developments in the United States, where such an influx of refugees never took place? Vice versa, if Hillary Clinton lost to Trump only because of Russian interference or the Electoral College, why the similarities with Europe? Are these parallel developments of polarization and antiestablishment backlash across these contexts a coincidence? To put this question differently: Why do we see Trumpism—as a new political form that by far exceeds Trump—on both sides of the Atlantic?

There seems to be something larger at stake that transcends individual national and even Continental contexts. in this book, we speak of "crisis" in the singular for a reason: what we argue is that in the transatlantic context, we are experiencing variations on a theme. The language of "populism," by contrast, can distort our understanding of what is going on. It is a symptom of a much deeper crisis of liberal democracy. Overcoming this predicament will require the reinvention of the political sphere, a rejuvenation of its institutions and mechanisms of responsiveness—and a new, nontechnocratic debate about the collective futures of our societies: urban, regional, national, and global. If the crisis of liberal democracy, despite all the risks that it poses, has one advantage, it binds back into the political process constituencies that had opted out before. It might animate those whom the democratic deficits of our institutions have led into political apathy. It should be the work of politicians, but just as much of civil society and academia, to harness this reinvigorated debate. We can use its momentum to discuss a range of deep transformations that our societies are facing in terms of rapidly changing labor markets, climate change, and potentially emancipatory uses of new technologies.

The crisis of liberal democracy is profound. Rebuilding trust in democratic institutions will be a long-term task. But this is also a moment to think big. Yes, incremental improvements are possible and necessary. They are also much needed, given deep cynicism in the political process. But what incites the imagination is not campaign finance reform. Moreover, simply calling out Trumpism as chauvinistic and racist is necessary but won't do the trick. A politics of indignation will not suffice to counter a politics of resentment. There is an urgent need to develop economic and social policy visions beyond anti-Trumpism: something neither the democrats in the United States nor the Social democrats in Germany have been very successful at articulating since 2016, even though some more recent developments seem promising. If our analysis in this book is correct, the long-term strategy needs to grapple with questions of identification and legitimacy that are intricately linked to questions of social justice and equality. If liberal democracies were particularly successful at times when economic and political spaces overlapped, that is, when citizens and workers were able collectively to raise their concerns and be heard by political and economic institutions, as we argue, the question is how political spaces need to be redrawn to map onto the realities of a globalized economy. Putting politics above market logics implies a revitalization of democratic debate: a weighing of possible alternatives to globalization or alternative ways of organizing it. This is precisely the debate we would like to encourage with this book.

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