Seleziona una pagina


Uno sguardo critico sulla realtà

Democracy under siege: empowering its universalist ambition to save its own future

1 Apr 2024 | Attivismo, Formazione, Internazionalizzazione

Speech at the “The 2024 Telos-Paul Piccone Institute Annual Conference”: Democracy Today? New York, 22-23.03.2024, Federico Quadrelli, University of Kassel

The title of the Abstract I proposed is „Democracy under siege: empowering its universalist ambition to save its own future“. My name is Federico Quadrelli, I am a sociologist and I am phD Student at the University of Kassel, in Germany.

I want to say thank you for this opportunity: it’s my first time in New York and I’m really honored to be able to make a small contribution, hopefully not too banal. And I apologize, as of now, because my English is not perfect. If you find I am not comprehensible please give me a hint.

My research project its about the relationship between civil society, youth and right-wing populism. What I observed during the interviews and documentary analysis I conducted in Italy and Germany inspired this reflection.

In the time available I will try to explain why I believe democracy has lost its universalist dimension or is losing it and what might be the strategies to return to being a credible and universal model.

History ended neither with the defeat of Nazi-fascist dictatorships nor with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The idea that after the collapse of totalitarianisms there could be no other possibility but to embrace liberalism as Fukuyama suggested, has been dramatically invalidated by the events.

As Freedom House data show, democracies have been on the decline for the past 17 years. While Putin’s Russia returns to an imperialist approach, China has managed to converge authoritarianism and economic progress, so much so that it has become for many countries an alternative model of reference compared to Western liberal democracies.

Economic progress, increased prosperity, increased life expectancy and technological or industrial development are not outcomes that can be achieved only in a democratic system. China is proof of this. As German political scientist Munkler has noted, this finding urges African countries to look to China as an option and not to Europe or the United States: human rights, respect for civil rights, and the primacy of law are inconveniences that nascent states want to avoid.

The ability of Western democracies to still be at the top of the global system is failing, and not just today.

The question to ask, then, is to what is this regression of democracies due and what does this mean for its future. It is not possible to outline a future, without a deep understanding of the causes that have made Western liberal democracies so unattractive.

The key point is that democracy is losing its universal value, as Amartya Sen already pointed out many years ago. This is due to many factors: the Cina-Model, as already explained and even more the loss of strength of liberal democracies at “home”, due to the rise of populist right-wing movements and parties.

The internal deterioration of democracy is the real threat to its existence. Not so much the proliferation of autocratic or illiberal and militaristic systems around the world. Its loss of credibility in the eyes of its own citizens is the real issue.

Those who study the emergence, development, and spread of populisms in the West have highlighted some particularly relevant elements: the loss of trust in institutions and parties, the loss of trust in politicians, and the idea that the link between elected representative and voter is compromised through economic and moral corruption are recurring elements.

We add to this the issue, especially true for radical right-wing populisms, which are widespread in Europe, of the loss of identity, traditions and traditional jobs due to economic and cultural globalization that has generated the feeling of being ” strangers in their own land” as described by the American sociologist Hochschild in an important study a few years ago.

Yet democracy has offered the people of Europe and here in North America rights, freedoms, protection against the abuse of state power. In the social democracies of northern Europe also concrete protection against market distortions, with very strong social protection systems that do not exist in other parts of the world. In unstable Italy, health is a constitutional right and health protection is universal and free.

Yet with all these rights, which compared to the billions of people living elsewhere are real privileges, dissatisfaction still rises. Some data from the Pew Research Institut are interesting: In Sweden, which is an ideal prototype of accomplished democracy 20% are not satisfied. Similarly, 32 percent are not in Germany, as many as 56 percent in France, 66 percent in Italy and Greece, and 68 percent in Spain. In short: democracy is not highly appreciated.

The key point is the feeling that one’s opinion does not count and has no impact on policy choices: 65 percent of respondents state this. Beyond the populist rhetoric that would have an innocent and pure people opposed to an evil and manipulative elite, it is hard not to agree with the fact that on many important choices, citizens have little to influence.

Democracy that promises freedom and equality loses credibility when it narrows the spaces for active participation. This has generated a steady retreat of many into the private sphere: the citizen has become depoliticized. And so, fewer and fewer citizens actively inform themselves, take part in political activities, and fewer and fewer are those who decide to vote: they abdicate the most important of their rights, because they feel that that vote, that act that runs out in a few moments, no longer affects them.

This retreat into the private does not mean essentially into intimacy or only into the home: into everything that is not institutionalized Politics. Here I mention only the example I know most about because it is the subject of my research: civil society. Withdrawing into civil society means, for example, living together with others one’s passions, such as Sports, or professing one’s religion, thus Churches, or fighting for one’s rights, in trade unions or protest movements for the environment, nature, culture and so on. Politics has become depoliticized, civil society has become reactivated.

Some would say, how nice, civil society, panacea for all ills. That the somewhat dominant idea in public discourse and the social sciences at least until recently, but in reality civil society has its own shadows and potential disruptive effects. In this sense I want to refer to Jeffrey Alexander’s theory of civil society where the concept of “solidarity” and the theme of universalism comes into play.

Democratic principles are not only the forms of regulation of voting, the formal activity of parliaments, the passing of laws, but also the participation of its citizens in the res publica. The exit of citizens from the political sphere to devote themselves to something else has its advantages, but also many disadvantages.

When civil society promotes “democratic” values it expands solidarity in universal terms: inclusion, confrontation, dialogue, growth. In this sense, through civic activity in associations, whatever their nature (religious, sports, cultural…) the “civil” enters the “noncivil” spheres, as is Politics understood as the State and its articulations, or as is the Economy and the market. This positive contamination can revitalize democracy by reinvigorating its universalist and therefore inclusive scope. However, this is often not the case. Those who withdraw from the public are not necessarily willing to “be good.” And so, more and more frequently, populist exhalation protest movements have arisen with more or less radical and worrying traits:

In Germany the PEGIDA movement has shocked public opinion, with a return to explicitly anti-Muslim nationalistic and racist tendencies, radical Christian movements against civil rights in Italy, Poland, France and Hungary, supporting radical right-wing and populist parties that want “a return to the glorious past.”

But this climate has also involved the United States especially with the election of Donald Trump and now, we see, in this new election challenge. The slogan: “make America great again” or “give America back to the Americans” are slogans that recall precisely a mythological past that is no more, whatever is meant by these statements.

In Italy, for example, the populist and radical right, as well as AfD in Germany want a return to tradition in the family sphere (the role of women e.g., in relationships), in sexuality, (against any form of openness to LGBTQI people), in the management of the state (with a return to national borders, the distancing from the European Union experienced as an evil stepmother) and away with localist economic policies that would like to safeguard the regional dimension, and so on.

All these drives, in civil society, are characterized by the exercise of particularistic solidarity as opposed to universal one. Thus, when solidarity becomes restricted to specific groups on an ethnic, religious, sexual or ideological basis, democracy declines and so does its inclusive vocation. And the practical translation then is the intervention of right-wing populist forces in institutional arrangements.

In Hungary, constitutional changes, interventions in the judiciary, education and education and research have cemented a system that Orban himself calls “illiberal democracy,” as opposed to the liberal shift that supposedly somehow weakened the West, disarticulated the family and threatened tradition.

This is my reflection, perhaps very much centered on the European experience, which of course is the one I know and have lived, however a propositional and positive conclusion I want to leave: just as there are destructive impulses in civil society, there are also reparative and positive ones, to return to Alexander: civic repair can take place, and this is where I insert the idea of the repoliticization of the political.

Populist and radical right-wing, nationalist, antipluralist and particularist movements can be contained by counter powers that instead promote inclusion, plurality and universalism. These were the characteristics of the great social and civic movements of the twentieth century: the labor, black and women’s, homosexual and environmental movements.

And this “civic repair” of democracies can only happen if the dialogue between institutions, representatives and the citizenship is rebuilt. If there is reciprocity in the social and political relationship, if there is listening, if there is active participation then the now widespread perception of disillusionment, disappointment and anger can change.

It remains a hypothesis, perhaps a utopia. But the alternative is to resign oneself to the idea that Democracy is dying and the system is collapsing altogether: some hope is also needed. But so does commitment, and I think these opportunities for comparison, between such different systems and experiences can help a lot in shaping new public opinions. Thank you for this opportunity.