Old democracies will make it through times of crisis

Are old democracies at risk of breaking down in today’s society? No they are not, argue researchers from Aarhus BSS at Aarhus University. Old Western democracies are resilient. They will also survive the current coronavirus crisis. The reason is that we have become so accustomed to democracy as a form of governance that we are in fact unable to imagine things any other way. However, this is not the case in new democracies with relatively weak civil societies and political parties.

2020.04.23 | Ingrid Marie Fossum

Christiansborg

We are not expecting the coronavirus crisis to lead to democratic breakdown in Denmark because we have a strong associational landscape and many years’ of experience with a well-functioning democratic government. Photo: Colourbox

Immigration pressure caused by poverty and conflicts, mass protests and violent riots in France and Catalonia, rising populism and nationalism, democratic recession in India, Hungary, Poland, Turkey and Venezuela and not least the current coronavirus pandemic. These examples all tell us that we are currently living an age of crisis. For the past 10 to 15 years, many people have thus drawn parallels to the interwar years (1918-1939), which were characterised by violent crises and a number of democratic breakdowns. This had led some people to fear and others to even claim that the new crises will be able to undermine today’s democracies. 

Drawing parallels to the interwar years makes good sense, according to researchers Jørgen Møller and Svend-Erik Skaaning from the Department of Political Science at Aarhus BSS. However, what they find most interesting is not the fact that many democracies broke down between the First and Second World War. And indeed many of the fragile democracies in Europe and Latin American did break down during this period. What they find more interesting is the fact that many democracies survived the large and very violent crises of the interwar years.

This is something we could learn from, argue Jørgen Møller and Svend-Erik Skaaning. Together with Agnes Cornell (former assistant professor in Aarhus and associate professor at the University of Gothenburg), they have written the book “Democratic Stability in an Age of Crisis”, which has just been published by Oxford University Press.

The main question posed in the book is: What made it possible for the interwar democracies to survive in an age of crisis? By using statistical analyses of all the countries that were democratic at any point in time during the interwar years, and combining these analyses with case studies of Denmark, England, France and Uruguay, the researchers have identified two interconnected factors that were vital for democratic stability.

One was democratic legacy i.e. having experience with meaningful competition for government power through elections prior to the interwar years. In old democracies, the elite as well as the population had learnt how to handle democracy and also to appreciate it before the crises piled up. This meant that ordinary citizens had less need for a strong man or other undemocratic alternatives to solve the problems caused by the crisis. In addition, the political elites acknowledged each other’s right to compete for political power through peaceful means such as elections as well as peaceful organisation and argumentation. And they collaborated on maintaining the system when it came under pressure.

The other vital factor was a combination of well-functioning and deeply rooted political parties and a vibrant and well-organised civil society. The authors call this phenomenon a strong associational landscape and argue that it contributed to channelling and lessening the frustrations of the population during crises as it served as a link between the population and the political decision-makers and created a basis for an effective governance.

“Today, the same factors apply in the old democracies. In fact, we have become even more accustomed to democracy as a form of governance. A recent example is found in the coronavirus crisis where the parties take a united stand in their crisis legislation and are backed by important actors in civil society such as the labour market parties,” says Skaaning.

And what would the alternative to democracy be? An absolute dictator?

“Today, we hardly ever see armed militia and totalitarian mass movements marching through the streets as we did in the interwar years. Despite people’s frustrations during times of crisis and an increased voter support for populist parties, we will not see democracies breaking down,” says Møller and continues:

“Today, populist parties are much more democratically oriented - and they often serve to offer a political voice to groups who would otherwise be overlooked. In the interwar years, these parties were openly anti-democratic.

Based on our research, we are therefore not expecting the current crises - such as the one caused by coronavirus - to lead to democratic breakdowns in countries with a strong associational landscape and many years’ of experience with a well-functioning democratic government. However, countries without these prerequisites are more at risk,” Møller concludes.

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