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Democracy – an Outdated Model?

Tanja Börzel and Michael Zürn, spokespersons for the SCRIPTS Cluster of Excellence on the liberal promise, problems of a globalized world, and the rise of populist movements

Sep 02, 2019

Fundamental values: Israeli artist Dani Karavan engraved the basic human rights in glass panes near the Bundestag on the Spreepromenade. The 19 articles are part of the core of our liberal-democratic order.

Fundamental values: Israeli artist Dani Karavan engraved the basic human rights in glass panes near the Bundestag on the Spreepromenade. The 19 articles are part of the core of our liberal-democratic order.
Image Credit: Matthias Heyde

Great Britain is pulling out of the European Union, in Poland a national conservative government is attacking the independence of the courts, and under the battle cry “America first!” American President Donald Trump himself threatens his Western allies with a trade war: 25 years after the end of the ColdWar the liberal order is increasingly under pressure. Are liberal democracy and market economy an outdated model for organizing societies in the 21st century?

TANJA BÖRZEL: Seen globally, humanity is doing better today than it did 30 years ago. If we compare the situation of the world today with that of 1990, the liberal promise is still relevant and still quite successful. In economic terms, Germany is doing better than for a long time, and overall prosperity has also increased worldwide.

MICHAEL ZÜRN: What is new is that liberal democracy does no longer hold a monopoly on the claim to prosperity. China has shown the world that economic success is possible even when there is no democratic government in theWestern sense.Nevertheless, the liberal West remains a place of longing for many people.

BÖRZEL: In recent years, however, we have observed that in public discourse the threat to democracy is no longer perceived as something coming from outside. In the Cold War, it was the Eastern European andRussian socialism that challenged the liberal order. In the 1990s and 2000s, theWest first perceived emerging China and later political Islam as central challengers to its liberal ideas and institutions. Today, the liberal order is increasingly under pressure from within, with populists winning elections and influence not only in Europe and the US, but also, for example in India or Brazil.

We also see a dramatic increase in inequality in these democratic countries, which will certainly lead to increased dissatisfaction. Is that the reason?

ZÜRN: Inequality has always been the counterargument for the success of the liberal model – or liberal script, aswe call it in the cluster – in theworld, yes. However, the perceived increase can be put into relative terms from a historical perspective. Since the 1990s, lower and middle incomes have stagnated, with a further increase in the number of the richest and their degree ofwealth. But Germany has been doing very well economically for ten years now. Social inequality cannot comprehensively explain the rise of right-wing populist movements like the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has taken place in recent years with decreasing unemployment; this also applies internationally to the resonance of populist movements in precisely those countries that are the economic winners of European integration, such as Poland, and globalization, such as India.

BÖRZEL: Take Denmark, a country where social inequality has been traditionally very low. Nevertheless, the right-wing populists have been politically extremely successful there for years.

The success of populist parties can be observed everywhere in the Western world – whether in economically sound countries, such as the USA and Germany, or in crisis states like Italy or Greece...

BÖRZEL: Surprisingly not in Spain. We currently have a social democratic minority government there, and there is no nationwide right-wing populist movement in sight. Conversely, Turkey was economically very successful in the 1990s and people benefited from it. Nevertheless, the populist Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been able to assert himself politically. These phenomena cannot be explained by the formula “economic success means stable democracy,while recession endangers democracy”; we will examine the relation between economy and democracy in more detail.

What unites populists worldwide?

ZÜRN: In addition to their nationalism, it is above all their strategy: where they are in opposition, the populists depict the liberal script as that of urban elites that ignore the broad masses.They portray governments as part of a corrupt elite. Populists emphasize the will of the majority against individual and minority rights, they are against open borders and against European as well as international institutions.

BÖRZEL: In countries where populists have won political majorities, they appear to follow a similar script: they undermine the independence of the judiciary, compromise the freedom of media, and curb minority rights. National populists also network internationally.

ZÜRN: Ultimately, we see nationalist populism as a response to the effects of globalization. The actors of right-wing populism mobilize the voterswho see themselves as the losers of the liberal world order. Nationalism and isolation become promises of salvation. Are there other propositions to explain the strengthening of right-wing populism?

BÖRZEL: One is much more pessimistic: it assumes that history is not linear and that the demise of the liberal way of thinking has begun. Democracies are doomed to failure because they are unable to solve the problems of a globalized world.

ZÜRN: Historically, however, there have always been phases in which the liberal ethos was pushed back and the end of democracy was conjured up. A further thesis is therefore based on a so-called backlash, i.e., a setback for liberal democracies, which will swing back again if the supposed solutions of the right-wing populists fail to have an effect, as has often been the case in history. Take, for example, the 1930s: the calls for a strong leader and the oppression of minorities destroyed the young democracies in Germany, Austria, and Italy. Terrible things had to happen before liberal ideas prevailed again. There are many parallels with that time, although of course other factors are not comparable, such as the unemployment rate or the much stronger welfare state today.

BÖRZEL: Such historical references are important for our research endeavor as are comparisons between different countries and regions worldwide.We want to work out what exactly is challenged by whom. So, who are the actors? What do they criticize? Who are they attacking? The liberal script per se or just individual elements? What are their strategies? Is there perhaps even such a thing as an illiberal script that connects authoritarian rulers and populists around the world?

—Interview by Matthias Thiele

Further Information


Freie Universität’s political and social science cluster examines current debates about the liberal order from a historical, global, and comparative perspective. What impact will this have on democracy and the global challenges of the 21st century? In addition to Freie Universität, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, the WBZ Berlin Social Science Center, and five other Berlin research institutions are involved in the cluster. Furthermore, institutional partnerships have been developed with universities in all regions of the world, and there is close cooperation with political and cultural institutions in Berlin.