Carolien van Ham en Marlies Honingh samen

Democracy requires constant renewal

Democracy is never completed and needs constant maintenance, say Carolien van Ham and Marlies Honingh. At the same time, democracy is also under pressure, in the Netherlands and internationally. The two researchers find this worrisome, which was one of the reasons they launched a Sustainable Democracy hotspot earlier this year.

In the early 1990s, people were still very optimistic about democracy. “After the fall of the Soviet Union, the West stopped supporting dictatorships in return for their support in the Cold War,” says Professor of Empirical Political Science Carolien van Ham. “Partly due to these changes in international pressure, many countries started holding elections and became more democratic. By the mid-1990s, and for the first time in history, the world counted more democracies than autocracies. Democracy as a form of governance seemed to have won.”

Carolien van Ham portret

Around the millennium, cracks began to appear in this ideal picture, says Van Ham. “While many new democracies held elections, they also rigged the results, violated human rights, and eliminated the opposition. From 2005 onwards, this was compounded by an even more worrisome development: democracies we thought of as stable, such as Brazil, India and Hungary, and even old democracies like the US, started showing signs of decline. There were many reasons for this: growing economic inequality, increasing polarisation, but also influence from powerful authoritarian regimes with growing self-confidence and visibility on the world stage, such as China and Russia. The realisation that our own democracy also requires permanent maintenance is only now starting to sink in.”

Increasingly powerless

Democracy is also under pressure in the Netherlands. Associate Professor of Public Administration Marlies Honingh distinguishes between representative and social democracy. “The latter involves a broader concept of democracy that is crucial for legitimising public and other services, such as schools, hospitals, and housing associations. Due to factors like market forces, professionalisation and efficiency thinking, the administrative role of citizens in these processes has become weaker and more unclear. As a result, they feel less involved and represented.”

A similar process is unfolding in the representative democracy of elected bodies like the House of Representatives, says Van Ham. "Research by the Netherlands Institute for Social Research shows that people who feel dissatisfied with the functioning of democracy almost always say: I don’t feel heard. This is not surprising, since over 90% of MPs are highly educated. The question is to what extent they have any idea of the social environment of, say, a bus driver or a postman, and how this affects the quality of their policies.”

Moreover, politicians are increasingly outsourcing tasks to experts. Take the COVID-19 pandemic, or the nitrogen crisis. Honingh: “What’s more, expert opinion is presented as objective truth. But that is too simplistic and one-sided. Experts generate data, analyses and interpretations from a specific perspective. Ultimately, it is politicians who make choices. If a government doesn’t recognise this, and refuses to take political responsibility, people will feel increasingly powerless.”

Marlies Honingh portret

Important signal

This brings Van Ham to the heart of democracy. “This is what I tell my first-year Political Science students: we may not always agree, but we live in the same country and so we have to find a solution, whereby we say: I heard you, you heard me, and this is what we’re going to do. Acknowledging that you fundamentally disagree with each other and yet are still willing to come to an agreement together is the essence of democracy.”

However, this willingness seems to be on the decline. Honingh sees an important task for education here. “It is quite a complicated fact that democracy is not always harmonious and convivial, but also brings tensions. It's something you have to learn to understand. This is why we should give more thought to the content of civic education in the Netherlands. The Netherlands only started devoting attention to this after the murder of Theo van Gogh. It was a stopgap measure to counteract tensions in society. The question is whether this should be the highest goal of civic education.”

According to Van Ham, the willingness to find a solution together starts with the realisation that we are all equal and that everyone’s voice is of equal value. “Most people recognise that and have that willingness. How does this relate to the growing polarisation? Research shows that polarisation is particularly high in the media and among politicians. They magnify differences and devote a lot of attention to extreme views. Politicians especially should act as role models. When politicians engage with each other on an equal basis, they are sending an important signal.”

Dissatisfaction as an engine for change?

All these developments show that democracy is never completed and needs constant renewal. This innovation could come from dissatisfaction, for example. Van Ham: “Think of a party like the BoerBurgerBeweging, which capitalises on a group that doesn’t feel heard.” Honingh: “The question then is how emotions are transformed into political action. If it is possible to channel discontent, it can lead to democratic renewal.”

New hotspot joins strengths

Earlier this year, Carolien van Ham and Marlies Honingh joined forces with historian Wim van Meurs to launch the new Sustainable Democracy hotspot. This hotspot brings together Radboud researchers from disciplines such as history, philosophy, political science, public administration, law, economics, business administration, geography and planning. Their research covers among other things the different ideas about what democracy is and should be, the challenges facing democracy, and the opportunities for democratic renewal. Honingh: “All participants find it an incredibly relevant topic. The added value of joining forces in the hotspot is that different perspectives come together and we can do interdisciplinary research. It can be incredibly enriching.”

Text: Machiel van Zanten

Photos: Duncan de Fey