What is the best way to start thinking about how democracy might flourish in the future? This week the Bennett Institute is launching The Centre for the Future of Democracy to help better understand the historical and structural conditions of democratic politics, and its potential future.
Democracy – as an idea and practice – generates a lot of heat. The news cycle is filled with reminders of the dangers apparently bearing down on democratic politics – low voter turnout, media bias, populism, the rhetorical or practical subversion of democratic norms and institutions.
These are important subjects, which understandably attract media and academic attention. Yet our preoccupation with the present ‘democratic moment’ – our suspicion or fear that democracy in the early 21st century is experiencing an acute and possibly existential crisis – has focused excessive attention on the here and now.
These suspicions and fears may be justified. Or they may not. But the only way to find out – and the best way to start thinking about how democracy might flourish in the future – is to understand the long term, structural conditions that give rise to democratic life; its institutions and practices, successes and failures.
This is what the Centre for the Future of Democracy intends to do.
Rather than getting preoccupied with the (admittedly compelling) present – this politician or that parliament, this piece of legislation or that electoral battle – we will focus on the underlying issues. How are decisions made? By what mechanisms is legitimacy generated? What are the causes and consequences of social division, or the grounds for public satisfaction with politics? How have the answers to these questions altered over time, or been answered differently in different places? And how do democratic institutions themselves change?
To tackle these issues, the Centre will draw on a wealth of relevant expertise in Cambridge – from environmental and computer science, to history and philosophy and education studies. And we will engage beyond the university and outside academia in general. Already, we have working relationships with a number of think tanks, schools, local councils and media outlets.
Our current research streams, and forthcoming launch events, reflect these interests and partnerships. We are running a project on deliberative democracy and climate change, exploring the necessary intersection between radical climate science and democratic legitimation. We are analysing two increasingly significant social divides – age and education – and asking how they might be bridged. And we are compiling and dissecting data on the performance legitimacy of democracies across the globe. We will also be working with CRASSH to investigate the power of big tech in the age of surveillance capitalism and to explore the possibilities of reasserting democratic control.
The Centre launches at two public events early this year – on 29 January and 12 February. At the first, Dr Roberto Foa will unveil and discuss a report – based on a dataset of over four million survey responses collective over the past half century from countries around the globe – on present day and historical attitudes to democracy. At the second, the writer, academic, politician, and current head of the Central European University Michael Ignatieff will talk to Prof David Runciman (creator of Talking Politics) about his life in politics and his hopes and fears for the future of democracy. Both events will spotlight the Centre’s aim to look beyond the vagaries of contemporary politics, to the structural, long term conditions that affect democratic change.
As part of a university-wide effort to get to grips with the challenges of the 21st century, the Centre will be on hand to offer context and perspective to anyone – the public, policymakers, academics – interested in the fate of this protean, and increasingly polarising, political phenomenon.