Western Democracy at the Precipice: A Panel Discussion with the DAZ

by Maya Moritz

Photo by Element5 Digital

Last month, the the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Zentrum (DAZ) in Stuttgart hosted two events in cooperation with Landeszentrale für politische Bildung Baden-Württemberg to address the contemporary threats to democracy both in Germany and abroad.

The first of these online panels occured on January 27, when a virtual panel discussion entitled “Democracy in Danger?” brought together two experts to analyze four main questions posited by moderator Dr. Martin Kilgus of ifa Akademie:

  • What are the main dangers facing western democracies today?
  • Do we have a shared understanding of the term democracy?
  • How do we deal with those with opposing visions of democracy?
  • How can we build resilience and is there such a thing as education for democracy?

Herein, we summarize the most poignant and surprising remarks given by panelists Prof. Dr. Marianne Kneuer, a scholar of comparative politics at TU Dresden, and Dr. Ted Piccone, a nonresident senior fellow at the Foreign Policy program at Brookings and the chief engagement officer at the World Justice Project.

A video of the conversation is also available here.

Country comparison of democracy index scores in 2020 and 2021, from Democracy Index 2021

Under Fire

Panelist Prof. Dr. Kneuer emphasized three concerns to describe the current state of democracy in the EU today. She worries firstly about the erosion of democracy, a worldwide danger where “legally elected leaders guided by authoritarian style and illiberal mindsets start to change the rules of the game by purposefully dismantling institutions.” She added that this can occur in ways that are difficult to discern and that the phenomenon is occurring in highly-populated nations, citing Brazil, the Philippines, Turkey, and formerly Trump’s America. She even included two EU cases: Poland and Hungary.

Prof. Dr. Kneuer also highlighted the “explosive” issue of a growing distance between citizens and the state, with citizens unable to trust the state in the way they could 10-30 years in the past. Finally, she concluded that the pandemic has had a limited direct effect on democracy thus far, with a minority of countries exploiting the situation to nudge toward authoritarianism. Her fears lie more in the indirect effects of the pandemic, which include “more distrust in the state and more polarization” which “may serve as a trigger or catalyst for more worrying developments.”

Mr. Piccone echoed these concerns in the US context. He described his transition from “generally an optimist” to more of a pessimist during the “trauma of the Trump years.” Internationally, he adds India and South Africa to Prof. Dr. Kneuer’s list of countries facing threats to their democratic systems.

To include nearly every world region on a list of areas where democracy is slipping is not an assertion exclusive to the panel. In the recent Democracy Index 2021 from the Economist Intelligence Unit, a decline in free governmental systems was logged for most countries. According to the report, more than 50% of people worldwide do not currently live in a democracy. Simultaneously, the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) reported a similarly bleak outcome this year, with 70 of the 137 developing and transitioning countries examined labeled as autocratic states rather than democracies.

It was therefore no exaggeration when Mr. Piccone asserted that the question mark in the discussion’s title, “Democracy in Danger?”, should be amended to an exclamation point.

It’s a difficult, demanding, onerous, complicated process of keeping democracy alive

Prof. Dr. Kneuer


Moderator Dr. Kilgus introduced the topic of what we mean by democracy by relating his experiencing speaking with Chinese students who insisted that China has a better-functioning democratic system than Germany. The students supported their claims by pointing to their own Parliament and the strength of a state that can better support its people in times of crisis, as evidenced by the pandemic.

In response, Prof. Dr. Kneuer outlined basic minimum standards to a democratic system, including elections and liberal values. The latter is a “thick understanding of democracy” and includes protection of individual and minority rights, strong rule of law, and checks and balances on executive powers.

Mr. Piccone agreed and added equal treatment before the law as well as laws developed through a fair and open court proceedings. He further addressed the way the term “democracy” is often misused by authoritarian governments. “Everyone wants to be seen as democratic,” he said. He singled out North Korea as a case in point, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“We are certainly living in a moment of crisis,” Mr. Piccone said. “The pandemic has hurt trust in democracy, trust in government, the basic functions of government.” These basic functions, including providing public services like courts, schools, and public health, were impeded by delays caused by a lack of “digital tools everywhere to manage that relationship.”

“We were already in crisis before the pandemic hit and things have gotten worse,” said Mr. Piccone.

Prof. Dr. Kneuer, ostensibly to add some “pepper” to the conversation, took issue with the idea of a democratic crisis. “The take-away from the history of democracy and great thinkers is that… democracy had never not been in crisis…. It’s a difficult, demanding, onerous, complicated process of keeping democracy alive because it needs so many prerequisites… so I’m reluctant to use the word crisis.”

Evolution of democracy by category over time, from Democracy Index 2021

Wild, Wild Tech

If Mr. Piccone is right and we find ourselves in the midst of a crisis of democracy, the most likely driver may be polarization. “Why have we entered crisis? Levels of polarization are so extreme that it’s becoming harder to identify a path out of this situation,” he opined. “We’re seeing more rigidity in people’s ability to walk back to common ground, in how people are choosing to live, in which neighborhoods, in what products they buy, in their identity, in their self-branding.”

He pointed to research by Jennifer McCoy identifying that the depolarization of polarized societies becomes more difficult with higher degrees of separation, an omen of probable continuing turmoil in threatened democracies.

According to Mr. Piccone, the main culprit for the current state of polarization is tech. “Social media and digital tech turbo-charged [polarization]… their ad revenue rises with the more extreme, so they’re calling attention to the negative, the nay-sayers, and violence. It’s harder to find an info source that people trust, so we’re losing control of common experience and common ground to resolve differences peacefully.”

He described the promise of new technology as a vehicle for more equality as a failure, with women facing harassment online and “more exclusion than inclusion.” On the other hand, he ceded that additional channels for democratic behavior had been opened by some digital tools on the local level, such as digital political participation.

One reason for such a negative effect of technology is the legal landscape surrounding it. “The Internet is like the Wild West,” Mr. Piccone said. “It’s time for regulation.”

The threatened elite white Christian community here is shrinking, feels threatened, and is punching back.

Ted Piccone

Not-So-Simple Solutions

Two main solutions to address these vital threats to democracy were proposed during the discussion: limiting freedoms that enable people to attack democratic institutions or improving civic education.

The first proposal met with trepidation from all involved. Prof. Dr. Kneuer argued that Germany’s system is “working a bit better” than the US in terms of the rule of law and that she would fear for repercussions in deficient democracies. “My hunch would be that this is not going to remain a single event. I would expect that this becomes a feature of our society that we have this minority in Germany of 10% of the population which is not on a democratic liberal pluralist consensus, but anti-state, anti-democratic, anti-liberal, and anti-pluralist.”

Mr. Piccone, recalling the fatal events of January 6 during which protesters violently entered the Capitol, was more forceful in his prescription. “There need to be boundaries with hate speech and violent behavior on the left or the right. There’s a more sophisticated and deliberate civic education system in Germany, not in the US. You learn US history as a child but even that’s so controversial that we can’t even get the basic story right, which is another reason why democracy is in danger in this country.”

While answering follow-up questions on the state of civic education in the US, Mr. Piccone elaborated, “We need more ‘small d’ democrats. It starts at a young age but must be reinforced.” He pointed to the current problem of school board elections, which allows parents to restrict the curriculum in local schools.

“The threatened elite white Christian community here is shrinking, feels threatened, and is punching back,” he said.

Amidst a flurry of student questions on the cause of polarization and the need for education, Mr. Piccone and Prof. Dr. Kneuer rounded out a fascinating discussion of the threats to international democracy. The DAZ routinely hosts events on politics and trans-Atlantic relations. More information and an event calendar can be found on their website.