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Conference "Political Violence and Democratic Backsliding" 

Conference "Political Violence and Democratic Backsliding" on October 6 and 7, 2022 at the WZB, organized by the Transformations of Democracy Unit.

Conference report published in WZB Mitteilungen (issue 178, December 2022)

English translation of the report:

Conference Report
Political Violence and Democracy

by Nikolina Klatt, Sebastian Hellmeier and Daniel Ziblatt

Conference "Political Violence and Democratic Backsliding" on October 6 and 7, 2022 at the WZB, organized by the Department Transformations of Democracy 

Liberal democracy is under pressure. The U.S. think tank Freedom House recorded a global decline in civil liberties for the 16th consecutive year in 2021, and according to the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute at the University of Gothenburg, one-third of the world's population currently lives in countries where democracy is losing quality (research refers to "democratic backsliding"). However, less attention is paid to a concurrent development: the increase in political violence. Events such as the assassination of the British MP Jo Cox and the German politician Walter Lübcke or the increasing tensions between Muslims and Hindus in India show that this trend also affects established democracies. 

This simultaneity was the reason for the conference "Political Violence and Democratic Backsliding", which brought together researchers from Germany, Europe, and the USA. The conference asked to what extent violence endangers democratic governance and whether backsliding opens up spaces for violence. 

The conference was opened by Nils-Christian Bormann (Witten/Herdecke University) in the panel on political violence in interwar Europe. In his presentation on his ERC research project "Democracy, Anger and Elite Responses" (DANGER), he explored, among other things, the extent to which violence can be the trigger of deconsolidation processes in democracies. The presentation by Ursula Daxecker and Neeraj Prasad from the University of Amsterdam provided a look at the current situation in South Asia. They explored the conditions under which voters tolerate or disapprove of political violence in democracies. They argued that parties instrumentalize violence to mobilize voters and present it as a necessary response to existing injustices. Their experimental study of the 2022 elections in Uttar Pradesh identified support for divisive rhetoric and violence as fundamental threats to democracy. 

On the second day, Tore Wig (University of Oslo) presented his research on the extent to which political elites are willing to uphold democratic rules of the game, such as nonviolence. Among other things, he examined whether political elites in Norway sanction norm violations by other politicians. Lilliana Mason (Johns Hopkins University) focused on the U.S. and found increasing support for violence against opponents in the two-party system. A notable finding of her study was that over 10 percent of voters see political violence as a legitimate means of achieving political goals. A comparison was drawn between the U.S. in the Jim Crow era and Democratic backsliding in India under Narendra Modi by Ashutosh Varshney and Connor Staggs (both Brown University). A common feature of both cases is that a majority rule legitimized by elections is used to create a set of laws and practices designed to disenfranchise minorities, expose them to violence, or force them into segregation. 

The final discussion focused on the role of different actors (state versus non-state) in preventing or promoting violence, different forms of violence (physical versus symbolic), and perceptions as well as representations of violence. In addition to noting that violence and backsliding can reinforce each other, there was also discussion about the extent to which violence can lead to greater democracy when used by pro-democracy movements.

Konferenz „Political Violence and Democratic Backsliding“

Workshop “The Rise of Grassroots Radicalism and its Political Effects”

On Friday, November 5, 2021, the Research Unit Transformations of Democracy hosted an in-person workshop on“The Rise of Grassroots Radicalism and its Political Effects”. Organized by Sebastian Hellmeier and Daniel Bischof the unit welcomed scholars from various German and European universities and research institutes.

The first panel included presentations on media reporting of terrorist attacks (Teresa Völker) and civil society coalitions against right-wing populist movements (Larissa Meier and Jan Matti Dollbaum). The second panel looked at the effects of radical right-wing marches on political behavior (Daniel Bischof) and the AfD's "Junge Alternative" (Anna-Sophie Heinze). Right-wing protests and migration (Enzo Brox and Tommy Krieger) and regional radicalization in Germany (Sophia Hunger,Swen HutterEylem Kanol, and Daniel Felipe Saldivia Gonzatti) were the focus of the third panel. The workshop concluded with insights into the effects of protests on spectators (Violeta Haas and Tim Wappenhans) and on the propensity of violence (Sebastian Hellmeier).

The unit thanks all participants for sharing findings from their research, a great discussion, and inspirations for further research.

TD Workshop Grassroots Radicalism

Seminar Series: Democracy – Past, Present, and Future

Chairs: Grzegorz Ekiert, Harvard University; Daniel Ziblatt, WZB

This seminar series explores the past, present, and future of democracy – its institutions and norms – and some chronic dilemmas in the practice of democracy. It convenes important thinkers in Europe and North America to explore what makes democracies work and the challenges they currently face. The series will also serve as a forum for discussion of work in progress and forthcoming books and papers contributing to debates on democracy

Session 4: Authoritarianism From Above and Below in East Central Europe

December 2, 2021

Kim Lane Scheppele Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Sociology and International Affairs, Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and the University Center for Human Values, Princeton University
Grzegorz Ekiert Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Government, Harvard University; Director, Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, Harvard University

Authoritarianism From Above and Below in East Central Europe
Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies

Session 3: Democracy Without a Majority?

Friday, 29 October, 2021, 7.30 pm CEST

This seminar will focus on Michael Koß's new book, Demokratie Ohne Mehrheit? (“Democracy Without a Majority?”) which received widespread media attention in Germany because of its provocative argument that the era of mass parties – the bulwarks of postwar democracy – may be over. How can democracy survive if its primary carriers are disintegrating? Koß makes the case that the end of the Cold War has precariously returned central European politics to the fractious roots that existed before WWII. The discussion has special relevance as negotiations are underway in the Federal Republic of Germany to create a three-party government coalition – a historic first.

Michael Koß, Professor for the Political System of Germany and the EU, Leuphana University Lüneburg
Thomas Zittel, Professor for Comparative Politics, Goethe University; External Fellow at the Mannheim Centre for European Social Research (MZES), University of Mannheim; Max Weber Chair in German and European Studies, NYU

Democracy Without a Majority?
Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, Harvard University

Session 2: Populism after Trump

Thursday, March 4, 2021, 6.30 pm

Does the defeat of Donald Trump in the 2020 election signal the end of populism globally? While some populist leaders, such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, felt emboldened by Trump's presidency, other populist and right-wing movements, including those in France and Germany, were independent of his leadership and remain largely unaffected by his defeat. This seminar will explore the future of populism in Europe, Latin America, and the United States and assess if their fortunes will wax or wane.

Anne Applebaum - Senior Fellow of International Affairs and Agora Fellow in Residence, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)
Steven Levitsky - Professor of Government, Harvard University
Daniel Ziblatt - Eaton Professor of the Science of Government, Harvard University; CES Resident Faculty & Seminar Co-chair, Harvard University; Unit Director, Transformations of Democracy, Berlin Social Science Center (WZB)
Grzegorz Ekiert - Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Government, Harvard University; Director, Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, Harvard University

Populism after Trump
Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies

Session 1: "The State of Democracy and Future Research"

Thursday, 19 November 2020

Sheri Berman – Professor of Political Science, Barnard College, Columbia University
Wolfgang Merkel – Professor Emeritus, Berlin Social Science Center (WZB)
Yascha Mounk – Senior Fellow, SNF Agora Institute, Johns Hopkins University
Pippa Norris – Paul F. McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics & CES Faculty Associate, Harvard University
Grzegorz Ekiert – Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Government & CES Director, Harvard University
Daniel Ziblatt – Director, "Transformations of Democracy" Berlin Social Science Center (WZB) and Professor at Harvard University

The State of Democracy and Future Research
Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies