The Weatherhead Research Cluster on Challenges to Democracy focuses on the different and similar threats to democracy faced by nations around the world. Our aim is to foster conversation between scholars of developing and established democracies, including America, Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Formerly known as the Weatherhead Research Cluster on Global Populism, the Challenges to Democracy cluster has broadened its mission under the leadership of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.
Beginning with the so-called “third wave” of democratization, and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many analysts and policymakers believed that authoritarianism was on the wane and that democracy had become, as the phrase commonly went in the 1990s, “the only game in town.” That era of self-confidence has passed. Not only is authoritarianism alive and well in China, Russia, central Asia, and much of the Middle East, but democratic breakdown in Thailand and Venezuela and democratic backsliding in countries like Ecuador, Hungary, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Poland, and Turkey has triggered debates over whether we have entered a period of global democratic recession. With the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the rise of populist, Eurosceptic, and anti-immigrant forces in Europe, some observers have begun to worry that even the world’s most established democracies may be at risk. We are faced, then, with one of the most pressing issues of our time: can liberal democracy around the world survive?
Our goal is to facilitate a more systematic conversation among Harvard faculty of different disciplines and schools. Our programming is built around monthly panels of diverse guests to address broad issues that currently sit at the forefront of concern for democracy scholars. To create a multigenerational community we also host an undergraduate study group and a graduate student advisory group to encourage students to pursue the study of challenges to democracy. Ultimately, we plan to disseminate the knowledge and ideas that emerge out of the cluster’s activities to the broader public and to policy makers.
While some partisan polarization is healthy for democracy, one of the key drivers of democratic decay in new and established democracies is intense polarization, where political opponents begin to regard each other as existential enemies, allowing incumbents to justify abuses of democratic system rules and norms.
The Weatherhead Research Cluster on Challenges to Democracy is chaired by Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.