Past Program

Sep 14 - Sep 17, 2018 Fellow 66

Doubling Down on Democracy: How to Deal with Existential Threats to Rule of, by and for the People


Faith in liberal democracy has been shaken by the rise of populism in the United States and across Europe, and commentators have pointed to increased inequality and a breakdown of democratic knowledge as causes.  This meeting will explore how these two trends have converged and identify some of the ways the resilience of liberal democracy might be restored.

On the one hand, democracies are increasingly unequal. Not only is there gross inequality of money but of influence. Economic inequality, as Piketty and others argue, is generating a feedback loop, through which greater inequality leads to the rich wielding increasing political influence, which then worsens inequality.

On the other, the basic structures of democratic knowledge are under attack. Democracies work on the assumption that citizens disagree, but that they share a roughly similar understanding of the world they confront. That assumption is looking increasingly questionable in many major democracies. This is in part because of processes generated from within those democracies themselves, and in part because of new technologies with social media where algorithms select on ‘engagement’. Politicians, interest groups and media businesses have self-centered reasons to create fragmented publics, who may respectively vote for them, push for their causes, or increase their viewership. 

Many people are looking at both of these questions – but largely in isolation from each other.  Any effective response will depend on understanding the interaction of these different lines of argument before it is too late. There are good reasons to believe that things are going to get worse before they get better. New techniques such as ‘generative adversarial networks’ can generate realistic seeming video and audio footage, radicalizing the ‘fake news’ problem, and making it much easier to break up democratic publics and make the space of public debate an unworkable morass, where no-one knows what is true any more. Winner-take-all politics can readily take advantage of these techniques, to make democratic restraints unworkable, and further increase inequality. 

“Doubling down on democracy” will take as its starting point the existential threats to democracy, focus on their consequences and how they intersect with each other, and explore what new models and methods we can use to extend and deepen democratic self-rule in a world where winner-takes-all and democratic fragmentation are creating a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

Key Questions

  1. What impact might increasing inequality have on democratic knowledge?
  2. How might communications technologies further entrench inequalities of power in democracies?

  3. How can those who wish to double down on democracy – concerned citizens, civil society organizations, political parties and others – respond to this?

Location and Contact Info

The program will be organized in partnership with the 21st Century Trust. It will be held in Château Klingenthal, nr. Strasbourg, France, thanks to our hosts from the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Foundation.

For information on the Session please contact the Program Director John Lotherington.