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Beyond Militant Democracy: Popularizing the Defense of Democracy in Times of Populism

Carlsbergfondets internationaliseringsstipendier

What

The most urgent threat to democracy does not stem from anti-democratic movements seeking to subvert democracy through revolution. Instead, democracies are threatened by the gradual erosion of democratic institutions by elected semi-authoritarian leaders, who enjoy the legitimacy of the electoral process. According to one strategy - known as 'militant democracy' - democracies ought not to tolerate political movements using the electoral process to subdue democracy, and instead need to actively combat authoritarianism. This project criticizes 'militant democracy' for its elitist underpinnings, and develops an alternative understanding of democratic 'self-defense' in which the responsibility of combatting emerging authoritarian threats is democratized and brought into the hands of the demos.

Why

The importance of this project lies in its ambition to develop alternative, more democratic, mechanisms of 'self-defense'. In the context of contemporary populism, militant democracy has received criticism for its elitist underpinnings, and militant democracy might not be the most efficient response, as populists are elected to power by condemning the political elites for their exclusionary policies. Hence, a militant democratic strategy, whereby political elites exclude certain popular demands might amplify the populists' agenda. In order to combat populism and authoritarianism, the project argues, novel versions of democratic 'self-defense', which emphasize the people and not the elites, need to be developed if liberal democracy is to survive.

How

The research is conducted at the Department of Government, Uppsala University, which political theory group provides an excellent environment for the project. The project consists of three subjects. Subproject 1 is diagnostic, and investigates to which extent contemporary populism is a challenge to liberal democracy. Subproject 2 is historical, and investigates how historical communities have defended themselves against usurpers, oligarchs and tyrants. Finally, subproject 3 is theoretical, and develops a theory of 'popular self-defense' in contrast to the 'elitist self-defense' of militant democracy. The methodology combines intellectual history and political theory and ensures that the theoretical evaluations will be well founded on historical, theoretical and empirical knowledge.

SSR

The importance of this research to society lies in its ambition to conceptualize novel ways in which democracies can defend themselves and combat authoritarian threats. If liberal democracy is to survive its present crisis, the project argues, it is important to begin the conversation on how to re-vitalize its fundamental norms and values as well as re-structure its vital institutions. This project is an attempt to do so in relation to one crucial component of liberal democracy, namely its mode of responding and combatting political enemies. I consider such research valuable for the wider public, fellow scholars as well as for state agencies.