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

Name of applicant

Benjamin Ask Popp-Madsen


DKK 437,500



Type of grant

Internationalisation Fellowships


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.


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.


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.

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