CIVICA Research Blog

Unveiling Democratic Crises: Insights from CIVICA Historians

The CIVICA collaborative research project, "DEMOS: Democracy and Its Discontents. A Historical Examination of the Current Predicament of Democracy” (2021-2023) has brought together history centres and departments from five members of the CIVICA alliance: Sciences Po (leading the project), Bocconi University, Central European University, the European University Institute, and the London School of Economics and Political Science.

In an interview with Mario del Pero, Professor of International History at Sciences Po and project coordinator, we delved into the evolution of DEMOS over the past few years.

A Glimpse into the DEMOS Project

At its core, the DEMOS project sought to investigate the formidable domestic and global challenges that democracies grapple with today, chiefly through the lens of history. The primary objective was to provide historical context to the present state of democracy. Often, contemporary discussions on democracy tend to adopt a narrow, present-focused perspective. DEMOS aimed to construct a genealogy of the contemporary democratic predicament by drawing parallels with past phases in the history of modern and contemporary democracies. The project centred around five distinct research clusters: International Relations, Globalization, Comparative Crises, Democratic Forms, and Legitimacy and Institutions. Each cluster was led by one or more Principal Investigators (PIs) from the participating institutions.

Laying the Foundations of Collaboration

The collaborative research endeavor began with a call for expressions of interest from faculty members, postdoctoral researchers, and advanced PhD researchers. Once the researchers were divided into the five research clusters mentioned earlier, a series of online seminar discussions were organized. These seminars, spanning from January to June 2022, encompassed brainstorming sessions, reading discussions centered around selected materials, and final research sessions where cluster members presented their ongoing work. The project culminated in a one-day, in-person workshop at Bocconi University on November 4, 2022. This workshop provided a platform for Prof. Andrea Colli (Bocconi) and Prof. Dina Gusejnova (LSE) to present and discuss their works in progress. The conference papers were selected through a call extended to all participants of the online seminars. The chosen papers were categorized into four thematic sessions: "Democracy, Sovereignty, and Institutional Compromises: Examples from the 17th-20th Century," "Rethinking Democracy during and after the End of the Cold War," "Democracy and the Crisis of Globalization," and "Democracy in the Age of Fracture: Contemporary Examples and Lasting Legacies." The conference concluded with a roundtable discussion featuring Dorit Geva (CEU), Federico Romero (EUI), and Sciences Po’s Provost, Sergei Guriev.

Harvesting Insights and Building Connections

The DEMOS project has yielded significant outcomes on both institutional and scientific fronts. Institutionally, by engaging historians from across the CIVICA network, DEMOS has cultivated relationships and collaborative prospects for future endeavors encompassing research, teaching, and joint doctoral supervision. The intellectual dialogue fostered by DEMOS has led to the creation of a joint CIVICA graduate course titled “The Making of the Present: A History of Globalization,” slated to be offered in the upcoming academic year (2023-24) to students from Sciences Po and Bocconi. From a scholarly standpoint, the project has proven to be a fertile ground for academic exploration. Advanced PhD researchers had the invaluable opportunity to engage with faculty members and present their research at the project's culminating conference. Throughout the project's stages – online seminars, the Milan workshop, and the final Paris conference – works in progress were scrutinized and discussed. The fundamental aim of DEMOS to contextualize today's democratic challenges within a comparative and global framework has been realized. By juxtaposing contemporary democratic crises with analogous historical circumstances, researchers were able to uncover how global dynamics often underpin challenges to established democratic norms. Presentations delved into the historical evolution of political ideologies and categories, offering insights into the complex history of populism and its resonance in recent Euro-American politics. Additionally, discussions on contemporary issues tied the woes of modern democracies to profound shifts in the global political economy, rising inequality, and the struggles of the middle class in advanced democratic societies.

In closing, DEMOS has inaugurated a scholarly discourse among historians within the CIVICA alliance, and this dialogue is set to evolve and flourish in the times to come.

photo credits: Ubaldo Bitumi