Faculty of Social & Historical Sciences


In case you missed it - 'Democracy: Past, Present and Future'

18 March 2024

Experts from UCL Social & Historical Sciences came together for our inaugural event delving into the pressing issues of this historic election year. Our first discussion explored the dynamics of power, the integrity of democracy and building democratic health into the future.

Graphic with text saying 'Democracy: Past, Present and Future'


Our student blogger, Antara Basu, is a final-year Politics and International Relations BSc student. Read on for her insights:

Democracy is often a buzzword, but it raises the question: What defines a robust democratic system in the broader global political landscape? With 2024 marking a pivotal election year, and over 40% of the global population heading to the polls, UCL Social & Historical Sciences inaugurated a seminar series on March 6, commencing with the first session on Democracy: Past, Present and Future. Chaired by Dr Nick Witham, the panel brought together experts from across the Faculty - Dr Borja Legarra, Dr Thomas Gift, and Dr Nadia Hilliard - each presenting past, present and future perspectives on democracy drawing from their insights from different academic disciplines. 

Using the 2024 US Presidential Elections as a focal point, Dr Legarra started off the discussion with an exploration of historical power dynamics. Akin to mass advertisement, the American system resembles a product that political elites are pushing both at home and abroad, as the overarching model which works best. But we must question why the current system, with all its flaws, is lauded as the best. In today’s world, can the sustainability of the neoliberal American democracy be called into question? An examination of trends within electoral politics, and political interactions reveals significant power dynamics, including the influence of the super-rich and super PACs (Political Action Committees) on political decision-making. Moreover, globalisation has shifted decision-making power further away from the masses. Democracy is complex and often leads to decisions being made over people instead of with them. A resilient democratic framework should be able to cultivate a sense of empowerment, where people feel their voices are heard, their opinions matter, and they have the power to effect change. In this regard, the American system can be viewed as diminishing democratic values, especially in its tendency to strip power from the ordinary citizen, and smaller institutions. 

The belief that American democracy is in decline has intensified following Donald Trump’s presidential term. His disregard for democratic institutions and the subsequent Capitol riots which attempted to subvert political institutions have had a deep and divisive impact on political discourse. There is undeniable turmoil in America, with Washington growing increasingly divided. These divisions stem from factors such as legislative redistricting, low-turnout primaries, heightened out-of-state funding, and abrupt power swings in Congress. However, Dr Gift offers four compelling reasons to challenge the notion that American democracy is on the brink of an existential threat. Firstly, academic literature surprisingly does not highlight a substantial difference in polarization within the electorate, with the percentage of Americans aligned with the political centre relatively stable since the 1970s. Secondly, democratic institutions often likened to ‘democratic antibodies’ are functioning as they should. Following the attacks on American democracy, they have mobilised, and become active as witnessed by the judicial and legislative responses to the Capitol riots. This resilience underscores how these institutions may be bent, but they are not broken. Thirdly, the perception of support for political violence is often overstated, and finally, it is noted that richer democracies like the United States tend to be relatively more durable, and resolute. This prompts the question: if American democracy at its core is capable of withstanding autocratic attacks, why the significant focus on democratic backsliding? 

Modern society is plagued by crises such as the climate crisis, global inequalities, and rapid technological advancements all of which inevitably impact the future of democracy. Dr Hilliard's perspective emphasizing fraternity and bureaucracy, adds depth to this discussion. Fraternity—defined as the sense of trust and solidarity that people expect and extend to equals—is often overlooked in discussions about democracy, but should ideally precede considerations of liberty and equality. The predominant fabric of society, whether individualistic or community-focused plays a significant role in strengthening solidarity between its people and its institutions. An individualistic culture exacerbates polarization and inequality, whereas a community-focused culture tends to promote the opposite. Therefore, there is a compelling argument for cultivating more fraternal institutions. Bureaucracy—defined as rules which govern private and public institutions and the tendency to transform problems into quantifiable metrics—creates a dissonance between its impersonal nature and the need for human connection. This disconnect results in a diverse population losing faith in common institutions, and a decline in grassroots communities like volunteer organizations and neighbourhood clubs. These communities historically nurtured a personal sense of fraternity that could be mirrored at the national level. There is a pressing need to rebuild civic institutions while ensuring political accountability. This approach can help bridge the gap between bureaucracy and human connection, fostering a renewed sense of fraternity essential for a robust and inclusive democracy. 

Democracy is a cherished ideal that we deeply value and aspire to uphold, but we must question what truly makes for a good democracy. As we navigate its complexities, it becomes increasingly evident that we must evolve and question what it truly means to be democratic. This involves critically examining how institutions function, reducing inequalities, and active political participation. Democratic strength lies in our collective commitment to creating a more inclusive, equitable, and just society.

Watch the recording

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Meet the speakers 

About the series

Subsequent events in the series will unpack diverse topics including gender and sexuality, climate change, global migration and urban studies, and media and populism. The series will culminate with a reflection session in November, examining these themes in light of the election outcome.