Germany, the US, and the Future of Democracy

A virtual event series

Increasing mistrust in democratic institutions and an uptick in populism on both sides of the Atlantic: What are the causes for this worrying trend? The three-part-series, hosted in cooperation with the World Affairs Councils of America, the American Council on Germany, and Wunderbar Together, sought to analyze these questions. Experts discussed democracy in Europe and the United States, analyzed the threats to democracies and how these threats can be mitigated. An emphasis was put on how European countries and the U.S. can collaborate to solve these pressing issues.

“Saving Democracy: Reinventing Institutions & Practices for the 21st Century”


On July 12, 2021, Dr. Jan-Werner Müller, Professor of Politics at Princeton University, discussed his new book, “Democracy Rules,” which suggests that we need to re-invigorate the intermediary institutions that have been deemed essential for democracy’s success: political parties and free media. World Affairs Councils of America President and CEO Bill Clifford moderated the conversation.

Democracy is under attack. Rising populism, waning trust, and a period of unprecedented uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have strained democratic institutions. What can be done to reinvigorate the intermediary institutions that have been considered essential for democracy’s success since the nineteenth century: political parties and free media?

According to Dr. Müller, there is reason to be optimistic; the wide spread discontent with the current state of democracy, apparent from numerous surveys, is not necessarily dangerous or a rebuke of democratic ideals. Instead, it could be seen as a healthy sign of democracy in action and as a response to increasing polarization. Dr. Müller stressed that deep levels of polarization – as they can be currently observed in the US, for example – are not inevitable. Polarization, he argues, is an outcome of political processes, and can also be reversed by it.

Dr. Müller also stressed that rightwing populists are learning from each other, adapting successful strategies, and “refin(ing) right-wing populist authoritarian governance”.

“Democracies in Distress: Europe and the US”

On July 13, 2021, Anne Applebaum, Staff Writer at The Atlantic, spoke with Dr. David Deißner, Executive Director at Atlantik-Brücke, about the current state of democracy, both in the United States and in Europe.

In recent years, public opinion surveys have indicated a rising level of distrust in democratic institutions and practices on both sides of the Atlantic. Populist movements have gained support and political divisions have deepened in many countries, making political compromise and normal democratic governance increasingly difficult. The discussion tried to give answers as to what causes these trends and what can be done to address them.

Applebaum highlighted that there is no monocausal explanation for these trends. However, as she argues in her recently published book, a part of this change can be traced to intellectuals and journalists of the 1990s, who could be described as center right at the time, but have since transformed into populists or nationalists. Applebaum argued that the danger lies in their quest to undermine the institutions of democracy.

Among this movement, she noted, there seems to be a “unifying theme of disappointment” and a “strong element of nostalgia,” either for an imagined or real past, as well as a deep disappointment with the present and a dislike of rapid societal change. Many are disillusioned by social, demographic, and political change, they feel that something drastic needs to be done to get the country back to how it used to be. However, there is also often a component of personal disappointment and many saw a personal opportunity in the ascend of the far right.

„Understanding the Rise of lliberal Politics in Europe and the U.S. – And What to Do About It“

On July 13th, 2021, Dr. Daniel Ziblatt, Eaton Professor of Government at Harvard University and Director of the Transformations of Democracy Group at the WZB Social Science Center Berlin, spoke with the moderator of the discussion, Paulina Fröhlich, Head of the Future Democracy Programme, Das Progressive Zentrum, about the rise of illiberal politics in the Western world and what can be done to reverse the trend.

The decline of established political parties, media, and interest groups has opened the door to anti-democratic forces, posing new challenges for our democracies. Europe’s establishment parties are faltering and the rise of social media poses new challenges on both sides of the Atlantic. What can be done to rebuild confidence and to increase citizen engagement to improve the effectiveness of our democracies?

According to Ziblatt, at the core of today’s issues lies the fact that “the establishment’s gatekeeping power has eroded dramatically.” Ziblatt’s main argument is that the crisis of democracy can be traced to the weakening of the political establishment – namely political parties, interest groups, and media outlets – in many countries. The establishment’s control over resources has been dwindling, which has made politicians more responsive to popular demands, but, at the same time, has also given rise to dangerous populists.

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