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Challenges to Democratic Representation

Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research /AISSR
Challenges to Democratic Representation

Five developments are particularly relevant for our research agenda. The first is ‘democratic backsliding’, particularly in countries like Turkey, Hungary and Venezuela where elected leaders redesign institutional checks and balances to consolidate their power and insulate it from popular control. The role of courts, opposition parties, as well as the media are more and more limited, and elections become increasingly unfair. Second, traditional mainstream parties, particularly social democratic and Christian democratic parties, are losing ground to new challengers. Populist parties at both ends of the ideological spectrum have become new key players in several countries. While such shifts are part and parcel of electoral democracy, it does pose challenges to stable governance. Third,  as a result of individualisation, group representation is becoming more complex than before. Fourth, the weakening of sovereign powers of national states. Fifth, mass migration changes the ethnic makeup of populations leading to a variety of tensions between groups of citizens and parties.

Challenges is a diverse group of around 20 faculty members and about as many postdocs and PhD students. The group is highly pluralist in terms of its methodological and paradigmatic approaches. Research is centred around, but not limited to, three broad themes:

  • Inequalities

    Political equality is the cornerstone of a democracy. Yet, structural inequalities are omnipresent in democratic institutions and processes. Such inequalities foster the political power of some groups and individuals, while excluding others. How do positions such as gender, social class, race, ethnicity, citizenship and sexuality influence access to political power? How are structural political inequalities addressed by political parties and politicians on the one hand and by extra parliamentary actors on the other? How do inequalities influence political trust and participation? 

  • Legitimacy

    The promise of liberal democracy rests on the idea of legitimating power by expressing the will or reflecting the values of citizens in an egalitarian way, while at the same time limiting the power of elected representatives to avoid power abuse. Alternative models of democracy have been proposed. Populism offers a radical alternative to the liberal model of democracy, arguing that it is more responsive to the will of the majority. Deliberative democracy is supposed to increase the legitimacy of and support for policy decisions. We study the normative commitments and institutional designs that supposedly strengthen democratic responsiveness, as well as the empirical consequences of different institutional designs.

  • Polarization

    Polarization is a pressing problem in modern-day democracies. In recent decades parties with extreme ideologies and rhetoric have scored remarkable electoral victories. Citizens seem to be more divided than before over policy and report deeper resentment against outgroups. Differences between people of different political, social, religious and ethnic backgrounds and even age cohorts have become increasingly politicized. What explains these divisions? And what is the social, cognitive or emotional nature of these divisions? Why are parties with extreme ideologies and rhetoric more successful now than in the past? And does their success influence mainstream parties? In sum, how sustainable is democracy as we know it under the growing pressures of societal polarization?

Our projects 

  • Critical Trust

    Paradoxically, representative democracy requires not only citizens’ trust in the institutions of democracy, but also a healthy dose of political scepticism towards these institutions. Scholars have warned against the detrimental effects of blind trust and blind distrust. The former would make citizens susceptible to manipulation, the latter to alienation. By contrast, (dis)trust that is not blind but evaluative stimulates vigilant civic engagement. While blind (dis)trust would lead to an anomic democracy, evaluative (dis)trust would stimulate democratic reinvigoration and accountability.

    We should therefore not merely distinguish between political trust and distrust, but also between dispositional/blind and evaluative (dis)trust.

    However, empirical studies of political trust focus almost exclusively on the level of trust. The standard political trust survey items cannot distinguish blind (dis)trust from evaluative (dis)trust. This vast lacuna at the heart of political trust research left the major questions in the field unanswered: on the trends, causes, and consequences of political trust.

    CRITICALTRUST addresses this fundamental problem. It first develops a novel, two-dimensional model of political (dis)trust, and creates new measures that distinguish blind from evaluative (dis)trust. This model and these measures will be the foundation for primary data collection (large-N survey + experiments). The survey is designed as a three-wave, cross-national panel survey in 8 European countries: Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Both the survey’s panel element and the experiments allow us to systematically test causal effects that have long been proposed in the literature.

    CRITICALTRUST thereby answers questions that plagued political trust research for decades. It will offer diagnoses of the risks of low and declining trust, and advice to democratic actors whether and how to stimulate political trust.

    Funded by the EU in the ERC Consolidator Grant program


    Prof. dr. T.W.G. (Tom) van der Meer

    Project leader

  • Reintegrate on Reintegration Governance

    Increasing numbers of people are returning to their origin countries after they migrate. This can be voluntary return or a forced removal through deportation. Upon return, how is their reintegration process governed? Do different forms of reintegration governance matter for returnees experiences and outcomes? The Reintegrate project will develop the sub-field of reintegration governance by combining the existing fields of migration governance and return migration studies. The team will develop a database of reintegration governance in states globally, develop a theoretical framework for understanding reintegration governance and test this framework in four countries with original data collection in Ethiopia, Morocco, Nepal and Serbia. The results of the project will provide valuable insights for academia, government and society in international relations and global migration governance.

    The project started per July 2021 and will run for 5 years.

    Funded by the ERC Starting Grant

    Dr. K.A. (Katie) Kuschminder

    Project leader

  • Misrepresenting diversity? Identity in politics

    Ideal democracies should accommodate the citizenry’s full diversity. This especially matters for structurally underrepresented persons, such as ethnic minorities with a migration background. But how do minority politicians and citizens themselves believe personal identities should be represented in politics? Do their expectations and assessments of representation diverge or overlap?

    Fundede by NWO Vidi

    Dr L.M. (Liza) Mügge

    Project leader

  • Generational differences in determinants of party choice

    We investigate generational differences in determinants of party choice. We expect that 'new political issues', such as migration and global warming, have the greatest impact on vote choices of young generations. Among other things, this explains why young people are overrepresented among the supporters of Green and Radical right parties.

    Funded by NWO Open Competition 

    Prof. dr. W. (Wouter) van der Brug

    Project leader

  • A new normative framework for financial debt

    Society is drowning in financial debts. But it is unclear how to deal with debt morally when it cannot be repaid or causes harmful side effects. This project develops practical, normative guidelines that help policymakers, creditors, and debtors to regulate and manage debt.

    Funded by NWO Open Competition 

    Prof. E.S. (Eric) Schliesser

    Project leader

  • ‘Strange’ families reunified? 

    Which families belong in Europe? The right to family migration is highly contested for families which deviate from the norm, such as same-sex or polygamous families. Saskia Bonjour’s project will analyse how migration law and politics deal with different kinds of families asking to be allowed to live together in Europe.  

    Funded by NWO Vidi

    Dr. S.A. (Saskia) Bonjour

    Project leader

Programme group leaders

Dr. E. (Enzo) Rossi

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group: Challenges to Democratic Representation

Dr. G. (Gijs) Schumacher

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group: Challenges to Democratic Representation

Dr. A.J. (Anja) van Heelsum

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group: Challenges to Democratic Representation

Programme group staff