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Scholars examine forces strengthening, threatening democracies


Peter Nardulli
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Peter Nardulli

Jeff Unger, News Bureau

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — At the dawn of the 21st century, democracy as a form of government was ascendant. The wealthiest nations were democracies, and democratization was well under way in southern and eastern Europe, and in Latin America.

And yet …

It is the “and yet …” – the very real challenges that confront and even threaten the permanence and expansion of democracy – that is the subject of a new book of essays by nine scholars from a variety of disciplines, including political science, communications and law.

“Domestic Perspectives on Contemporary Democracy,” published this month by the University of Illinois Press, grew out of a 2004 conference celebrating the 100th anniversary of the political science department at Illinois and the creation of the Cline Center for Democracy on the U. of I. campus. The scholars prepared essays for the event and have since revised them for inclusion in the new collection.

Democracy, U. of I. political science professor Peter Nardulli writes, is confronted by “the increasing racial, ethnic, and religious diversity of many contemporary societies; the rapid diffusion of innovations in information and communication technologies; and the emergence of global forces and institutions.” These challenges could threaten democracy in a variety of ways, including affecting the ability of people to discharge the responsibilities of democratic citizenship, and limiting the legitimacy of traditional conceptions of democratic institutions in non-Western settings, says Nardulli, the editor of the book.

The essays focus on the difficulties that democracies face as a result of ever-increasing social heterogeneity and technological advances in communication and information processing.

Social heterogeneity is a factor in establishing democracies and in the operation of existing ones, Nardulli and U. of I. political science professor Brian J. Gaines write in the book’s opening chapter. Resolving these issues always is hard, especially if a society is multi-ethnic.

Technological advances in communication and information processing, while seemingly positive developments, give private entities “unprecedented capacities to assemble massive data banks,” Nardulli and Gaines say. Technology also makes it easy for the gatherers of this data to distribute it without consent and without the knowledge of the provider to third parties, including governments.

“Will these technologies be used to empower ordinary citizens?” Nardulli and Gaines ask. “Or will elites use them to manipulate mass attitudes and behavior?”

Many other issues are examined in subsequent chapters.

Jack Snyder, for example, takes a look at democratic transitions and how difficult they can be in multiethnic societies. A professor of international relations at Columbia University, Snyder discusses how some elites in these societies intend to integrate diverse groups to advance the democratization process, while other elites are more interested in promoting their own or other groups’ interests.

Mark Q. Sawyer, a professor of African American studies and political science at the University of California at Los Angeles, examines the advantages social diversity can bring to democratic governance. He says what he calls “contentious pluralism” adds vitality to democratic processes.

“His discussion underscores the point that, while no government has ever completely met the lofty ideals embedded in democratic theory, a complacent conformism does little to eliminate the gap between democratic practices and ideals,” Nardulli and Gaines write.

Other scholars focus on issues such as:

• the role that democratic leaders can play in dealing with ethnically based conflict rooted in deeply ingrained prejudices;

• electoral engineering and how voting laws affect a democracy;

• technological advances that have great import for the enjoyment and jurisprudence of privacy.

A companion volume, “International Perspectives on Contemporary Democracy,” also edited by Nardulli, is to be published in July.