Theme Statement

Democracy and Its Discontents
The theme for this year’s meeting of the American Political Science Association is Democracy
and Its Discontents. These are challenging times for democracy. In many established
democracies, the aftermath of the 2008 and the 2011 economic crises is opening up new
spaces for new challengers and popular grievances. The complex relationship between national
systems of rule and a global economy is leading to greater tensions both within democracies
and between them. Existing rules and party systems are under strain as new cleavages emerge,
with populism, nativism, and illiberalism all jostling for popular support, as well as new
experiments in representation. Developed democratic systems are experiencing greater
discontent among voters. Global flows of people, capital, and investment undermine national
identities and institutional arrangements. At the same time, there are challenges to the
legitimacy of international institutions that are seen as limiting economic and democratic
The United States faces particular questions, as economic inequality, identity politics, and
polarization dominate political debates. The presidential victor, for the second time in sixteen
years, won office without a majority of the popular vote. Emerging and relatively new
democracies too are undergoing upheaval, as some leaders turn away from traditional norms of
liberal democracy based on contestation between plural forces towards an illiberal model, in
which leaders and ruling party are entitled to reshape domestic rules to their own benefit.
Informal norms of democratic behavior, such as opposition rights, accountability, and
transparency are being violated across several democracies. Non-democratic countries too are
being affected, both because there is no longer much of an expectation that they will become
democratic over time, and because their own policies and options are affected by the changes
in democratic states elsewhere. All this poses political theoretic questions as well as empirical
The current dilemmas of democracy provoke scholars to work across different sub-disciplines
and specializations to understand these changes. For example, how do we understand the
impact of international factors such as migration, automation, and changes in economy on
domestic political party systems? The recent turn in several countries towards illiberalism is in
part a product of parallel evolution under similar pressures, but is also plausibly the
consequence of cross-national influence, as actors in one context learn from another. How do
security arrangements, predicated on coordination among democratic nations, survive the
erosion of liberal norms? What are the consequences of regime shifts for social policy, welfare,
courts, or the media?
Taking a page from scholars of competitive authoritarianism and illiberal democracies, can we
fruitfully think about recent political developments in the United States as regime backsliding?
How are political parties, civil society, and interest groups responding? What is the role of the
center-left and the center-right here? Which comparative and historical parallels provide the
greatest insights in examining the discontents of democracy? How do informal norms depend
on and interact with formal institutions such as courts, parliaments, and central banks?
Equally, understanding the dilemmas of national democracies requires an attention to
theoretical issues as well as empirics. Is the legitimacy of democracy in crisis, or is this simply a
transitory phase? Which institutional equilibria, regimes, and political configurations are
especially likely to be fragile, and which are resilient? How ought we to think about the role of
demagogues and anti-liberal rhetoric? Are there other plausible models for institutions of
representation and decision making that might lead to better democratic outcomes?
As Chairs for the 2018 Conference, we welcome proposals that address the discontents of
democracy from a variety of theoretical and methodological perspectives. We particularly
welcome proposals that work across subfields and approaches to address the new questions
that are emerging, and work that looks to bring disciplinary debates and public dialogue into
closer alignment with each other.

Call for proposals: IPSA Research Committee #36

The structure of political power has long been an important issue in the study of democratic
governance. Where precisely power resides in the practice of modern representative democracy
is a controversial issue, especially in a period of political transformations. In light of these
interests the RC 36 IPSA power studies research group seeks proposals broadly related to
power and democracy.

Proposals should be emailed at:,,