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Nik de Boer: ‘Attention to fundamental informal norms that are crucial for a strong democracy has often been lacking’

In the 1990s, all seemed well. Many new democracies emerged, and Europe in particular seemed to be moving out of the dark shadows of World War II and the Cold War. However, a quarter of a century later, the situation has shifted. According to the V-Dem research institute, the world has regressed to the level of 1986. A significant number of democracies, both young and old, are experiencing decline. Currently, 72 per cent of the world’s population lives in autocracies. Clearly something is amiss, and this is precisely what the UvA research project ‘Identifying and Safeguarding the Normative Foundations of Democracy’ aims to address This interdisciplinary project sees legal experts, communication scientists, anthropologists, political scientists and historians work together to understand the factors that contribute to democratic decline. Legal adviser Nik de Boer, from Amsterdam Law School, is spearheading the project.

Which countries are experiencing democratic decline, and how can we recognise it?

‘Prominent examples in Europe include Poland and Hungary. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán initiated a systematic assault on the core institutions of the democratic rule of law after his 2010 election victory. For example, he made it possible to appoint judges who are politically favourable to him and enacted media laws that curtailed press freedom. After the 2015 Polish elections, the PiS government followed a similar path. Outside Europe, the United States saw a president who refused to acknowledge the election results and attempted to retain power through violence. Something similar occurred in Brazil shortly after. Other examples in the growing list of countries experiencing democratic decline include India, Turkey and Israel.’

How important is it to safeguard democracy?

‘It’s incredibly important, because democracy ensures political equality and influence over rules that affect all of us. Additionally, research has shown that democracy is associated with economic growth, reduced poverty and less violence.’

Is democracy so vulnerable that it is suddenly under pressure in multiple places around the world?

‘To some extent, yes. Many countries have implemented various institutional measures to safeguard democracy. These measures include establishing an independent constitutional court to prevent malicious individuals from gaining too much power. However, attention to fundamental informal norms that are crucial for a strong democracy has often been lacking. Now that we see that these formal norms and institutions can only do so much to sustain democracy, it’s important to focus on the fundamental informal norms, which are increasingly under threat.’

What are these norms?

‘In their book How Democracies Die, Harvard professors Levitsky and Ziblatt identify two. The first concept is mutual toleration, which means that you view your political adversary as a legitimate and worthy opponent rather than an enemy to be eliminated. Populists tend to claim that only they speak on behalf of “the people”, implying that their opponents represent “no one”, except perhaps the elite. This creates a fundamental tension between populism and democracy. The second concept is institutional forbearance, meaning that you act in the spirit of democracy and do not use or abuse your power in a way that technically complies with the law, but goes against the spirit of democracy. An example is the possible expansion of the US Supreme Court, known as court packing. Strictly speaking, the US Constitution does not prohibit this, but there’s an unwritten norm that a president must not increase the number of judges for political reasons. What we want to investigate now is which norms are crucial in which countries and how and why they may have come under pressure.’

You conduct research in the United States, India, Poland, France and the Netherlands. Why these countries?

‘This approach enables us to draw comparisons across different continents, between established and emerging democracies, and among countries with both stable and declining democratic systems. For instance, we consider the Netherlands to be an established, more stable democracy.’

We’ve seen that even long-standing democracies, such as the United States, can face challenges. To what extent does this risk exist in the Netherlands?

‘The Netherlands is a healthy democracy, but there are signs of potential decline, including the rise of populism, a notable lack of trust in politics – with 7 out of 10 people having little to no confidence in political processes – and the emerging belief in conspiracy theories.’

The results will be available in two years. How do you plan to disseminate them and to whom?

‘We plan to disseminate our findings through various channels, including periodic updates. Given that our project revolves around democratic norms, we aim to highlight the broader societal relevance of our research. Our team will publish regularly in newspapers and on platforms such as stukroodvlees.nl (Dutch only). Towards the end of our investigation, we’re likely to release two policy papers based on our discoveries. Additionally, we’ll host expert meetings involving entities like the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations. Finally, we have partnerships with two Indian think tanks focused on democracy.’