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Challenges to Democratic Representation studies the consequences of current political developments and their historical roots for democratic governance. How do democratic regimes maintain political stability? To what extent can they deliver political equality, legitimacy and prevent societal polarization?
Challenges to Democratic Representation

Two developments are particularly relevant for the research agenda of Challenges of Democratic Representation. 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.

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.

  • Polarisation

    Polarisation 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? How does mass migration change the ethnic makeup of populations leading to a variety of tensions between groups of citizens and parties? 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 polarisation?

Through theoretical and empirical research, the group aims to shed light on how democratic regimes can maintain stability, deliver political equality, legitimacy, and prevent polarisation amidst these complex and evolving dynamics.

Our projects
  • Critical Trust

    Representative democracy necessitates citizens' trust in institutions alongside healthy skepticism. Blind trust and distrust pose risks: the former makes manipulation likely, the latter leads to alienation. In contrast, evaluative trust encourages civic engagement and fosters accountability, vital for democratic health.

    The distinction between blind and evaluative trust is crucial. However, current political trust research mainly focuses on trust levels, overlooking this crucial difference. This gap leaves key questions unanswered regarding trends, causes, and consequences of political trust.

    CRITICALTRUST addresses this by developing a two-dimensional model and measures to distinguish between blind and evaluative trust. Conducting surveys and experiments across eight European countries, it aims to fill this research gap. By doing so, it seeks to diagnose risks of low trust and offer advice on stimulating political trust, addressing longstanding issues in the field.

    Funded by: ERC Consolidator Grant program (EU)

    Duration: 1 Sept 2023 - 31 Aug 2028

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

    Project leader

    C.R.A. (Carmen) van Alebeek

    Faculteit der Maatschappij- en Gedragswetenschappen

    Pol: Docenten Politicologie

  • Radical Activation

    Threats, Emotions, and the Psychological Roots of Populist Radical Right Support

    Recent studies suggest that support for populist radical right (PRR) parties, such as Salvini's Lega, Le Pen's Rassemblement National, and Wilders' Partij voor de Vrijheid, is linked to individuals' personalities, indicating deeper psychological roots than previously acknowledged. This raises a puzzle as personality traits are stable while PRR support is volatile.

    To address this, a new framework combining micro-level psychological explanations with macro-level perspectives from political science, sociology, and communication science is proposed. This framework examines how personal and environmental factors interact to activate the personality-PRR linkage.

    The research aims to understand how different threats and associated negative emotions trigger specific personality traits, influencing PRR support and mobilizing previously inactive supporters. Utilizing innovative methods such as physiological experiments, surveys, interviews, sentiment analysis, and quantitative data analysis, the project seeks to identify how personality traits become consequential for PRR support. By doing so, it contributes to understanding the upsurge of PRR movements, a significant challenge to liberal democracies.

    Additionally, the project aims to effectively communicate its findings to a broader audience to address this pressing societal issue.

    Funded by: NWO Vidi

    Duration: 1 February 2022 - 30 June 2027

    Dr. M. (Matthijs) Rooduijn

    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.

    Funded by: ERC Starting Grant (EU)

    Duration: 1 July 2021 - 30 June 2026

    Dr. K.A. (Katie) Kuschminder

    Project leader

    Dr. N. (Nodira) Kholmatova

    Faculteit der Maatschappij- en Gedragswetenschappen

    Programmagroep: Challenges to Democratic Representation

    Dr. S.A. (Sarah) Adeyinka

    Faculteit der Maatschappij- en Gedragswetenschappen

    Programmagroep: Challenges to Democratic Representation

    R. (Rojika) Maharjan

    Faculteit der Maatschappij- en Gedragswetenschappen

    Programmagroep: Challenges to Democratic Representation

  • A new normative framework for financial debt

    This project seeks to establish a unified normative framework for financial debt applicable across various types of debts (corporate, individual, government). Current normative approaches either focus solely on the responsibilities and rights of contracting parties or emphasize systemic considerations, but both have limitations.

    This project innovates by integrating systemic and individualist perspectives, considering the role of externalities in debt regimes and the necessity of due diligence among contracting parties. It aims to develop criteria for assessing when debt regulation to address externalities is normatively desirable while respecting individuals' transactional rights.

    Additionally, it emphasizes the importance of due diligence in debt institutions, highlighting the need for institutions that facilitate it for contracting agents and policymakers. By bridging these perspectives, the project aims to provide insights relevant for the ongoing reforms in the financial sector following the 2007-2009 financial crisis.

    Funded by: NWO Open Competition 

    Duration: 1 January 2020 - 1 March 2026

    Prof. E.S. (Eric) Schliesser

    Project leader

    Dr. J.M. (Jens) van 't Klooster

    Faculteit der Maatschappij- en Gedragswetenschappen

    Programmagroep: Political Economy and Transnational Governance

    V. (Valerie) Schreur

    Faculteit der Maatschappij- en Gedragswetenschappen

    Programmagroep: Challenges to Democratic Representation

    A.I. (Anne) Kervers

    Faculteit der Maatschappij- en Gedragswetenschappen

    Programmagroep: Challenges to Democratic Representation

  • Generational differences in determinants of party choice

    Wouter van der Brug and his team 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 

    Duration: 1 January 2020 - 30 June 2024

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

    Project leader

    T.J. (Thomas) Jocker

    Faculteit der Maatschappij- en Gedragswetenschappen

    Programmagroep: Challenges to Democratic Representation

  • Strange(r) Families

    Political Contestation over Family Migration Rights for Non-Normative Families

    Migration and citizenship are pivotal in contemporary politics, with family migration comprising 40% of immigration to OECD countries from 2007 to 2015. Determining which relationships qualify as 'family' in migration policy is crucial for European migration. However, families including non-citizens require state approval to live together in Europe, posing questions about who decides which families belong.

    State permission for 'strange' families, deviating from norms, such as queer or polygamous families, is not guaranteed. Feminist scholars highlight that defining collective identities involves references to gender roles and norms in intimate spheres, influencing the politics of belonging.

    Today, families may be perceived as 'queer' or 'culturally different'. 'Queer' families challenge traditional norms, like same-sex or polyamorous families, while 'culturally different' families stem from non-European traditions, like polygamous or matrifocal families.

    This project examines political contestation over family migration rights for 'culturally different' and 'queer' families, exploring how gender and family norms intersect with ideas of nationhood and belonging, shaping migration politics.

    Funded by: NWO Vidi

    Duration: 24 December 2019 - 23 December 2024

    Dr. S.A. (Saskia) Bonjour

    Project leader

    E. (Eline) Westra

    Faculteit der Maatschappij- en Gedragswetenschappen

    Programmagroep: Challenges to Democratic Representation

    A.S.S. (Sonja) Evaldsson Mellstrom

    Faculteit der Maatschappij- en Gedragswetenschappen

    Programmagroep: Challenges to Democratic Representation

  • 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?

    Funded by: NWO Vidi

    Duration: 14 December 2017 - 31 January 2024

    Dr. L.M. (Liza) Mügge

    Project leader

Programme group leaders

Dr. E. (Enzo) Rossi

Faculteit der Maatschappij- en Gedragswetenschappen

Programmagroep: Challenges to Democratic Representation

Dr. G. (Gijs) Schumacher

Faculteit der Maatschappij- en Gedragswetenschappen

Programmagroep: Challenges to Democratic Representation

Dr. A.J. (Anja) van Heelsum

Faculteit der Maatschappij- en Gedragswetenschappen

Programmagroep: Challenges to Democratic Representation

Programme group staff