Democracy Paradox

The Democracy Paradox explores the diverse range of perspectives and insights about democracy through an interview format.


Democracy Paradox

Democracy has different meanings to different people. Scholars might describe democracy as liberal, participatory, direct, militant, elitist, or open. The Democracy Paradox explores these contradictory and paradoxical interpretations of democracy through wide ranging conversations. Every week Democracy Paradox looks to political scientists, historians, sociologists, and even art historians to better understand democracy, politics, and the world around us. Past episodes have discussed civil resistance, African politics, social media, and polarization. Learn why our guests consider this interview the deepest reading of their work they have come across!

Featured Guests

Where To Start

Kajri Jain Believes Democracy Unfolds through the Aesthetic

This week’s guest is Kajri Jain. She is an art historian from the University of Toronto and the author of Gods in the Time of Democracy. Her work is well known among scholars of contemporary Indian art. But I doubt many political scientists have come across her work.

Our conversation explores politics in India through the construction of massive statues that are sometimes the size of the Statue of Liberty or taller. It’s a completely novel way to examine Hindu Nationalism, Dalit identity, and religion in India.

But the conversation also explores the ways we communicate political ideas and create an inclusive democracy. Art is ultimately a form of communication, but it is largely neglected by scholars of democracy. We might discuss what people say about art, but rarely how the art interacts with us. This is a conversation I could only have with an art historian. But not just any art historian, but one who is also a philosopher and a religious scholar. An art historian who examines people affected by art more than the art itself. This is my conversation with Kajri Jain…

Thomas Carothers and Andrew O'Donohue are Worried About Severe Polarization

My thoughts on polarization have changed over the past few years. On the one hand, polarization can be a danger to democracy. Milan Svolik among others have shown how strong ideological positions lead some voters to support leaders they know are undemocratic. Moreover, democracy depends on the willingness of both parties to make compromises to govern effectively.

But on the other hand, there are issues where compromise itself is undemocratic. How do you compromise on the right to vote? Is it polarizing to refuse to waiver on issues of human rights? What about the rule of law? Sometimes compromise does not protect democracy, but endangers it.

A lot of intelligent people have strong opinions about polarization. But few of them have thought deeply about the subject or read much of the literature. It’s a complicated subject. Last year Ezra Klein published a surprising book called Why We’re Polarized. It’s actually an impressive work of scholarship from someone who does not consider himself a scholar. But when he says “we’re polarized” he refers to an American experience. He largely ignores the polarization around the world in places like Venezuela, Poland, and India.

So I reached out to Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue because I wanted to better understand polarization not just in the United States but as a wider global phenomenon. Tom and Andrew are the editors of s remarkable volume called Democracies Divided from 2019. Last year they published a supplement called Political Polarization in South and Southeast Asia: Old Divisions, New Dangers. Tom is the Senior Vice President for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is a legendary scholar in the field of democracy promotion. Andrew is a nonresident assistant at Carnegie as well. He is also in the PhD program in Harvard’s Department of Government.

Together they offer reflections on polarization in different contexts. They help explain how each is different and where they commonalities. Most of all this broader examination helps us think about polarization in very different ways.

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Key Links

Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization

Political Polarization in South and Southeast Asia: Old Divisions, New Dangers

Rejuvenating Democracy Promotion

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Zizi Papacharissi Dreams of What Comes After Democracy

Political theorist Takis Pappas has described the formation of liberal democracy as an elite project. Its creation was dependent on the decisions of political leaders rather than the public. But over the subsequent decades the space between politicians and their constituents has grown smaller. It is now unclear whether elected officials remain political leaders or whether they simply follow the opinions of their constituents.

Democracy is in the process of a transformation. Politicians have abdicated responsibility for political power to the people, but the people do not share a sense of responsibility for this newfound political power. So, everyone blames each other for political conflict, but nobody accepts the responsibility to resolve it. It is not clear anyone completely understands what democracy is or what it will become.

Robert Dahl imagined the possibility of a third transformation of democracy into something deeper, thicker, and richer. But he never explained how this new sense of democracy might manifest itself. Dahl thought more about democracy than anyone has before or since.

So I have searched for the next incarnation of Robert Dahl but have failed to discover her or him. These conversations are my attempt to piece together the ideas from multiple perspectives about democracy to offer an updated theory of democratic governance.

Populism, of course, is the great challenge for democracy today. Many scholars have offered institutional solutions as an antidote to populism. But the challenges democracy faces are not an American problem. They exist across the globe. They persist in Presidential and Parliamentary systems. It is a deeper challenge within the demos itself.

I believe democracy will inevitably overcome the populist challenge. It will emerge from this crisis stronger and healthier. Fifty years from now democracy will be different than it is today. And in five hundred years, its institutions may even be unrecognizable. But I believe the answer exists.  

Zizi Papacharissi has dared to imagine what our future may hold after democracy. The research for her remarkable book, After Democracy, took her around the world where she asked one hundred everyday citizens three simple questions:

1.      What is democracy?

2.      What is citizenship?

3.      What might make democracy better?

The answers she received helped her imagine what might come after democracy. Zizi offers us a dream. She explained to me that she “wanted the book to have a dream-like feel, like a dream many people were having together or a polyphonic story they were simultaneously telling and listening to.”

Zizi Papacharissi is a professor of communication and political science at the University of Illinois-Chicago. She was among the first to study social media and has shaped the scholarship on political communication on the internet. Her name is a familiar sighting in the footnotes of many of the books and articles I read.

Our conversation explores the ideas in her book from many different angles. We talk about the meaning of democracy and the role of citizens. We think about how democracy might be reimagined. And she invites you to dream of what might come after democracy.

Meet The Hosts

Justin Kempf


Justin is the host of The Democracy Paradox which explores the diverse range of perspectives and insights about democracy through an interview format. Every week new scholars are invited to share their breakthrough research or bold ideas about politics, economics, and society. As a blog author he writes weekly reviews on classic works of politics, international relations, and philosophy. Democracy is a complex and nuanced concept. It challenges our preconceptions. Take the time to explore the Democracy Paradox.

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