Revisiting O'Donnell in an Era of Democratic Backsliding

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From the mid-1970s to the early 2000s, political democracy grew exponentially at a global level. Transitions from authoritarian rule in more than 60 countries in Southern Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe led to the successful establishment of democratic political regimes. This democratic wave, the third one in modern times, reached its peak during the first decade of the 21st century. According to indicators from Freedom House, in 2006 123 countries could be characterized as political (or electoral) democracies, the largest number ever recorded in the history of humankind.

Today, however, diagnoses abound stating that democracy is in crisis in the world.
Important authoritarian reversals and violations of fundamental freedoms have been affecting not only new democracies but also more established ones, in wealthy and poor countries alike, from a wide range of cultural traditions. In its 2022 annual report, Freedom House documented 16 consecutive years of decline in its global freedom index, and reported that the share of the world’s population living in an environment of political freedom had declined from 46 percent in 2005 to a mere 20.3 percent in 2021. Similarly, V-Dem reports that the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen has fallen to levels last registered in 1989, claiming that the democratic advances following the end of the Cold War have now been eradicated. A new wave of autocratization thus threatens the democratic rights acquired by citizens after long and difficult struggles.

When the present wave of global autocratization was barely glimpsed by many, Guillermo O'Donnell anticipated the question of whether the crisis we face is one of democracy itself, or only a crisis of particular democracies. If the diagnosed crisis is not that of democracy tout court, or if it does not manifest itself in a similar way in all countries, how can we best distinguish the different levels or types of democratic crises?

O’Donnell also wondered whether democracy itself is intrinsically characterized by a perpetual sense of crisis, or at least by permanent tensions that are worrying at some level while also being a testament to democracy’s best qualities and, indeed, its strongest capabilities. His cautiously optimistic answer was that democracy always projects a horizon of both hope and dissatisfaction. Democracy always proposes an open horizon because it is founded on the various dimensions of citizenship and on the notion of the intrinsic human dignity that these dimensions encompass. Democracy looks towards a better future, expected and demanded by human beings, who recognize themselves as bearers of equal and inalienable rights that the political sphere must respect and promote.

Therefore, he concluded that:

“…we must consider that democracy is and always will be in some kind of crisis: It is constantly redirecting its citizens' gaze from a more or less unsatisfactory present toward a future of still unfulfilled possibilities. This is because democracy is more than a valuable kind of political arrangement. It is also the often notorious sign of a lack. It is the perpetual absence of something more, of an always pending agenda that calls for the redress of social ills and further advances in the manifold matters which, at a certain time and for a certain people, most concern human welfare and dignity.” (2007)

Assuming that democracy is in crisis globally, but that this crisis comprises different levels, causes and possible trajectories, we propose a roundtable to revisit O’Donnell’s writings in an era of democratic backsliding. We are especially interested in exploring how O’Donnell’s conception of democracy as an open horizon with permanent tensions and a perpetual absence might help us better understand the current global predicament. This panel will be a unique opportunity to celebrate the work of one of IPSA’s former Presidents, especially in this edition of the Association’s 2023 World Congress to be held in his hometown, Buenos Aires.

Roundtable Panelists:

Gabriela Ippolito-O’Donnell, Universidad Nacional de San Martín
Martin Mejía, Tulane University
Catalina Smulovitz, Universidad Torcuato Di Tella
Timothy Power, Oxford University
Susan Stokes, University of Chicago
Maxwell Cameron, University of British Columbia
Ken Roberts, Cornell University


No accepted papers currently in this panel.