Democratic Horizons: What Value Change Reveals about the Future of Democracy
with Professor Christian Welzel, Leuphana University
Recent accounts of illiberal populism and the backsliding of democracies are either negligent, dismissive or mistaken about the cultural foundations of political orders. Addressing this issue, we demonstrate that (1) the countries’ belongingness to culture zones explains about 70 percent of the total cross-national variation in autocracy-vs-democracy and (2) that this culture-bound variation has remained constant over time—in spite of all the trending patterns in the global distribution of regime types over the last 120 years. Furthermore, the explanatory power of culture zones over autocracy-vs-democracy roots in the cultures’ differentiation on “emancipative values.” Therefore, both the direction and the extent of regime change are a function of glacially accruing regime-culture misfits, which are driven by generational value shifts into a pre-dominantly emancipatory direction. Consequently, the backsliding of democracies into authoritarianism is limited to societies in which emancipative values remain under-developed. Contrary to the widely cited deconsolidation thesis, the generational pattern of value change indicates that the recent triumphs of illiberal populism do not reflect reactionary ideological shifts in the electorates of the affected countries. What happened instead is the re-mobilization of a previously passive but shrinking voter segment that is “left behind” by the mainstream’s emancipatory ascension (i.e., “cultural backlash”). For this reason, we do not see illiberal populism as a groundbreaking challenge to liberal democracy but as an intermittent stress test that will eventually fade away in the wake of generational replacement. Finally, as the elections to the European Parliament in May 2019 have shown, illiberal populism can be pushed back already today when electoral campaigns target young voters and succeed in mobilizing them.