faculty & experts
14 October 2021

The Diverse Dimensions of Democracy

Democracy is not only defined by its institutions but also, crucially, by the participation of citizens.

With its interdisciplinary focus on democratic practices, the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy (AHCD) explores the multiple forms and spaces of participation and contestation – from the workplace, elections, courts and streets, to scientific fora and cyberspace. It is actively involved in the yearly “Democracy Week” promoted by the Geneva Chancellery of State.

From 4 to 9 October, the Centre convened a series of public events on “democracy in transition”, this year’s theme. The debates pointed to transitions within democracies rather than towards a given democratic model. 

As highlighted by Marie-Laure Salles at the inaugural event, there are many signs of the transitions that affect democracies worldwide. While democracy requires trust, it also presupposes vigilant citizens and civil servants in order to safeguard its institutions.

Since the last presidential election, the U.S. has represented a focal point for the impact of social media on democracy.

Gabriel Sterling, an invited guest from the Georgia Secretary of State, analysed misinformation and disinformation on what he called “the value of people’s votes” in his state.

As Georgia’s election manager, he played a decisive role when he pushed back on Donald Trump’s request to “find” Republican votes and confirmed the votes favoured the Democratic Party. Since then, Gabriel Sterling has been facing political pressure, death threats, and considerable media attention.

Is more information good for elections or can an overwhelming amount of information, sometimes false information, hinder electoral processes?

This was one of the questions debated in the practice-orientated workshop organised by our Centre and the Geneva Chancellery of State. Participants included high-level electoral officials for several Swiss cantons as well as Graduate Institute faculty and students.

Gabriel Sterling then reflected, in a video interview, on how U.S. and Swiss democratic systems differently defuse tensions and how they accommodate technology in their voting systems.

Discussions throughout the week also focused on states in transition, such as Uganda, where the regime cultivates democratic institutions while maintaining everyday authoritarianism.

Importantly, transitions to democracy entail reckonings with history and collective memories. The role of art in these processes was explored in the film screening and debate organised with the ImageApp project and featuring Indonesian artist and scholar Tintin Wulia.

As it is a transborder issue, democratic transition must also be understood from an international perspective.

The digital economy and related transitions in the workplace bear significant implications for democracy. The need to join forces in order to lay down a new – transnational – social contract emerged as a key message from the round-table involving the Graduate Institute, the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), as well as the University of Geneva and the University of Parma.

The effects of technology, and of AI in particular, on representation and participation were also analysed in a dedicated panel discussion on the following day. The lived experiences of democracy are being shaped by a multitude of reconfigurations at the national, local and transnational levels. To understand current and future transitions within democracies, it is as important to study the working and transformations of institutions as it is to analyse the responses of citizens to these changes.