Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
17 June 2021

What keeps democracies alive?

The newest episode of AHCD’s podcast Democracy in Question? asks how we can foster and nurture democratic spaces and practices in our societies.

The Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy’s podcast Democracy in Question? has often focused on the serious challenges that democracies all over the world face today. It has also highlighted how they can and are degenerating and morphing into authoritarianism. In a new episode released today, Professor Till Van Rahden flips the perspective to understand how we can foster and nurture democratic spaces and practices in our societies. He discusses why we should move beyond an institutional and a normative view of democracy as a system of government. More generally, the episode explores how democracy is a fragile way of life that needs constant care and how it can be protected. 

For Professor Van Rahden, what is “often lost in contemporary conversations about democracies [is that] democracies do not exist in thin air. A democratic government presupposes something very elusive that we usually call a democratic culture or that we usually conceptualize as the cultural and social foundations of democracy”. He draws on Walt Whitman to argue that “how we interact as citizens, how we live together in a democratic fashion, [is] foundational, not just to a democratic way of life, but to a democratic system of government”.

How can the vitality of democratic life be maintained and nurtured during the current pandemic, when use of public spaces is restricted and physical distance is required? Professor Van Rahden suggests “public sociability” is essential: “Keep the parks open if possible. Try to find ways of keeping the libraries [and] a museum open, so that a rudimentary form of democratic commons is sustained or maintained”.


READ Professor Van Rahden’s contribution to the AHCD series on democratic experiences in the COVID-19 pandemic.

WATCH his panel discussion with AHCD Faculty Associate Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou on ‘Democracy, a fragile way of life’.

Download the podcast's transcript HERE


Till van Rahden is Professor at the University of Montreal (Canada Research Chair) and Adjunct Research Professor at Carleton University.

Shalini Randeria is the Director of the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, Rector of the Institute of Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna and Excellence Chair, University of Bremen (Research Group: Soft Authoritarianism).