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Experts Join Forces to Address the Great Challenges Facing Democracy

19 January, 2024

In the biggest election year in history, experts join forces to address the great challenges facing democracy

How have AI and new media altered electoral landscapes? What happens to democracy when capital and wealth becomes increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few? Members of UCD’s new Centre for Democracy Research are addressing the fundamental questions confronting democratic societies today.

19 January 2024: (opens in a new window)2024 will be the biggest election year in historyOver 70 elections will take place in countries that are home to more than half the world's population.

However, evidence shows that democracy is on the decline internationally, as the number of eroding democracies and hardening autocracies increase. According to the (opens in a new window)Varieties of Democracy metrics 2023, 72% of the world’s population – 5.7 billion people – lived in autocracies by 2022.

The new Centre for Democracy Research at University College Dublin (UCD), a first of its kind for Ireland, will bring leading experts together to examine why democracy is waning and what can be done to revive it.

Founding Director of the Centre and Associate Professor at UCD School of Politics and International Relations, Dr Joseph Lacey said: “It is fitting that the Centre is launched in 2024. While there are a record number of elections taking place this year, the democratic conditions of many of these states are declining. And in some, the integrity of elections themselves are being called into question, sometimes justifiably.“

Dr Lacey leads the international research project ELECT. Funded by the European Research Council (ERC), it investigates the challenges faced in light of recent developments in political campaigns. "AI, new media and the emergence of new electoral forces have radically altered how campaigns are run and won over the last decade. In the US, for example, the digital revolution in campaigning is well under way with 3.6 billion in predicted spending on digital advertising alone. This is a projected 156% increase in spending on the 2020 elections.” he said. 

“On the one hand, some see this digital revolution as increasing campaign efficiencies in the effort to reach more voters with messages about the campaign. On the other hand, some worry about the way in which microtargeted ads based on user data can manipulate voters or even expose them to the kind of misinformation that they personally are most susceptible to believing. We want to understand the opportunities and risks posed to democracy by these new electoral forces.”

Speaking at the launch event, UCD President Professor Orla Feely said, ‘Today marks the beginning of a new forum of intellectual exchange and public engagement. To understand democracy, we need to ensure that sociologists, geographers, communications specialists, philosophers, political scientists, and many others are part of the conversation. This Centre brings diverse experts together to investigate fundamental questions that will help inform policy and debate. By coming together, these researchers can provide comprehensive insights that will help achieve real impact.”

Sponsored by the Political Studies Association of Ireland, the launch event featured talks from leading academics, including celebrated international expert Professor Michael Ignatieff, a former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and former President of the Central European University. Speakers discussed the long-term trends that contemporary democracies have been struggling to manage and the ways in which many are seeking to adapt and change themselves in light of these challenges. 

Dr Lacey said, “Over the last ten years, there has been an explosion in democratic innovations that try to bring citizens closer to the role of decision-makers. Ireland is a trailblazer in this respect, drawing international attention for its citizens assemblies leading to referendums on a range of issues, including those taking place in Ireland in March 2024. There are now more countries holding referendums than ever, some better designed than others. 

He continued, “The Centre for Democracy Research will examine the challenges faced by contemporary democracies and share best practices, including the use of citizens assemblies and the regulation of referendums. Challenges are developing rapidly and transforming the global trajectory of democratic development, while opportunities for democratic renewal are underexploited. This is why the Centre is so urgent. There is a sense that if democracy is going to meet the challenges it faces, then it must do so boldly and creatively. We aim to be an important part of that international conversation.” 

The Centre currently has a membership of 40 researchers. Dr Lacey is one of four UCD academics who are leading major European Research Council-funded research projects - ranging in value from €1.5 million to €2 million each - that focus on the immediate challenges facing democracy. 

Through his ERC-funded project Democracy Challenged, Dr Aidan Regan, Associate Professor at UCD School of Politics and International Relations, is investigating how accumulation of wealth and power facilitated by corporate tax avoidance contributes to the destabilisation of democratic systems.  

He explained: "This project addresses a classical question in political science: In a world of unequal economic resources, who really governs? Over the past few decades, studies on democracy and democratisation have tended to focus on the deliberative processes and procedures that underpin liberal democracy. These are important studies, but we must also examine the question of economic power, and what happens to democracy when capital and wealth becomes increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few.” 

Professor Rosana Pinheiro- Machado, UCD School of Geography, recently commenced her ERC project Flexible Work, Rigid Politics (WorkPoliticsBIP), investigating the nexus between labour precariousness and authoritarian politics in Brazil, India, and the Philippines. Strong evidence shows that sectors removed from poverty supported authoritarian politicians in these countries, her project interrogates why and how this occurs. Professor Roland Erne, UCD School of Business is in the last year of his ERC project European Unions investigating how European labour politics has evolved in light of new developments in European economic governance. This research focuses on the challenges and opportunities that labour movements have in organising transnationally and how European democracy is being and ought to be reconfigured.

In the biggest election year in history, the new Centre's public events programme will focus on important election moments for Ireland and the world. Talks and seminars will take place in the lead up to the European Parliament Elections and the US Presidential elections. Keep up to date with announcements on the UCD School of Politics and International Relations (SPIRe) website here.


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