Degenerations of Democracy: AUP’s Newest Research Center Hosts Leading Democratic Thinkers


Research centers provide The American University of Paris with vital academic hubs through which to promote innovation in research and draw intellectual talent to the university to speak to our global community. On Wednesday, January 25, 2023, AUP’s newest research center, the Center for Media, Communication, and Global Change (MCGC), invited three leading thinkers on contemporary democracy – Craig Calhoun, Charles Taylor and Dilip Gaonkar – to participate in a hybrid event discussing their recent book publication: Degenerations of Democracy (Harvard University Press, 2022). The event was cohosted with AUP’s Center for Critical Democracy Studies (CCDS).

The Center for Media, Communication, and Global Change – formerly AUP’s Civic Media Lab – is a research center dedicated to exploring the consequential role of new technologies and media innovation in the context of political, social and cultural developments. Center Director Professor Jayson Harsin, whose own work covers questions of post-truth politics and its impacts on democratic processes, moderated the evening’s discussion.

Degenerations of Democracy explores the erosion of democracy’s social foundation and calls for movements to reduce inequality, strengthen solidarity, empower citizens and reclaim the pursuit of the public good. It provides an overview of the social and economic transformations currently severely impacting democracy and provides a framework for future social movements in the vein of #BlackLivesMatter and the Green New Deal.

The evening’s discussion saw three respondents from different fields provide their readings of Calhoun, Taylor and Gaonkor’s and work. Political theorist Ilaria Cozzaglio (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt) opened the discussion with her take on the role of conflict and populism in improving or degrading democracy. Professor Julian Culp (AUP), Program Coordinator for the philosophy major, then commented on how inequality affects democratic processes, while questioning whether the book’s approach could be equally applied to European and US contexts. Lastly, Professor Stephen Sawyer (AUP), CCDS Director, grappled with how a historical prism may impact our understanding of modern democratic crises.

The book’s authors responded in turn. Craig Calhoun is University Professor of Social Sciences at Arizona State University and a former Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Calhoun discussed modern populist movements, arguing that the book’s analysis extended beyond Trump’s America and was applicable worldwide, including in Europe. “These trends are similar in pattern if not in degree,” said Calhoun, noting that other factors, including capitalism and inequality, also play important roles: “We can’t solve these problems by imagining democracy in isolation.”

Charles Taylor, the renowned Canadian philosopher and Professor Emeritus at McGill University, spoke next. His comments centered on the growing opacity of democratic regimes. “Over time the workings of a democratic society become more and more opaque,” he explained. He argued that innovation at the local level could increase transparency in the democratic process, which might avoid political discourse sliding into “the shadow world of imaginary threats.” He noted, however, that current trends point to irreconcilable positions of political identity leading to unresolvable conflict, which he called “a deep problem.”

Finally, Dilip Gaonkar, Director of the Center for Global Culture and Communication at Northwestern University, discussed the important distinction between social conflict and political conflict. He noted that modern-day populists are still choosing to exist within democratic frameworks – holding elections and paying homage to democratic language. “Democracy still appears to be the only machinery that generates some kind of legitimacy,” he argued. This raises the question of what is really meant by the term democracy, given the range of regimes that today apply it to themselves.

You can watch the full recording of the evening’s conversation below.