Democracy in historical perspective

Politieke instituties

The researchers within this theme study the history of democratic institutions, practices and ideas. Interest in the state and the future of democracy has exploded among journalists, policy makers, academics, and ordinary citizens. The widespread democratic self-assurance of the late twentieth century has been replaced with uncertainty, both about the prospects of democracy in the West and its potential to take root in other parts of the world. We proceed from the assumption that it is only possible to understand such contemporary discussions by studying the history of democracy.

Thinking and doing democracy

Two angles on the history of democracy are of particular importance. The first is the history of thinking (about) democracy starting in ancient Greece. Democracy is not only a contested concept to which different actors have attached different meanings, but it was also used with contempt for a long time. How did the term gain its contemporary positive understanding and why has this been institutionalized in the form of parliamentary government? What alternative understandings of democracy have existed?

The second angle focuses on doing democracy, and in particular on the formation and development of the institutions of democracy, such as universal suffrage, the separation of powers, representation and political parties. Democracy is not one simple fixed universal institution, but consists of a complex set of institutions some of which might be potentially conflicting with one another. Democracy accordingly encompasses multiple arenas of political conflict. We study its historical complexity from the early modern period to the present. How did the institutions of democracy evolve, who played a role in this process and why does the shape of democracy differ historically and geographically?   

Researchers in this theme