2019-21 Democracy Program

Democracy in a Time of Change and Challenges


The Center for Historical Research (CHR), in association with the OSU Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability (IDEA), will present a two-year program of lectures and seminars in 2019-21 on the topic of “Democracy in a Time of Change and Challenges.” There are concerns that democracy, whatever form it may take, is under stress around the world. This CHR series will examine what is meant by democracy in various regions and countries, how these meanings are changing, and the extent to which democracy is changing and/or under sustained and serious attack. Is democracy evolving, and, if so, how and why? Or is the story really more one of democracy as something that is increasingly endangered?  If it’s the latter, what are the most important causes of that situation and what, if anything, can be done about it? Leading scholars from a variety of disciplines will address those issues beginning in the fall of 2019.

We invite proposals for papers on this topic to be presented at the Center for Historical Research during this series.  Proposals should be sent to David Stebenne, History Department, Ohio State University, 106 Dulles Hall, 230 Annie and John Glenn Ave., Columbus, OH 43210, or as a Word attachment via email to Professor Stebenne’s email address (please see below).

The series co-chairs are David Stebenne, Professor of History and Law, Ohio State University and Michael Neblo, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director, Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability (IDEA), Ohio State University.  They can be reached at stebenne.1@osu.edu and neblo.1@osu.edu, respectively.

The other members of the series steering committee and their OSU email addresses are:

  • Gregory A. Caldeira, Distinguished University Professor, Dreher Chair in Political Communication and Policy Thinking, and Professor of Law; caldeira.1@osu.edu
  • Jennifer Eaglin, Assistant Professor of History; eaglin.5@osu.edu
  • Robin Judd, Associate Professor of History; judd.18@osu.edu
  • Ousman M Kobo, Associate Professor of History; kobo.1@osu.edu
  • Eric MacGilvray, Associate Professor of Political Science; macgilvray.2@osu.edu

2020-2021 Program Schedule

This year’s program is co-sponsored by the Ohio State University Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability (IDEA) and by the Wexner Center for the Arts.

Several of our presenters have graciously approved recording and posting of their webinars.  These links will be available for roughly six months.

Unless otherwise indicated, these events will be held as Zoom webinars. All of the talks take place on Fridays from 3:30 to 5:00 P.M.

Gerald EasterFriday, Sept. 18, 2020
“The Current State of Democracy in Russia”
Gerald Easter, Political Science, Boston College

Video of this presentation is available for a limited time here.

Abstract: ‘Russia Without Putin’ is a popular political refrain chanted at opposition protest rallies in Russia for nearly a decade. The slogan implies, of course, that the person of Putin is the main obstacle to democratic development. It is a theme commonly expressed by scholars and pundits too. This talk takes exception to this viewpoint. Instead, it attempts to depersonalize contemporary Russian politics, and suggests a historical-institutionalist argument to explain the persistence of a strong central state and a weak civil society in Russia.

Gerald Easter is a Professor of Comparative Politics at Boston College. His current research focuses on the policing of protest politics in the late communist period and postcommunist periods. He is the author of Capital, Coercion, and Postcommunist States (Cornell: 2012), which won the Hewitt Prize for Political Economy and the Davis Prize for Social Science from the ASEEES. And his most recent book is a general history on art and politics, entitled The Tsarina’s Lost Treasure: Catherine the Great, a Golden Age Masterpiece, and a Legendary Shipwreck (Pegasus: 2020).  

This event is co-sponsored by the Ohio State University Center for Slavic and East European Studies.

Miles TaylorFriday, Oct. 2, 2020
“The Current State of Democracy in the United Kingdom”
Miles Taylor, History, University of York

Video of this presentation is available here.

Abstract: Democracy in Britain has been bruised by the Brexit crisis, but it has emerged just about intact. In the end it was a democratic election last December that finally resolved the uncertainty left by the 2016 ‘people’s’ referendum. Twice during the Brexit crisis, the Supreme Court intervened to uphold the constitution and prevent the executive over-ruling Parliamentary democracy. And for the first time in over a decade there is now a party in power with a large and stable majority of seats (in fact the largest of any government since the 1930s), an outcome which the famous British ‘first-past-the-post’ system is designed to deliver. Democracy in Britain seems to have righted itself after four years in which, according to commentators around the world, it seemed not just to capsize, but be in danger of sinking altogether. However, cause for concern remains. The break-up of Britain looms as large as ever, with a resurgence of the Scottish National Party, and doubts about whether Northern Ireland is inside or outside the new customs arrangements with the European Union. As with many other democracies going forward, Britain faces new forms of electoral corruption and sinister influence over the democratic process fostered by the digital revolution, and now exacerbated by the pandemic lockdown. Finally, the Brexit crisis has exposed some fundamental historical flaws in the British way of democracy — the lack of a written constitution, centralization of power at Westminster, and under-representation of minorities. Taking a longer historical view, what lessons can we draw about where British democracy might be headed in the years to come?

Miles Taylor is Professor of Modern History at the University of York, UK. He studied history at Queen Mary University of London, Harvard (where he was a Kennedy Scholar) and Cambridge where he took his PhD in 1989. Previously he was Director of the Institute of Historical Research in London. His recent books include Empress: Queen Victoria and India (Yale UP, 2018) and (co-ed) Utopian universities: a global history of the new campuses of the 1960s (Bloomsbury, 2020). He is currently writing a history of parliamentary representation in the UK since 1750, entitled The Sovereign People.

Shira RobinsonFriday, Nov. 6, 2020, 2:00-3:30 p.m. Please note time.
“Supremacy Unleashed: The Ongoing Erosion of Palestinian Citizenship in Israel”
Shira Robinson, History and International Affairs, George Washington University

Shira Robinson teaches at the George Washington works on the social and cultural history of the Modern Middle East, with an emphasis on colonialism, citizenship, nationalism, and cultures of militarism after World War I. Her first book, Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Liberal Settler State, examines Israel’s imposition of military rule on the Palestinian Arabs who remained within its borders after 1948. 

Benjamin-LawranceFriday, Dec. 4, 2020
“Assessing Democratization from the Margins: Lessons from Africa’s Refugees and African Asylum Modalities”
Benjamin Lawrance, History, University of Arizona

Video of this presentation is available for a limited time here.

Abstract: Scholars routinely measure democratization in Africa by peaceful transitions of power, frequency of free and fair elections, and the freedom to organize. But just as some #BlackLivesMatter activists contend that justice must be measured by its accessibility to society’s most marginalized, ought we not also assess African democratization by its availability to society’s most disenfranchised. Taking as a methodological basis the usefulness of the exceptional, the aberrations (see Lawrance & Stevens 2015), this talk examine narratives of refugees from among Africa’s most celebrated democracies – Senegal, Ghana, and Benin – for evidence of the inaccessibility of justice that forces citizens to claim asylum abroad.
Benjamin N. Lawrance is Professor of History at the University of Arizona and Editor-in-Chief of the African Studies Review. He is the author and editor of eleven books and is currently completing a history of contemporary African refugee mobilities. His newest collaborations include a critical new edition of the masterpiece of apartheid-era novelist, Dugmore Boetie, Familiarity is the Kingdom of the Lost (Ohio 2020), and an essay, forthcoming in the American Historical Review, exploring Boetie’s abortive refuge in Tanganyika, both with South African historian, Vusumuzi R. Kumalo.

Asli BaliFriday, Jan. 29, 2021
“The Current State of Democracy in Turkey”
Asli Bali, Law, UCLA

Abstract: Turkey is at the vanguard of a global trend in democratic backsliding. The ruling party and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in power for nearly two decades, have transformed a partially consolidated democracy into a system of one-man rule. How did these changes come about and how were they constitutionalized? From 1982 to 2017, Turkey was widely understood, by the EU and other actors, to be amending its constitution in ways consistent with liberalizing, civilianizing and/or democratizing reforms. By contrast, the constitutional amendments adopted by referendum on April 16, 2017 represented a radical break. Bringing to an end Turkey’s tradition of parliamentary government, these amendments introduced a new presidential system lacking checks and balances. By constraining the autonomy, authority and even basic competence of the judiciary, the legislature and the administrative organs of the state, while concentrating power in the executive, Turkey has produced a blueprint for how a democracy can be systematically dismantled from within through what is best described as abusive constitutionalism. In this talk, I will use the Turkish case to explain the purposes of constitutional amendments and referenda and how and why these mechanisms are uniquely vulnerable to authoritarian capture in a nominally democratic order.

She is the author of:

  • The ‘New Turkey’ At Home and Abroad, The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Middle-Eastern and North African History (eds. Amal Ghazal and Jens Hanssen) (Oxford University Press, 2018).
  • Courts and Constitutional Transition: Lessons from the Turkish Case, 11 International Journal of Constitutional Law 666-701 (2013).

Warren RosenblumFriday, Feb. 26, 2021
“The Current State of Democracy in Europe: Populism and the Crisis of Expert Authority”
Warren Rosenblum, Department of History, Webster University

Video of this presentation is available here.

The populist insurgency in Europe draws much of its energy and support from attacks on expert authority. The great bugbear of rightwing populists across Europe since 2010 has been the EU, with its anonymous technocrats, insulated from democratic pressures and democratic accountability, allegedly dictating policy on trade, immigration and crime, public health, the environment, and gender equality. Within each European nation too, populists see a class of experts, allied with the Eurocrats, who have dominated policy-making for decades, in spite of their lack of democratic legitimacy and alienation from “the people.” A conspiracy of elite interests, it is argued, keeps the expert class in power, including the media, the courts, and what Dutch populists call “the cartel of dominant political parties.” An essential promise of populist movements across Europe is to restore the general will by dismantling these systems.

This presentation situates Europe’s “crisis of expertise” (Gil Eyal) in an historical context. I will discuss the rise of an expert class in twentieth century Germany, and its role in bolstering political authority over three regimes. I will then turn to the mobilizations against expert decision-making in various areas of social policy in Germany, France, and the Benelux countries, during the past decade. In what sense do protests against immigration and family policy, vaccination and covid-19 restrictions, organized in the name of democratic self-assertion, represent threats to democratic forms of governance?

Warren Rosenblum is professor of history and chair of the department at Webster University in St. Louis. He is the author of Beyond the Prison Gates: Punishment and Welfare in Germany 1850-1933 and various essays in European history. He is currently writing a book on the history of “the feeble-minded” in Modern Europe and will be a Fulbright Fellow in Belgium in Spring 2021.

Jessica GrahamFriday, April 9, 2021
“Historical Roots of the Racial-Political State of Democracy in Brazil”
Jessica Graham, History, University of California – San Diego

For several generations a prominent feature of Brazil’s national identity and international reputation has been the notion that the nation is a racial democracy, or a society free of racial discrimination. However, the concept of racial democracy typically has been framed and studied as a social reality or myth, not as a way to understand Brazilian constructs of political democracy. This talk will analyze the emergence of racial democracy in Brazil from 1930 to 1945, focusing on the manner in which the state, blacks, and actors on the left and the right emphasized racial characteristics to advocate for competing visions of political democracy. The talk also will touch upon a few ways that the rhetoric and policies of President Jair Bolsonaro, the so-called “Trump of the Tropics,” continue to resonate with the original formulations of this nationalist ideal in the debates about Brazilian democracy today.

Information about her book, “Shifting the Meaning of Democracy: Race, Politics, and Culture in the United States and Brazil” is available here.

Jessica Graham is Associate Professor of History at UC San Diego and she received a Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago. Professor Graham’s research focuses on democracy, racial nationalism, black activism, communism, and fascism in Brazil and the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. Her book, Shifting the Meaning of Democracy: Racial Inclusion as a Strategy in Brazil and the United States, has received six honors, including awards from the Latin American Studies Association, the Brazilian Studies Association, and the Conference on Latin American History.

Victor ShihFriday, April 23, 2021
Closing Keynote  to the Seminar Series on Democracy in a Time of Change and Challenges: “Economic Shocks and Authoritarian Stability”
Victor Shih, Ho Miu Lam Chair Associate Professor, School of Global Policy and Strategy, UCSD

Video of this presentation is available here.

Extended periods of hardship have the potential of introducing instability to authoritarian regimes because members of the existing ruling coalition suffer welfare losses that force them to consider alternatives, while previously quiescent masses may consider collective uprisings a worthwhile gamble in the face of declining standards of living. Economic Shocks and Authoritarian Stability homes in on the economic challenges facing authoritarian regimes through a set of comparative case studies that include Iran, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Malaysia, Indonesia, Jordan, Russia, the Eastern bloc countries, China, and Taiwan—authored by the top experts in these countries. Through these comparative case studies, this volume provides readers with the analytical tools for assessing whether the current round of economic shocks will lead to political instability or even regime change among the world’s autocracies. This volume identifies the duration of economic shocks, the regime’s control over the financial system, and the strength of the ruling party as key variables to explain whether authoritarian regimes would maintain the status quo, adjust their support coalitions, or fall from power after economic shocks.

Victor C. Shih is Ho Miu Lam Chair Associate Professor in China and Pacific Relations at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego specializing in China. He is the author of a book published by the Cambridge University Press entitled Factions and Finance in China: Elite Conflict and Inflation and of a forthcoming book Coalitions of the Weak: Late Mao Power Strategies and the Dawn of the Xi Jinping Era.  He is also editor of Economic Shocks and Authoritarian Stability: Duration, Institutions and Financial Conditions, published by the University of Michigan Press.  This book uses comparative cases to explore how authoritarian regimes respond to economic crises.  He is further the author of numerous articles appearing in academic and business journals, including The American Political Science Review, Comparative Political Studies, Journal of Politics, and The Wall Street Journal.  Shih served as principal in The Carlyle Group’s global market strategy group and continues to advise the financial community on China related issues.  He is currently working on several papers using quantitative data to analyze the Chinese political elite.

2019-2020 Program Schedule

Friday, September 13, 2019, 3:30-5:00 p.m. – Keynote Address: Steven Levitsky, Government, Harvard University, “Are Democracies Dying?.” Introductory remarks by History Chair and Professor Scott Levi, Professor David Stebenne and College of Arts & Sciences Dean Ritter. (View video.)

Friday, October 4, 2019, 3:30-5:00 p.m. – Rohit De, Department of History, Yale University, “The Current State of Democracy in India,” 168 Dulles Hall (View video.)

Friday, January 17, 2020, 3:30-5:00 p.m. – Yuen Yuen Ang, Dept. of Political Science, University of Michigan, “The Current State of Democracy in China,” 168 Dulles Hall

Friday, April 10, 2020, 3:30-5:00 p.m. – Christina Wolbrecht, Department of Political Science, Notre Dame, “The Current State of Democracy in the USA.”