On Friday April 23rd, 2021 (17.30 – 20.00 EEST), CALLIOPE-member Karen Lauwers will participate in a webinar debate on “The permanent crisis of democracy,” organized by the Association for Political History, in collaboration with the European Institute and the Queen Wilhelmina Chair for Dutch Studies (Columbia University, NYC), the Dutch Research School for Political History, and Utrecht University’s Department of History.

While democracy became unavoidable in Western societies in the course of the twentieth century, it has nevertheless remained contested. How can we explain the constant consternation? Were there moments during which democracy was not in crisis? Is it always and everywhere the same crisis? Are there patterns or regularities in its (re)emergence? What are characteristics of the current crisis (crises?) of democracy?

  • In the first section of the webinar, a panel of three prominent scholars in the history and theory of democracy – Jens Hacke (Universität der Bundeswehr München), Martin Conway (Oxford University) and Nadia Urbinati (Columbia University) – will discuss these general questions.
  • In the second part, four junior scholars will present their research related to the central topic of the crisis of democracy.

In each section, there is room for other participants to join the discussion. For the entire program and registration information, please consult the APH webinar website: https://www.associationforpoliticalhistory.org/?page_id=1794

In her short talk for the second section of this APH webinar, CALLIOPE-member Karen Lauwers will explore the topic through the lens of her PhD research, completed in 2019 at the University of Antwerp. Her dissertation investigated the interactive negotiation of socio-political concepts (such as citizenship, republicanism, and representation) by “ordinary” French people and their representatives in parliament, between 1900 and the 1930s. In this context, “ordinary” refers to politically unorganized or rather informally or religiously organized citizens, irrespective of their social class or voting rights. Central to the investigation were the aspirations, wishes and demands of French letter-writers as individuals or as spokespersons of an informal community that sprung from family ties, convent life, or that can be seen as a rather ad hoc organization of people with similar interests. The way they formulated personal requests in their letters to Members of Parliament reveals their expectations regarding these MPs, the regime, and their own place in society. Therefore, instead of focusing on organized forms of protest resonating in official petitions, Karen Lauwers’ PhD project aimed at investigating individual French letter-writers’ subtle but creative solutions to the Third Republic’s flawed democracy.

The Third Republic is known as tumultuous, given the rapidly succeeding governments, the Great War, the subsequent economic crisis, the anti-parliamentary sentiments, and the changes in electoral laws that nonetheless kept excluding women from suffrage. However, even though the regime was indeed unstable on the surface, it managed to survive a war, crisis and scandals, after which anti-parliamentary criticism and feminist movements could seemingly still not count on wide grassroots support. Research into letters written by “ordinary” men and women to French parliamentary representatives helps to understand the Third Republic’s survival (despite its crises), and how this was co-determined by citizens’ perceptions of the regime and some of its main political actors.

Was this common practice of “writing upwards” an early expression of Pierre Rosanvallon’s “counter-democracy” or John Keane’s “monitory democracy”? And if anti-parliamentary sentiments date back so far, can we still use the word “crisis” for them? Doesn’t the word “crisis” imply that there is an end or solution in the very near future?[1]


[1] Inspired by: Felix Heidenreich, “Organizing the Political. Understanding the Crisis of Democracy with Rosanvallon,” in Pierre Rosanvallon’s Political Thought. Interdisciplinary Approaches, ed. Oliver Flügel-Martinsen et al. (Bielefeld: Bielefeld University Press, 2018), 175–97.