Institutionalisation of Political Parties: Comparative Cases. Edited by Robert Harmel and Lars G. Svasand

Political Literacy and the Resistibility of Liberal Democracy

Contentious Politics
Political Theory
Political Sociology
Section Number
Section Chair
Ireneusz Paweł Karolewski
University of Wrocław
Section Co-Chair
Viktoria Kaina
FernUniversität in Hagen

Liberal democracy is under attack from within. Significant and growing minorities of populace in democratic countries are disenchanted with democracy. Angry citizens are increasingly attracted by populist politics, nationalist demands of protectionism, unilateralism and secessionism as well as political measures of restricting the rights of minorities. The publics’ flirt with authoritarianism that we can observe in almost all parts of the democratic world is partly flanked by elected governments which promote sentiments of anti-pluralism and enforce anti-liberal politics. Political leaders in democracies attack free mass media, polarize public discourse by using aggressive rhetoric against critics, seek to avoid control by eroding the system of checks and balances, combat political opposition by weakening the rule of law and delude their voters with “fake news”, lies and hollow promises. Political scientists discuss these developments as symptoms of “democratic backsliding” and “democratic deconsolidation”. Remarkably, the acts of eroding liberal democracy are justified by the claim of recovering the power of the people. The proper people’s government, so the deceptive argument goes, will replace a flawed and degenerated electoral oligarchy of selfish and corrupt elites by the only true kind of democracy, the real self-government by the people. In other words, the disdain for liberal democracy is pushed on behalf of the people. Thus, the question arises: Does “the people” really understand what is going on in its name?

This question is in line with a long tradition of political thinking about the subjective underpinnings of democratic rule. Much research has been done about what virtues and skills citizens need so that democracy will endure by avoiding both the barbarism of the many and the tyranny of the few. One branch of research has been focused on the citizens’ cognitive requirements and their political knowledge, in particular. Other researchers speak of citizens’ "political literacy“, even though in a vague manner and ambiguous way.

Referring to Giovanni Sartori, we argue that political literacy is more than the technical knowledge about how political institutions work and who is in power right now. We furthermore believe that political literacy is quite different from political knowledge. Whereas the latter can be described as a resource, the former is better defined as a combination of skills. The resistibility of liberal democracy, so our argument goes, depends on citizens’ political literacy more than their political knowledge alone. In order to substantiate this argument, we need to clarify the concept of “political literacy”, validate its significance and empirically analyze its impact on mass political attitudes and behavior. Accordingly, the Section welcomes theoretical and empirical contributions on political literacy and its importance for hard-wearing liberal democracies.

Panel List

P338Political Literacy and the Persistence of Democracy View Panel Details
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