Crisis of Democracy and the Role of Political Science

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Hans Keman examines the role of Political Science in today’s changing society.

There is a ‘crisis’ of democracy at hand one reads in many newspapers, sees on TV. The signs are alarming and brings insecurity into everyday life: Populist parties and a presidential candidate become more successful than ever and the political elites in many countries are under pressure; elections and referenda are more volatile with unpredictable outcomes; terrorist attacks occur more often in Western society; and, Putin’s Russia appears to re-invent the ‘Cold War’. All these events demonstrate in the eyes of the general public the decline of a safe, secure and prosper society guarded by the (national) state. They have lost faith and trust in democratic politics, political leadership and the state regulating the public domain. Short and tall: the good old days have gone and the 21st Century seems to become a hazardous era. How come?

Often, one turns in times like this to science hoping to get answers. In particular, philosophers, but also political scientists, are requested to come up with answers and advice. Yet, what can they offer? They are professionals who study society and attempt to systematically analyse what events mean for the overall fabric of society, politics and the state. They are, however not fortune tellers who can tell the future or wizards who can restore political order in the short run. They can, however, explain what is going on the world and diagnose what options there may be to remedy the ills of the present, albeit in the long run. Hence, don’t blame scientists for not saving democracy today!

What then, can they do? First of all, they are supposed to make us understand how events developed over time, that many of the perils have also affected society and politics in earlier times, that certain extant problems can be overcome by learning from ‘best practices’ elsewhere, and by analytical comparison of similar events and situations. A professional political scientist does not guess nor fantasizes, but does relevant research to remedy societal problems. Think of medical or natural science: it takes much effort and time to come up with solutions that are applicable in everyday life. In fact, it is by patience and persistence that science can make the world better.

The same goes for the ‘softer’ branches of contemporary science. Making the world safe for democracy (again) and bringing back in the authority of a strict but fair state, requires serious and responsible research founded on evidence and by means of grounded methods that enable politicians and others to restore faith in a justified authority and to make policies for the (near) future. That’s their assignment, not to comment only on the ‘hypes’ of today!

The message of my story is therefore that Political Science is not only relevant, but foremost that it is a serious profession where Research Methods and Applications remain central. Only in this way, they can develop relevant insights and provide advice to cope with today’s crisis of democracy.


Hans Keman is Professor Emeritus of Comparative Political Science at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Netherlands


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Handbook of Research Methods and Applications in Political Science edited by Hans Keman and Jaap J. Woldendorp is out now.

Read Chapter 1 free on Elgaronline. Political Science: Researching a Multifaceted Topic in Essentially Contested Ways
Philippe C. Schmitter

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