Democracy Under Threat: How Education can Save it (DEMED)

Project Overview

Research puzzle and questions: Democracy is under threat around the globe. We see societies backsliding into authoritarianism in countries as diverse as Turkey, Hungary, India, Brazil and the USA. Unexpectedly, contemporary democratic recessions are characterised by bottom-up processes with authoritarian leaders taking power through popular elections rather than elite-driven coup d’états (Bermeo 2016). This development challenges the common perception that among ordinary citizens democracy is universally perceived as the best political system. Extensive research has clearly linked democracies to greater individual well-being (in economic, social, and political terms) than dictatorships. DEMED will approach this puzzle of why individuals in some circumstances prefer authoritarianism to democracy, answering two main research questions: 

1. What is the origin of popular demand for democracy or autocracy? 
2. What are the solutions to build more resilient democratic societies? 

Primary ambition: The overarching ambition of DEMED is to introduce a new paradigm to study the process of democratisation and autocratisation. To achieve this goal, DEMED will provide new theory, innovative data and empirical research to understand and tackle causes of and solutions to democratic backsliding, creating a significant shift in the fields of comparative politics, public opinion, public policy and political development. More specifically, DEMED has four concrete objectives:

1.     Establish a new theoretical framework of the causes of democratic (in)stability to provide new platforms to study democracy and to enable innovative public policy;

2.     Create unique overtime, comparative measures of regime indoctrination and political culture by collecting original data using cutting-edge methodology to empirically validate this new theory;

3.     Identify new ways to use the transformative power of social media to develop and distribute new online educational content to promote democracy through civic education;

4.     Integrate objectives 1 to 3 to provide a new theoretical and empirically validated paradigm to lead to more stable democracies. 

Focus of project: Ultimately DEMED focuses on the “success of democracy”, either as the survival of existing democratic systems or the triumph of democracy over dictatorship leading to democratisation. It thereby follows the perspective of the seminal work by Diamond (2008: 294) who argued, “for democracy to endure, their leaders and citizens must internalise the spirit of democracy” (emphasis added). Going beyond the usual elite-focused literature on democracy, this project is centred on the role of citizens. 

Principal Investigator: Professor Anja Neundorf


Research Affiliate:

  • Adrian Del Rio Rodriguez (European University Institute) 
  • Armin Seimel (University of Glasgow, PhD student)

Project dates: September 2020 - August 2025

Funder: ERC Consolidator Grant (1,995,024 Euros)

Find out more about the project on the podcast recording