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Crises of Democracy


March 24, 2021

Crises of Democracy

What is it in the world today that is making populist and authoritarian approaches to government more attractive than democracy?

This is one of the core questions at the heart of our 18-month Crises of Democracy Global Humanities Institute (GHI) project funded by the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI) through a grant from the A.W. Mellon Foundation and in partnership with institutions around the world.

Evolving from engagement with the urgent issues facing our divided society that were considered in Politics of the Present (2017-2019), the GHI Crises of Democracy project brings together humanities scholars spanning four continents to explore various threats to democracy through the lens of cultural trauma from a comparative global perspective. In addition to the Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia, the GHI consortium comprises the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute at Trinity College Dublin and humanities centers at the University of São Paulo, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and University of Zagreb.


Crises of democracy do not arise out of nowhere. Countries that currently find their political systems in crisis can in most cases find causes by looking back to specific times, events, and experiences in the collective lives of the culture. By turning to the past, we can discover conditions and patterns of responses and influences that have contributed to current crises.

One construct that has proven particularly useful in tracing these crises to their roots has been that of cultural trauma. Developed as a concept by the Yale University Center for Cultural Sociology, the theory of cultural trauma is related to, but also differs from, the study of individual trauma, in that it focuses on shocks to the collective tissue of a society. Examples of events that both induce and respond to cultural trauma, and that thereby produce democratic crises, include: racialized persecution, violence, and forced displacement; war and genocide; colonialism and decolonization; nationalism, ethnocentrism, and revisionist interpretations of national heroic traditions; terrorism, fundamentalism, and distorted nationalism; revolution; radical economic change and market collapse; climate disaster, demographic shifts, and more.

In a series of events held both at individual member institutions and at all-member consortium meetings (described below), the GHI Crises of Democracy participants explored these themes, producing at the end of this 18-month project a living curriculum designed by GHI faculty and featuring videos, podcasts, and readings. This online resource is open to all.

Our exploration of these themes continues in response to the COVID-19 crisis with Rethinking Democracy in an Age of Pandemic, a partnership between the SOF/Heyman and the Trinity Long Room Hub featuring Columbia and Trinity faculty and other experts. This five-part series considers whether the crisis is changing how we think about nations and borders. We will discuss the implications for the marginalized groups hit hardest and interrogate the role of inequality in this public health emergency. We will examine the implications of the new normal on the everyday, as billions of people worldwide adjust to living in some state of lockdown. Finally, with access to the conventional means of protest lost and the news media under potentially catastrophic economic pressures, we will ask if democracy can function without the public sphere.

Crises of Democracy Global Humanities Institute


The first phase of the GHI brought together representatives from the five partner institutions: the Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities, Columbia University; Trinity Long Room Hub, Trinity College Dublin; Institute of Advanced Study, University of São Paulo; Jawaharlal Nehru University; and the Center for the Study of Ethnicity, Citizenship and Migration, University of Zagreb. The planning meeting held in the Trinity Long Room Hub was followed by a field trip to a site of cultural trauma, Belfast.


The second and most significant phase of the GHI was a 9-day summer institute in Dubrovnik. This brought together 40 faculty and early career researchers travelling from 5 continents and representing over 30 disciplines in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

Using past events, experiences, responses and influences—contributing factors in the contemporary crises of democracy—alongside case studies of positive forms of resistance, this group of researchers developed a collaborative and interdisciplinary research framework to understand and respond to the challenges we face today. The program consisted of lectures, panels, practical skills workshops, film screenings, and early career researcher presentations. Participants were also taken on a 2-day field trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here, the group visited relevant sites of cultural trauma including Mostar, Sarajevo, and Srebrenica.

Rio de Janeiro

The final phase of the GHI reconvened representatives from the partner institutions at the Columbia Global Center in Rio de Janeiro to explore how the knowledge and skills developed over the course of the GHI might best be embedded in their institutions and disseminated broadly, as well as to consider how the institutional membership and reach of the project might be expanded. The Brazil program, “Transatlantic Crises of Democracy: Cultural Approaches,” included brief talks by GHI members, presentations by local artists and activists, and visits to sites of cultural trauma in Rio de Janeiro, Paraty and São Paulo.

Two key outcomes of the GHI were launched at this meeting: an open-access online syllabus and a short film documenting the project.

For a full description and all related media, please see the full project site:

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