EuroStorie research seminar: Steven Livingston 10.9.2021

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Time: Friday, 10 September 2021 at 1:00pm - 2:00pm EEST
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Steven Livingston: The Role of Religious Narratives in Democratic Backsliding

A greater number of liberal democracies are under duress in 2021 than at any other time since 2006 when Freedom House began collecting data. Finding similar trends, the V-Dem Institute concluded, “In North America, and Western and Eastern Europe, no country has advanced in democracy in the past ten years (2010-2020) while Hungary, Poland, Serbia, Slovenia, and the United States of America have declined substantially.” What explains this uptick in democratic backsliding?

Livingston adopts Harvard political historian Daniel Ziblatt’s “Conservative Dilemma” model to explain these trends. Focusing on late 19th and early 20th century European democratization struggles, Ziblatt’s argues that successful democratic consolidation hinges on the confidence economic elites have in winning elections. To do so, conservative parties must find effective “cross-cutting cleavage issues,” issues that appeal to potential supporters from across class divides. Secondly, they must strike balanced relationships with allied organizations – civil society groups, media organizations, and cultural institutions such as churches -- to help promote cross-cutting issues. If successful, conservative parties will be less inclined to undermine liberal democracy, even during times of social and economic inequality and political turbulence. If, however, they lose control of the issues they adopt and the relationships they form with their allied organizations, they run the risk of being pulled into extremist illiberal positions. German conservatives in the late Weimar period, for example, aligned themselves with powerful illiberal organizations that embraced anti-Semitism. Liberal democracy collapsed as a result. British Tories, on the other hand, gained confidence and embraced liberal democracy after discovering that supporting the monarchy and the Anglican Church offered electoral advantages. The nature of cross-cutting issues is a key factor in whether liberal democracy survives.

Livingston explores contemporary religious narratives in the US and Europe as “cross-cutting cleavage issues.” Extant literature suggests contemporary political extremism, perhaps especially in the US, regularly involves religious narratives that cast political differences in apocalyptic terms. This rhetoric has become a mainstay of the US Republican Party. A growing body of research suggests that as a growing proportion of the overall US public abandons organized religions, significant subsets of the public embrace highly syncretic religious identities. According to a growing body of research literature, common themes are found across an otherwise desperate array of churches and movements. They include a celebration of militant masculinity and traditional gender roles; fixed and normatively uncontested social/racial hierarchies; and ultra-libertarianism in the context of the liberal democratic state. This position is paired with an embrace of Dominionism – belief in the need of a theocratic state. Among traditional conservative Catholics, a similar belief is Integralism. In the internet era, what might have remained latent esoteric beliefs scattered along “the long tail of a power law distribution” cohere algorithmically on subreddits and in Facebook Groups. Lacking the theocratic boundaries provided by a fixed church doctrine, White Christian Nationalism overlaps with QAnon conspiracy theories in online organizational morphologies. QAnon and similar quasi-religious belief systems have also had a growing presence in far-right European politics.