The Project

ProDem investigates how interactions between citizens, social movements, and a specific breed of political parties (so-called ‘movement parties’, della Porta et al 2017; Kitschelt 2006; Mosca and Quaranta 2017) influence democratic quality in Europe. We approach democratic quality from a citizens’ perspective as the acquisition of political, civil, and social citizenship rights through democratic institutions and processes (della Porta 2016:8-9). The interplay among citizens, media, and political organisations is at the heart of our inquiry into democratic quality.

Since 2011 and in the wake of the European financial, economic, and migration crises, mass protests have engendered new social movements and political parties. This development has been interpreted in two main ways. Research into political culture describes the increase in protests as a consequence of long-term sociocultural change, leading to growing numbers of ‘critical citizens’ who question authority but remain committed to democratic values (Dalton and Welzel 2014; Norris 2011). Protesting therefore belongs to civic attitudes deeply rooted in European democracies (Klingemann 2014:139-140).

Researchers studying the ‘quality of democracy’ have developed a more ambivalent approach, regarding the spread of protests as symptomatic of democratic backsliding (Bermeo 2016; Foa and Mounk 2016; Krastev 2014). Dissatisfied with the performance of democracies, sizeable sections of the citizenry have protested by voting for populist parties, contributing to an erosion of liberal democratic standards (Pirro 2015). Some social movements and their populist party vehicles (e.g. Movimento 5 Stelle) have mobilised citizens by framing political conflicts as a confrontation between corrupt, unaccountable, foreign-controlled, mainstream media-supported elites and ordinary people (Mudde 2004) expressing their grievances on social media (Engesser et al. 2017; Neumayer 2016). Polarising worldviews, often coupled with nativist frames, tend to negate political pluralism and erode attachment to the norms underpinning liberal democracy (Mudde 2007; Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018). Activists have, however, also resorted to protest to resist illiberal policies (Dimitrova 2018; Fomina and Kucharczyk 2016).

ProDem comparatively assesses the medium- and long-term effects of this triple interaction between citizens, social movements, and movement parties on democratic quality in European democracies. We seek robust and innovative explanations for how social movements and movement parties, alongside shifting divisions in citizens’ values, ideologies, and attitudes, have affected democratic quality in six European countries (Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Romania, and the UK) between the onset of a global wave of protests in 2011 and 2019. ProDem will generate new, timely insights from comparative analysis of democratic quality by combining concepts and methods from social movement studies, political behaviour and party politics, political culture, critical theory, media studies, and computational social science.