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Award-winning economist Amartya Sen gave a lecture on the causes of democratic backsliding.

May 6, 2021

Nobel Prize-Winning Economist Amartya Sen Discusses Global Attacks on Democracy

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As the distinguished speaker for the 37th annual Bartel’s World Affairs Lecture, Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen discussed democratic backsliding across the world, exploring how it plays out in India and in the United States.

The Wednesday evening lecture titled “Attacks on Democracy” was hosted by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell, aligning with their research theme of global democratic resilience. The lecture explored how leaders and parties use democratic institutions to undermine democracy, as Sen argued that threats to democracy have been increasingly coming from internal resistance.

Sen began his lecture by explaining that authoritarian tendencies have been on the rise in new and established democracies, undermining democracy in increasingly subtle ways.

Starting by defining democracy as government by discussion, Sen argued that when people are silenced, democracy ceases to exist.

Sen said while India was the first country to adopt democracy in the non-Western world, internal conflicts currently threaten its democratic structure. He cited several examples, including the government giving certain eligibility to Hindus that it has not afforded to minority groups like Muslims.

“In attacking democracy from the inside, the government of India has often shown an astonishing ignorance of Indian history in its separation of Hindus and Muslims,” Sen said.

Sen said Indian culture is a combination of religious faiths, including much Hindu-Muslim collaboration.

“Many school textbooks in India have been rewritten now to present an entirely revisionist history, reducing or ignoring all together the contributions of Muslims,” Sen said, arguing that this misinformation is fueling inside attacks on democracy.

Sen also said the Indian government has locked up opposition leaders in an attempt to stifle anti-government criticisms. Sen spoke from personal experience, as he said he has friends and colleagues who have been incarcerated through these measures.

The state of India has the ability to unilaterally declare someone a terrorist, abusing that power to incarcerate citizens they consider anti-nationalist. Sen said the criteria to be considered an anti-nationalist in India is low, as anyone who made a critical remark of the government could be considered a threat.

Sen also discussed the state of democracy in the world at large. According to Sen, while external threats have mainly caused democratic backsliding in past decades, such as Nazi invasions in the 1930s, internal threats to democracy are now common throughout the globe. 

“Things have changed,” Sen said. “In the contemporary world, big attacks on democracy come from a domestic origin. Home may have become the really dangerous place for democracy to flourish now.”

The lecture concluded with a Q&A session, where students and professors asked Sen questions.

Prof. Robert Hockett, law, opened a discussion into democratic backsliding in the United States through an abuse of the first amendment. He argued that historically and legally, a government does not need to give a platform to people who undermine that very democracy. 

“A democracy does not have to tolerate the intolerant,” Hockett said.

Prof. Marco Battaglini, economics, brought the role of social media into focus, asserting that online political campaigning and raising awareness for social issues affects the way governments respond to public discourse. He questioned whether democracies should reform to adapt to these technological advances.

Students posed questions about the effects of post-colonial governments, social media and memory on democracy.  

“Is there a particular way of remembering [past democracies] that would make [them] more resilient to today’s populist rhetoric and challenge?” asked Eun A Jo grad, a Ph.D. student in the government department.

Sen responded by saying that every government action relies on collective memory, which can be used for good, through learning from mistakes, or bad, by reminding citizens of a traumatic past.

Following the discussion with the participants, Sen thanked the students for challenging his ideas. 

“There is a need for educational judgement,” Sen said, “which is one of the most difficult things in the design of democracy.”