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Can a country be too democratic?

How do democracies develop? The Institute for History is devoting a three-day conference to this question.

There can never be too much democracy in the world. For a long time this was the assumption made by politicians and human rights organisations. But is it really the case? 

In perspective

From 14 to 16 January dozens of historians will be discussing this issue in Leiden. 'We will be looking primarily at the relationship between liberal democracy and the nation state,' commented  Henk te Velde, Professor of Dutch History, who is one of the organisers of the conference. 'We've selected historic and recent examples from different parts of the world so we can see the theme in a broader perspective.' 

Elites vs. ‘the people’

In his own workshop Te Velde will be looking at the development of parliamentary democracy in Europe. As early as the 19th century there was a clear division between the elite groups and the representatives of the 'ordinary people'.  Te Velde: ‘On the one hand you have the liberal elites who think they know everything better, and on the other there is the agressive populist movement  that purports to speak 'on behalf of the people'. 


Other speakers will address the independence of Congo and recent developments in Latin America. These examples show that democracy isn't a panacea for all the world's evils. You can see that clearly in Latin America; in recent decades the region has been the stage for populism and nationalism. Take Hugo Chávez, for example, who rose to become the socialist president of Venezuela. Te Velde: ‘That's not an isolated case. It seems to be part of nation states with a liberal democracy.' 

Refugee crisis

According to Te Velde, this conference is being held at a significant point in time. 'The current refugee crisis embodies all these different tensions, and raises some important questions. Does our liberal democracy mean that we have to monitor our borders more strictly, for instance? Or does it mean we need to better protect human rights, including the rights of people who have come from outside our borders? These issues show that different ideas about democracy and the nation state can be at right angles to one another.' 

Research group

The  conference is an initiative of the Political Cultures and National Identities research group, part of the Institute for History. The keynote speeches are open to the public. Visitors can also attend the workshops, but they first need to register with the workshop organiser. 

British and French parliaments

Professor Henk te Velde recently published a new book. In ' Sprekende politiek' he describes the two most prominent parliaments of their time, the British and the French, and reveals the rich world of 19th-century parliament and its public. 

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