Saving Democracy from the Plague

Transregional Center for Democratic Studies responds to COVID-19 and explores a path for political recovery

In 2019, The New School began its fall semester like most other years. Students excitedly returned to campus, some walking through its doors for the first time. There was an added layer of exhilaration in the air as the academic year marked The New School’s centennial. The university looked back to its beginnings in 1919 with the founding of its University in Exile — the predecessor to The New School for Social Research — as a safe haven for scholars fleeing Nazi Germany, and a century’s worth of scholarship and community activism. It also began to map its next century amid a current time of unprecedented global turmoil.

Building on this spirit, the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) launched its Democracy Seminar amid the October Festival of New. This “worldwide network of democratic correspondence” met to celebrate the centennial as well as to navigate the rise of authoritarianism around the globe and chart a path forward for the preservation and advancement of liberal democracy. 

TCDS was founded at The New School for Social Research in the 1990s, inspired by the dismantling of communist governments in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989. Since then, TCDS has been dedicated to an interdisciplinary and international examination of democratic theory and practice.

Now, almost a year after that October meeting, the fall 2020 semester looks and feels much different, as does most of daily life in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, TCDS has transitioned much of its global programming online, including holding virtual conferences to address pressing issues of the current moment.

Democracy and the Pandemic

Democracy Seminar is a revival and reimagining of the Democracy Seminar of the late 1980s and early 1990s, conceived of by Polish dissident Adam Michnik and brought to life by Michnik; Jeffrey Goldfarb, Gellert Professor of Sociology and Democracy Seminar chair; and Elzbieta Matynia, Professor of Sociology and Liberal Studies and TCDS director. The original Democracy Seminars were semi-clandestine cross-border meetings of pro-democracy intellectual dissidents in East and Central Europe.

Democracy Seminar also organized by Goldfarb, Matynia, and Jeffrey Isaac, Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington now fosters worldwide and open discussion among pro-democracy academics, journalists, activists, and more. Originally the group was supposed to reconvene in person this summer for an update on global democracy. Instead, they met over Zoom.  On May 20, TCDS held its conference “Democracy & the Pandemic.” In July, they held a public panel: Democracy in a Time of Plague: Challenges & Opportunities in the Struggles Against Authoritarianism, COVID-19 and Racism. 

“The Democracy Seminar, our worldwide committee of democratic correspondence, moved to Zoom in May,” says Goldfarb. “We met to urgently consider how the COVID-19 pandemic and the pandemic of authoritarianism are related. There was bad and good news reported from Brazil, China, Georgia, Hungary, Poland,  Romania, Slovakia, South Africa, Turkey and the United States. While the virus is being used by authoritarians to strengthen their positions in innovative ways,  their opponents are also innovatively working to strengthen their opposition, and we used our conference to compare notes. I think there was a general consensus that the situation is bleak, but not hopeless.” 

“The alarming worldwide trend of abandoning democratic rule began at least five years ago, but the pandemic has sharpened its visibility,” says Matynia. “We discussed how the pandemic has provided opportunities for authoritarian regimes everywhere to expand their emergency powers in order to consolidate their peculiar autocratic legalism; but we also asked whether it might under certain conditions serve to topple them? The issue that was of particular interest to me was whether the very experience of this borderless occurrence, the pandemic, might provide an opportunity for the rebuilding of cross-national bonds of social solidarity.” 

Student Collaboration 

Students across NSSR participated in the discussions. “The Democracy Seminar is a great and meaningful event for me to hear the voices of the international scholars and activists from all over the world and their insightful reflections on the current global pandemic and democratic crisis,” says Sociology MA student Chang Liu, who contributed an article on China and the pandemic. 

“The virtual Democracy Seminar was a truly inspiring event for me,” said Malkhaz Toria, a Sociology MA student and coordinator of the Memory Studies Group at The New School. Toria is also an associate professor of history and head of the Memory Studies Center at the Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia. “The distinguishing participants scholars, journalists, activists, and graduate students from the Americas, Eastern Europe, South Africa, and China addressed backsliding from democracy exposed by COVID-19. In many countries, we witnessed rising authoritarian rule and right-wing populism before the coronavirus outbreak. However, the already existent pressing issues re-appeared in new lights during the ongoing pandemic. Insightful discussions and debates at the seminar covered an array of topics on how the pandemic is employed by authoritarian governments elsewhere. The Coronavirus revealed disturbing practices of using and abusing power to further impose governmental rules and restrict civil rights while failing to deal with the public health crisis caused by the COVID-19. But panelists also observed democratic ‘innovation’ and ‘awakenings’ to protest and resist these troubling signs of undermining democracy. Fortunately, we also hear strong critical voices from observed countries, and the Democracy Seminar exemplified these sincere hopes for the global defense of democracy.” 

In the Same Boat

After a summer of rigorous online programming and intellectual discussion, Goldfarb published an update on the Democracy Seminar, titled “We’re All in the Same Boat.” 

“As I wrote over two years ago, when our current group first began to take shape, this is the second iteration of the Democracy Seminar,” wrote Goldfarb “Back then, our immediate situations were strikingly different on each side of the “iron curtain.” Now, we are all in the same boat. The papers prepared for the conference, and our discussions on Zoom all attest to this.” Reflections on TCDS work done this past summer and more ongoing writing can be viewed on Democracy Seminar at Public Seminar.

TCDS is preparing for an online fall 2020 semester and another season of programming via Zoom. They are re-launching the Memory Studies Group at The New School and are looking at summer 2021 for holding their next graduate Democracy & Diversity Institute in Wroclaw, Poland. Among the first events of the semester, TCDS will host Toria and Mykola Balaban, two former Open Society Foundations (OSF) Global Dialogue Fellows at TCDS (2016). They will talk in an online public panel about their collaborative research on “Narrating Conflicts in Post-Truth Era, Facing Revisionist Russia: Ukraine and Georgia in Comparative Perspective,” supported by a ‘Global Dialogs’ Collaborative Research Grant, funded by OSF (2019-2020).  

TCDS plans to continue to grow and adapt, standing up to the ever-evolving threats to liberal democracy.


Alexa Mauzy-Lewis is a Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student. She is a writer, editor, and the student advisor for CPCJ with her cat, Goat. Read more of her work at www.alexamauzylewis.xyz