New Crises: Science, Morality and Democracy in the 21st Century 

By Wolfgang Merkel*

Whoever talks about democracy cannot remain silent about its crises. We have known this since the days of Plato, at the latest. The gallery of great minds is an impressive one: from Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, Hobbes, Tocqueville, and Weber to Habermas, Offe, or Colin Crouch. The diagnoses of crisis are exaggerated – at least if one takes the term “crisis” seriously and understands it as an existential question of life or death, stability or collapse, democracy or autocracy. In the last five decades, we have not experienced any such existential crisis of democracy in Western Europe. The United States under President Donald Trump may be a borderline case. The populist-plebeian style of government and the undemocratic claim to power of Trump after the 2020 elections have been successfully repudiated by the democratic institutions of the rule of law, the quality press, and finally by free elections. Things are different in Eastern Europe: despite membership in the European Union, Romania and Bulgaria have never managed to become fully developed constitutional democracies. Far more disturbing is that the region’s former flagship democracies, Hungary and Poland, have regressed from consolidated to defective and illiberal democracies within a decade. 

There is no existential crisis of Western democracies, but there is an erosion of democracy worldwide. 

The latest expert surveys by Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) show this very clearly. The average quality of “Western” democracies over time since 1950 held up until the epochal break of 1989. This marked the addition of the young democracies of Eastern Europe, whose quality was less developed than that of theirWestern European counterparts. The small dip in democratic evolution was quickly smoothed out again as the 32 established democracies democratised further. Greater gender equality, legal acceptance of same-sex preferences, better protection of minorities, strengthening of civil society and media diversity were the drivers of the “democratization of democracy.” This trend continued until 2008, when it took a significant turn for the worse. Since then, the quality of the best democracies has been visibly declining. 12 years is a long enough period to call this a stable trend.

This long trend line of democratic erosion is now being met with considerable force by three external crises that will challenge democracy in the future. What are these crises, what distinguishes them, and why are they particularly challenging?

New conflict structures

Financial, labour-market and, more generally, economic crises have not gone away. It is certainly true that the “Great Recession,” the financial crisis (2008 onwards), and the ensuing Eurozone crisis (2010 onwards) were more than a decade ago. However, the construction of the European common currency, the large-scale deficit spending in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the considerable transformation costs in the fight against the climate crisis will contribute to the fact that economic crises will not disappear. Despite improved international governance instruments and a willingness to cooperate on the part of the major capitalist economies of the West, economic crises will continue to put pressure on democracy. Moreover, it is not only the crises of capitalism that can pose a threat to democracy, but also its very triumph: namely, when deregulated global markets continue to significantly constrain the scope for democratic politics. 

Traditional economic crises have now been joined by new crises in the second decade of the 21st century, which in turn reflect the two-dimensional conflict structure of democratic competition in the developed democracies. 

The traditional horizontal conflict dimension between capital and labour, left and right, state and market has long been intersected by a vertical conflict dimension featuring cultural issues. This divides our developed societies into urban, well-educatedupper-middle classes on the one hand, and a lower half with less education and lower socio-economic status on the other. The former group follows a cosmopolitan worldview and seesnation-state borders as a relic of the 20th century that must be overcome. They emphasise gender-neutral language, insist on equal rights for different sexual preferences beyond “heteronormativity,” stress a liberal immigration policy, and see the fight against the climate crisis as an absolute priority for the 21st century.

At the other pole of this conflict dimension, we find the less privileged in our societies. They are formally much less educated and are socio-economically in the bottom half of our societies. They are in favour of the nation-state, they tend to have authoritarian rather than libertarian attitudes, and gender-neutral language is unimportant to them. This camp is divided into two groups: one group tends toward nationalism, right-wing populism, and xenophobia. Their political home is the right-wing populist parties. The other communitarian group consists primarily of the traditional clientele of social democracy. Their normative point of reference is the Swedish “folkshemmet,” the people’s home: a relatively homogeneous “home” with a strong solidarity-based welfare state. They have become politically homeless after the culturalist turn of some social democratic parties and, after a stay in the camp of non-voters, not infrequently end up with right-wing populists across Europe.

The socio-economic and the cultural conflict dimensionsshape not only the competition structure of the party system, but also the discourse landscapes of many developed Western European or North Atlantic societies. “Developed” is a keyadjective here because it can be shown empirically that cosmopolitan cultural discourses are particularly strong in places where economies are highly developed and conducive to post-materialist cultural discourses emerging from a terrain of material security. This Maslov-based needs hypothesis became extraordinarily influential in comparative politics with Ronald Inglehart’s book The Silent Revolution and retains its validity today. 

Without the cultural discourses, socio-cultural camps, and political entrepreneurs mobilizing along discursively powerful lines of cultural conflict, it is impossible to understand why the new crises in the 21st century pose such a challenge for democracy.

New crises

What are these crises, what makes them new, and why are they, in particular, an enormous challenge for democracy? We are talking here about the refugee and migration crisis of 2015 onwards, the climate crisis that has been smoldering, or even blazing, for some time, and the COVID-19 crisis. What makes these crises new are three characteristics that are intertwined in a certain sequence and contribute to the division of our democratic societies. It is precisely in the case of these “new”crises that it becomes apparent that they always have an objective and a subjective dimension. The objective dimension comprises the factual circumstances surrounding the crisis in question. In the refugee and migration crisis of 2015, an extraordinarily rapid influx of refugees and migrants into Western Europe, particularly Austria, Germany, and Sweden, was observed. In the climate crisis, the steady increase in global warming caused primarily by human activity (especially in industrialised countries) is seen as particularly serious. In the COVID-19 pandemic, the facts were the rapid increase in infection rates, mortality, and overcrowding in intensive care units in the hospitals. 

This is only a partial list of the causes and circumstances of the crises. None of the three new crises can be explained by “objective” facts alone; in all of them, there is a subjective dimension of considerable importance. This relates to the construction of a crisis narrative as it is repeatedly developed in societal discourses by government, opposition, new political crisis entrepreneurs, media, demagogues, or social movements. There may be legitimate or illegitimate reasons for this. 

What holds true is that a crisis is only a crisis when the majority of people believe that it is a crisis. 

Crisis narratives contribute to this belief just as much as the “objective” facts they try to explain or distort. It is, above all,these crisis narratives that feed on the three new properties of scientisation, moralisation, and polarisation, then nourish and weave them into a crisis context of public significance.


Not all three crises are equally affected by scientisation. The scientisation thesis applies least of all to the refugee crisis. Even if policymaking elites have less expertise here than in social, labour-market, or domestic policy, the demand for scientific research on refugee movements and migration is limited. However, more NGOs, humanitarian organisations,and think tanks operate here as policy advisors than traditional associations and lobby groups in economic and social policy. The situation is different in the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. The complexity of the causes and spread of greenhouse gases or viruses catch political decision-makers cognitively unprepared, almost by necessity. The political demand for expertise in the (natural) sciences is accordingly high. Without scientific advice, rational and efficient crisis solutions cannot be found. The term “evidence-based policy making” already found its way into policy research from the health sciences (with “evidence-based medicine”) in the 1980s. With the climate crisis and the pandemic, it is  increasingly appearing in media usage.

As necessary as scientific evidence-based policy advice is, it is not without problems and side effects. Governments may select scientists who best suit their pre-conceptions, to the extent that they can already hold such a concept pre-scientifically. Political-strategic selection is particularly problematic in complex crises characterised by ignorance and uncertainty. It is precisely here that politics requires a particularly broad and pluralistic access to scientists and scientific disciplines. 

If access is strategically narrowed down for political reasons, the scientisation of politics leads to the politicisation of science. “Evidence-based policy making” is then in danger of being turned into “policy-based evidence making.”

Not only does this mean the exclusion of certain alternative scientific positions, but parts of science can come dangerously close to the sphere of political activism. “Scientists for Future,” is one example. The movement activists of FFF, for their part, respond as naïvely as much as logically: “Science has told us.” The political plans have long been at the readyand it is compromise-based politics that stands in the way ofthe necessary one-to-one translation of scientific research into policy. Two problematic simplifications become visible here: on the one hand, “science” is spoken of in the singular, as if it were not precisely the competing pluralism of the sciences with their permanent attempts at refutation that guarantees scientific progress in the search for truth; on the other hand, democratic policymaking is misunderstood as a machinery for implementing “truthful,” “indubitable” knowledge. It is as if there were always only one political problem in migrationpolicy, climate policy, or pandemic policy, rather thanmultiple consequences affecting civil liberties, the labourmarket, economic growth, inequality distribution, or generational and gender issues. 

One of the too little-noticed side effects of the scientisation of politics is the naïve simplification of what science and politics are and what they can, should, and must be in a democracy. The singularisationof both knowledge and political processing does not do justice to either.

Can science (in the plural) (pre-)determine the common good? 

I doubt it. When, for example, in climate policy, it is said that the goal and the path to the goal have long since been formulated by science and that politics must only finally implement them, this is based on a misunderstanding of what democracy is. As the theorist Adam Przeworski put it,democracy is “a system of ruled open-endedness, or organized uncertainty.” The institutions and procedures are fixed a priori, and the results of decisions are therefore necessarily contingent within the framework of the constitution and its laws. For climate activists and zero-COVID advocates, it seems clear: the outcome is a priori fixed, the procedures only have to be adapted to it. This is at odds with Ernst Fraenkel’s core postulate of pluralistic democracies: the common good is achieved only a posteriori, as the result of a “delicate process of divergent ideas and interests among groups and parties.”Scientific findings, too, must pass through the sluices of democratic decision-making procedures if they are to become legitimate and induce compliance from free citizens.


The second characteristic element of the “new” crises is the moralisation of politics and scientific positions. Moralisationis distinct from morality. Morality, as codified in the human rights and freedoms of democratic constitutions, cannot be conceived without a morality that must constantly be subject to justification. 

Without morality there is no democracy. Moralisation, however, is a different matter. It is a self-righteous stylisation of one’s own moral position in order todisparage another moral position. 

It is a variety of egocentrism, a “moral ostentation” that claims for oneself a position of moral superiority. Such ostentation cannot existwithout moralising and inappropriately reducing the complexity of political issues. 

“Excess moralisation” and the discrimination againstdissenters not infrequently associated with it also becomesclear when it comes to labelling those citizens who, for whatever rational or (predominantly) irrational reasons, protest against the COVID-19 policy of governments A name was quickly found for them: “Corona deniers.” Even before that, all those who refused to believe in anthropogenic global warming against all scientific evidence became “climate deniers.” But no discourse can be conducted with liars and deniers. As a result, these individuals are first conceptually and then actually excluded. Let there be no doubt: the author of this article has nothing at all in common with the positions of so-called “climate deniers” and “Corona deniers.”However, he considers moral discrimination to be democratically problematic and politically unwise, as it pushes people of very different convictions to the margins of democratic society. Democracy, on the contrary, requiresdebate, the “freedom of the dissenter” (Luxemburg) and the “unforced force of the better argument” (Habermas), i.e. inclusion and not exclusion. 

A problematic binary is introduced into political discourse through the moralising disparagement of opposing positionsand the postulation of the superiority of one’s own. The binary code becomes truth vs. lies, morality vs. immorality. In such a binary meta-scientific discourse, pluralistic, dissenting scientific positions in the public sphere become something that has to be fought against. This form of communicative practice initiates a moralistic transformation of discourse that crisis narratives then cast in the form of a friend-foe relation. It is not only the right-wing admirers of Carl Schmitt who understand this as the essence of the political; no, supposedly left-liberal currents also view the exclusion of immoral opinions and their exponents as their democratic moral duty. The attempt of both sides to integrate complex societies with their own particular morals is pre-modern and leads to polarisation in modern societies – the third characteristic of “new” crises.


Democracy can be understood as a political order in which differences in interests, worldview, and moral conceptions of a pluralistic society can be peacefully negotiated and processed. If this succeeds with the majority approval of the population and without violent or anti-systemic dissidence on the part of political, social, religious, or ethnic minorities, democracy maintains its stability since the legitimacy of the democratic order, both empirical (in the form of approval from the population) and normative, proves itself over and over again. 

If this pluralism, while conflictual, is carried out in mutual acceptance and according to a priori fixed rules of decision-making, this can constitute a particular strength of democratic institutions and their embeddedness in a lively civil society. 

The transition from lively pluralism to polarisation takes place especially when the multitude of social divides merge and bundle into a single dimension.

When this happens, cross-cutting cleavages lose their moderating effect and a single cleavage dominates the political contest. This can lead to society splitting into two camps. In the populist narrative, it becomes “us” vs. “them,” the “corrupt elites” vs. the “pure people.”  

In free Western societies, an increasingly far-reachingdimension of cultural conflict has been emerging over the past decade that runs between the camps of cosmopolitans and nation-state communitarians. The latter can appear in both traditional social-democratic and nationalist guises.  In Germany and Western Europe, the two dominant lines of conflict, socio-economic and cultural, have not completely merged into a one-dimensional clash. However, the socio-economic conflict dimension between the well-off and the less well-off does not intersect the vertical cultural conflict dimension between cosmopolitanism and communitarianism orthogonally, since the camp of the better-off tends toward cosmopolitanism and that of the less privileged toward nation-state communitarianism. The two lines of conflict tend towards each other, but have not (yet) fused into a single dimension. That is why polarisation in most Western European societies is not as advanced as in the United States, where social conflict has been politically fused into a single dimension by the polarised two-party contest between the Republicans and the Democrats. However, the one-dimensionality that Somer and McCoy describe is by no means a necessary condition for the polarisation of a society. If the cultural conflict dimension dominates in a society, sharp polarisation can emerge even in a two-dimensional conflict structure.

In polarisation research, a distinction is made between democratising polarisation and pernicious polarisation, i.e.polarisation that threatens democracy. 

Why is cultural conflict (currently) particularly harmful? Socio-economic conflicts are generally easier to deal with than cultural conflicts. There, it is not a question of all or nothing, but of more or less.

Compromises are possible, if not obvious. This does not mean that distributive conflicts are settled once and for all. The recurring compromises between the conflicting parties fostermutual trust as well as acceptance toward the opponent and stabilise the rules of conflict resolution. The policies of the welfare state and collective bargaining agreements after 1919 and 1949, respectively, demonstrate the pacifying effect of this “democratic class struggle” in Germany. Cultural conflicts are usually structured differently. They are about the whole, about true or untrue, lie or truth, recognition or non-recognition, identity vs. identity. Here, what is negotiated are “fundamental and, from the point of view of those concerned, non-negotiable, because morally absolute, values.” Purism allows for neither relative positions nor compromise. The drivers of social purism are to be found primarily on the side of the populists, but also among the self-righteous moralisers of political conflicts.

Conclusion: ScientisationMoralisationPolarisation, and Democracy

The migration, climate, and COVID-19 crises are characterised by scientisation, moralisation, and polarisationto different degrees, but all of them to a much greater extent than economic crises. Discourse camps have long since formed in most Western democracies, reinforced with scientific and moralising arguments by interest groups, NGOs, movements, political parties, and political entrepreneurs. The not infrequently hand-woven moralistic positions tear down the bridges of understanding between the camps. Opponents become enemies. Science, following this logic, cannot be negotiated any more than morality. “Science has told us.”Minority or dissenting opinions are effectively rendered immoral by majorities or activists. We are currently experiencing a re-coding of political conflicts that poses new challenges to democracy in Germany, Europe, and North America.

Beyond scientisation, moralisation, and polarisation, the three crises have revealed other problematic trends for democracy. This became particularly clear in the COVID-19 crisis. A shift from participatory input to decision-making output took place, whereby the executive dominated the legislature and science dominated democratic representation. Re-democratisingdemocracy after the pandemic is a challenge. But challenges are not yet crises. They only become so when politics and society fail to find answers appropriate to democracy. Faster, more centralised, more executive – as popular a choice thismight be, it is the wrong one. Democracy needs time, pluralism, and dissent. If it is deprived of these, it loses quality and resilience. This will not stop the worldwide erosion of democracy, but accelerate it.

In collaboration with Oliver Garner


Wolfgang Merkel is Director of the “Democracy and Democratization” research program at the Social Science Research Centre Berlin (WZB) and Professor of Political Science at the Humboldt University Berlin. He is a member of a number of key bodies, including the prestigious Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. He is also a non-party member of the Basic Values Commission of the Executive Committee of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). 

His recent book publications include. The Struggle over borders. Cosmopolitanism and Communitarianism (ed. 2019 Cambridge University Press; with de Wilde, Koopmans, Merkel, Strijbis, Zürn); Democracy and Crisis. Challenges in Turbulent Times (ed., 2018 with Sascha Kneip, Springer); Handbook of Political, Social, and Economic Transformation (ed. with Raij Kollmorgen and Hans-Jürgen Wagener 2018 Oxford University Press); The Future of Representative Democracy(2011, Cambridge University Press, together with Sonia Alonso and John Keane.

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