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Responding to the current crisis of democracy requires a global reckoningUCLA Assistant Professor of Political Science Tejas Parasher. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

Responding to the current crisis of democracy requires a global reckoning

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By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, October 24, 2022 — We are living in a time when populist and far-right movements are increasingly challenging the principles and practice of democracy worldwide. This trend could be seen most recently in Italy in September, when the nationalist conservative party Brothers of Italy — whose roots extend back to Mussolini — won a plurality in national parliamentary elections.

Not only has the world seen the rise of what political scientists call “illiberal democracies” in countries such as Hungary, Poland, Brazil and Turkey over the past two decades, democratic norms and voting rights are under fire in the United States. Meanwhile, China and Russia are contesting an international system based on liberal values and are consciously promoting nondemocratic political and economic models.

“The world that is potentially facing us is one in which democracy does not appeal to as many people as we might think. It’s an open-ended question whether democracy — or at least the liberal democracy with which we have long been familiar — will be part of globalization,” says Tejas Parasher, a political theorist who joined UCLA this fall with a joint appointment in the UCLA International Institute and the department of political science.

Parasher earned a B.A. in political science at the University of Toronto in 2013, and a Ph.D. in political theory at the University of Chicago in 2019. He has spent the past three academic years as junior research fellow in political thought and intellectual history at King’s College, University of Cambridge.

“If political scientists want to respond to rising threats to democratic governance across the world, then it’s necessary for us to examine how institutions of democracy can be made compatible with anti-democratic principles. Clearly there are nation-states where electoral governments coexist with corruption and authoritarianism, clientelism and exclusions. Liberals — and more broadly, friends of liberal democracy — need to think much more seriously about these things,” he says.

Parasher gives the example of 19th-century United States. “Jacksonian America was a robust democracy premised on enormous exclusion [i.e., the dispossession of Native American land and the disenfranchisement of African Americans]. And in many ways, its democratic structures were built to allow those exclusions to be reproduced. We need to think more deeply about what it means for a state to have democracy: what kind of democracy and for whom?”

Anti-colonialism addressed the failure of European liberal democracy after WWI

“The crisis of democracy that we are facing now is not entirely unprecedented. What makes our current moment new is climate change and the impact of technology,” notes Parasher. “But we had another moment when democracy collapsed: the interwar period.”

The scholar’s first book, “Radical Democracy in Modern Indian Political Thought” (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2023) examines the political writings of a constellation of anticolonial intellectuals and activists who lived in India at the same time as Indian independence movement leader Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), but are far less known. These writers all grappled with Gandhi’s injunction of avoiding “English rule without the Englishman.”

A polling station in Delhi during India’s first general elections, January 1952.
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; public domain.)

The book reflects Parasher’s commitment to incorporating non-Western political thinkers and traditions into the canon of political theory. “When we are teaching introduction to political theory, we’re giving students Aristotle’s concept of citizenship. But what about Confucian conceptions of citizenship? How do they compare?” he asks.

A crystallizing moment in his graduate studies came when Parasher read the essay, “Democracy as a Human Value,” by Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen. “Sen has a kind of throwaway line in that essay where he says that democracy cannot be understood simply as a Western construct because we have had thinking about accountable government in many intellectual traditions globally, and enormous Asian thinking about democracy.

“That essay was eye-opening for me, not just because it dealt with the question of democracy, but with the broader issue that, if we leave out non-European global traditions from political theorizing, it leads either to triumphalist Eurocentric narratives or to readers who have an insufficiently cosmopolitan understanding of concepts such as ‘citizenship’ or the ‘state’ or ‘rights.’”

The long-neglected South Asian democratic socialist thinkers whose writings Parasher examines in his book — figures like Joseph Kumarappa, Narendra Deva, K.T. Shah and others — rejected British parliamentary democracy as a system controlled by elites that offered only the illusion of democratic governance.

Joseph Kumarappa (1892–1960), one of Gandhi's followers examined in Parasher's forthcoming “Radical Democracy in Modern Indian Political Thought.” (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons []; public domain.) Beginning in the 1920s, these writers began to elaborate ideas about a future independent India. Their works critiqued not only the structures of governance imposed through empire, but the social and economic practices that sustained such structures, with considerable attention devoted to the relationship between capitalism and democracy. Their work advocated direct democratic rule in a future decentralized Indian federalist system that vested power in local citizens’ assemblies.

“Private accumulation of capital becomes a form of elite dominance that then translates into unaccountable political structures,” explains Parasher.

“So the colonial problem becomes not just the problem of empire as a form of alien rule, but, more specifically, the diffusion of forms of accumulation and representation that lead to elite domination in politics — and continue to persist in nation-states after independence.”

“The animating problem, both for myself and for the thinkers I write about in the book, is that liberal democratic constitutions promise something that they cannot fully deliver: the rule of the people. In electoral democracies, ‘the people’ don’t really rule — political elites are often ruling and speaking on their behalf.”

Parasher argues that the anticolonial movements that took off in 1920s, 1930s and 1940s were not just political, but also intellectual. The writing of those decades is an archive of alternative political thought generated in response to the failure of European liberal democracy.

“It was a historically novel global moment when people in many different places were thinking about the meaning and shape of political community beyond Eurocentric models.”

Global studies courses on the horizon

“What drew me to the field of political theory was the ability to look at empirical questions through a normative lens,” comments Parasher. “It offered me a median between history and philosophy and was the first field to give me a conceptual vocabulary to think about the moral dimensions of empirical questions.”

Parasher will bring his historically rooted, comparative theoretical approach to two global studies courses in 2023: Global Justice (GlblSt 160) in winter quarter 2023, and Colonialism and Globalization (GlblSt 191, a senior seminar) in spring quarter.

The Global Justice course addresses what Parasher calls “a very long tradition of thinking about what duties we owe, as members of a global community, to those outside our borders.”

The class will begin with a historical survey of theories of global justice, from Immanuel Kant to John Rawls to ‘Third World’ critiques of liberalism and theories of global justice, as well as a consideration of humanitarian intervention and democracy promotion in U.S. foreign policy. It will then consider contemporary transnational issues of global justice, such as migration, climate change and reparations.

“We’ll end with a brief overview of non-European theories of global justice, including Buddhist and indigenous conceptions. Looking at indigenous ideas of stewardship of the earth and our obligations towards nature gets us to think about climate change at a much deeper level. The question of responsibility and duty towards nature is a totally different paradigm — it reframes our anthropocentric approach to climate justice.”

The Colonialism and Globalization course will also begin with an historical survey, in this case, of major thinking about the link between colonialism and globalization at key points in history, from the advent of New World settlements through the 18th-century slave trade to Marx’s analyses of capitalism in the 19th century. The course will then consider anticolonial and decolonial intellectual traditions, including concepts of Negritude and the idea of the ‘Third World’ itself.

“What I want students to take away from the course is how the exclusions of colonialism changed over time and to recognize that the link between European colonialism and globalization has not remained static — it’s evolved and changed,” says the scholar. “How do we understand the relationship between colonialism and economic and social globalization today?

“I am drawn to teaching political theory because it pushes students to reconstruct complicated arguments and exposes them to different ways of thinking.

“Part of my goal is to get students to step outside accepted paradigms — perhaps paradigms that they accepted only two weeks ago in the same course. By learning to put alternative theories on the same issue in conversation with one another, they learn to identify the blind spots of each.”