Project on Democracy and Capitalism

This project will explore the institutional intersection between democracy and capitalism. Our aim is to produce new curricula, faculty workshops, and policy research and proposals.

Research Interests
  • Democracy
Participants
  1. Robert Bruner headshot
    RB
    Robert F. Bruner
    Darden School of Business
  2. Sidney Milkis headshot
    SM
    Sidney M. Milkis
    College of Arts and Sciences
  3. MB
    Melody Barnes
    President's Office

Motivation

Recent events demonstrate that bothdemocracy and capitalism are under siege today. Declining public trust and policy gridlock have reached unmistakableproportions.[1]  Political polarization is rising, producingsharper differences in attitudes toward capitalism.  Leaders in both the public and private sectorsacknowledge chronic problems (such as declining growth rates, lagginginnovation, climate change, racial inequality, crumbling infrastructure) yetneither and both have demonstrated an ability to remedy them.  Both critics and friends of democraticcapitalism perceive that this is a pivotal moment in which policies and actorswill realign for years to come.  However,the direction of the realignment is unclear. 

Resilience to challenges hasbeen a hallmark of democratic capitalist societies.  Over the past three centuries, democracy andcapitalism reinforced each other.  Capitalism delivered economic growth andemployment that sustained democracy. Liberal democracies protected property rights, the rule of law, freetrade, the sanctity of contracts, norms fair dealing in markets, andinstitutional stability, all of which encouraged investment and risk-taking inthe market economy.  As capitalism’swaves of creative destruction threatened to overturn society, liberaldemocracies adapted in ways to harness the advantages of capitalism whilequelling its ills.  The history ofeconomic change and democratic resilience is a record of imperfect progress.  Capitalism (roughly defined by the privateownership of means of production and free exchange) has lifted hundreds of millionsof people out of abject poverty and stimulated the invention and diffusion oflife-enhancing products—yet capitalism can be abused to the benefit of a few atthe expense of many.  The spread ofdemocracy (the expression of public will through fair and competitive electionof representatives and leaders) is associated with the spread of civil andhuman rights, yet many regimes are democratic in name only.  The promise of resilience embedded in bothdemocracy and capitalism cannot be assumed or taken for granted. 

The American politicaleconomy today seems brittle, rather than resilient.  Its critics dismiss calls for mere reform andadvocate radical change.  While suchcalls may be a healthy symptom of a democratic society, less clear are thealternatives to democratic capitalism toward which the advocates would have usmove.  For instance, how does democraticcapitalism compare to state capitalism, democratic socialism, andsocialism?  Is it possible to cure theills of democratic capitalism without killing the patient?  What are the tenets of democraticcapitalism?  Where has it succeeded?  Where has it failed?  Why are such issues challenging to democracyand capitalism? What are the long-term impacts of such challenges on democracyand capitalism?  How can democratic andcapitalist systems summon the resilience to respond to them? Are there “better”combinations of a political and economic order than democracy and capitalism?

The academy struggleswith questions such as these because the challenges are largelyinterdisciplinary. Today, the complexity of these issues warrants theengagement of not only departments of politics and economics, but also fieldssuch as law, history, business, and public policy. In addition, treatment ofthese questions can be enhanced by the engagement among scholars, businesspractitioners, politicians, leaders of non-governmental organizations andpolicymakers.

Proposal

This is the rightmoment for a team at University of Virginia to study what is and isn’t goingwell in democratic capitalism; why; and what should be done.   We aim to engage with audiences ofreflective professionals and the general public with responses to questionssuch as these.  The products of thisproject will be

•      Curriculum development:  Students show less understanding today ofeither democracy or capitalism—or of the ways in which they support each otherand may conflict.  We aim to address thisgap through the development of

o  Original teaching materials, such as case studies, essays, and a digital archive.  Theacademy needs fresh and original teaching materials on democraticcapitalism.  Case studies should affordopportunities to explore decision settings where democracy and capitalism havefunctioned well together, and where they have not.  For instance, eras in American history (suchas Reconstruction, the New Deal, and the Great Society) could yield instructiveexamples in policy development.  Thepurpose of such cases should be to highlight lessons for the present day.  Other valuable contributions of teachingmaterials could be expository essays, video interviews, oral histories, andcollections of readings.  We alsoenvision the development of a digital archive of resources on democracy andcapitalism that would afford structured research opportunities for students.

o  New courses on democracy andcapitalism that draw contributions from across the academic disciplines.  Such courses could cover a) foundationalconcepts of liberal democracy and market economies; b) historical developmentof democratic capitalism; c) current challenges.  The course designs and teaching materialsshould be made available for adoption by other colleges and universities.

•      Dialogue: Academicians, business people, and policymakers can benefit from anexchange of views.  What is strikingabout today’s setting is the absence ofdiscussion “across the aisle,” in which critics and friends of democraticcapitalism can reason together.  Thisproject aims to promote informed and civil discussion at the interface ofdemocracy and capitalism.  We willorganize a community of interest on democratic capitalism and will host aregular seminar meeting of expert contributors who will encourage the communityof interest to debate and explore historical cases and contemporarychallenges.   We also aim to engage the broader public through webinars, op-eds,and in-person forums.  These not onlyinform the public, but also enrich the thinking of presenters as they receivequestions and comments from audiences. 

•      Researchand policy development: We aimto develop fresh insights about the issues at the frontier between democracyand capitalism and to extend those insights into implications for policymakersI business, nonprofits and government. We envision developing a book of essays reflecting on democraticcapitalism, drawn from the experts affiliated with this project.  In addition, we seek to promote thedevelopment of original research that can serve as a foundation for thedevelopment and criticism of policy proposals. 

The University of Virginia is well-positionedto address this opportunity.  Since itsfounding in 1819, the University has carried a deep commitment to publicservice and the preparation of future leaders. Among its faculty, it counts prominent scholars in relevant fields.  It harbors top-ranked departments and schoolsrelated to democracy and capitalism.  TheDemocracy Initiative at the University of Virginia promises to advance theresearch and conversation on democracy generally.   TheMiller Center has intellectual and logistical capabilities that can help toimplement this project.



[1] In a 2018 survey, less than half of Americansage 18-29 viewed capitalism positively, and only 47% of Democratic-leaningvoters did so.  In the latest Gallupsurvey, the percent of the public that retains “a great deal/quite a lot of”trust in Congress is 13%; the comparable figures for big business and organizedlabor are 19% and 31% respectively.  Halfof the population is unhappy with government. Senators Hawley and Rubioquestion whether capitalism produces good human beings. [See Frank Newport,“Democrats More Positive about Socialism than Capitalism,” Gallup, August 13,2018, https://news.gallup.com/poll/240725/democrats-positive-socialism-capitalism.aspx  on September 10, 2020. And “Confidence in Institutions,”Gallup Organization, https://news.gallup.com/poll/1597/confidence-institutions.aspx.]   

Desired outcomes

As described above, we aim to deliver outcomes in three general areas

•       The development of new curricula about the interface between democracy and capitalism.  These would include new teaching materials such as case studies, expository writing, video-based presentations, and a digital archive.  Also, we propose to develop designs for new courses on democracy andcapitalism that draw contributions from across the academic disciplines.  Such courses could cover a) foundationalconcepts of liberal democracy and market economies; b) historical developmentof democratic capitalism; c) current challenges.  The course designs and teaching materialsshould be made available for adoption by other colleges and universities.

•      Engagement in dialogue.  We aim to organize a community of interest on democratic capitalism and will host aregular seminar meeting of expert contributors who will encourage the communityof interest to debate and explore historical cases and contemporarychallenges.   We also aim to engage the broader public through webinars, op-eds,and in-person forums.  These not onlyinform the public, but also enrich the thinking of presenters as they receivequestions and comments from audiences. 

•      Researchand policy development: We aimto develop fresh insights about the issues at the frontier between democracyand capitalism and to extend those insights into implications for policymakers in business, nonprofits and government. We envision developing a book of essays reflecting on democraticcapitalism, drawn from the experts affiliated with this project.  In addition, we seek to promote thedevelopment of original research that can serve as a foundation for thedevelopment and criticism of policy proposals.