Time to Renew the Democracy Playbook

Concern surrounding the state of democracy is deafening, with rhetoric becoming increasingly dire. A barrage of news headlines illuminate alarming developments: In Romania, democracy is facing its “gravest danger”; Venezuela has banned opposition in the name of democracy; and India’s supreme court judges have warned that democracy is under threat. Indeed, over the past few years, the world has suffered a democratic recession. Public opinion polls measuring citizens’ faith in government institutions have recorded historic lows in the United States, for example; and an abundance of academic and policy research points to a resurgence of illiberal democracy and resilient authoritarianism. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, 72 countries experienced a deterioration in democracy in 2016, while Freedom House recorded 11 consecutive years of decline in global democracy.

Moving beyond surface-level trends and news headlines, democracy around the world has systematically stalled and eroded. Setbacks can be found in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has consolidated his power by asserting authority over the judicial and legislative branch, as well as the media—clamping down on dissent and independent civil society organizations. Meanwhile, Poland, once lauded as a success story, recently overhauled its judicial system, putting the courts under the control of the right-wing governing party. India has also not been able to escape these trends. As the world’s most populous democracy, India has, in the last few decades, tried to increase citizen engagement, though inconsistently; yet, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party seem poised to erase these gains, using nationalist narratives to quash dissent and marginalize ethnic and religious minorities.

While experts worry that democracy is on its heels, the gloom is exacerbated by the impression that authoritarian regimes are making a comeback. Once a dying breed, autocrats are evolving and finding new ways to come into power and thereafter expand their influence, stifle dissent, and neutralize potential threats. Today, contemporary autocrats are more likely to come to power through a democratic election, but retain it through a gradual erosion of democratic norms and practices. Amidst this evolution, studies also show that authoritarian countries have established mechanisms to share “worst practices.” Both illiberal democrats and traditional autocrats are employing creative (and similar) strategies to exert influence and sow confusion within democratic societies, from China’s networked authoritarianism to the Kremlin’s strategic meddling to oppose Montenegro’s NATO membership.

Perhaps even more palpable than the threat to democracy is the anxiety about its future. Citizens of democratic countries have begun to think more seriously about nondemocratic alternatives. Especially among younger generations, a rising number of individuals are willing to experiment with different forms of governance. For example, a median of 49 percent across 38 countries in North and South America, Asia, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa say that rule by experts would be a good way of governing their country. Further analysis finds that only 23 percent of people are strongly committed to democracy, while the rest are less committed to democracy, nondemocratic, or do not endorse any of these forms. Citizen engagement is also at a global low, with voter turnout declining significantly since the 1990s.

These indicators demonstrate that democracies, even those that are historically strong and resilient, are not immune to threats and do not function on autopilot. Instead, democracy must be continually worked on and fought for. Democracy is at a critical juncture—meeting insidious internal and external threats, suffering in the vacuum of U.S. leadership, and falling behind in the face of complex global challenges, such as grave environmental issues and the migration crisis. Further emboldening of authoritarianism would only give rise to global instability and repression. Democracy must adapt or further decline.

If we take up the mantle of reviving the universal liberal values and our national political institutions, we can choose order over chaos.— Senator John McCain

Resilience in the face of these trends comes from strong citizen engagement and sound institutions. Civil society and journalists—though both face their own threats that coincide with the closing of political space—play a crucial role in expressing dissent and holding governments accountable. According to a recent report, “renewing civil society remains critical for long-term democratic resilience.” In Burkina Faso, for example, civil society is perhaps the strongest actor, was instrumental in overthrowing a corrupt regime, and continues to thrive despite a weak central government and dire security challenges. To push back against further decline, civil society and the media should effectively communicate potential backsliding to the public, and further mobilize in response to early warning signs.

Citizen engagement, now stalling, should be renewed through a reinvigoration of the narrative surrounding democratic values and processes and enhanced civic education. Other democracies have much to learn from Uruguay, whose legislation is progressive and inclusive. Perhaps most impressive is Uruguayans’ commitment to resolve differences at the voting booth and their healthy mistrust of charismatic, messianic leaders which fortifies them against unsuitably long presidential terms. It also illustrates that a well-informed and invested public is one of the best defenses against democratic erosion.

Democracies must also band together during this time; just as authoritarians have adapted and shared “best” (or worst) practices, so too must democracies in order to successfully defend their institutions, engage constituencies, and remove barriers to citizen engagement. Estonia, for example, has positioned itself as a leader in e-government, and its citizens have high social trust in their government, which they exercise when signing official government documents digitally. Germany has also led the way in combatting disinformation, planning the creation of a center to combat false information and foreign influence. There is much to learn from other democratic nations, and it will be important to leverage forums such as the Community of Democracies so democratic countries can take the next step in their renewal and evolution.

Finally, the reinvigoration of democracy abroad requires addressing shortcomings at home. The recently released U.S. national security strategy addresses the importance of promoting “American” (which arguably refers to democratic or universal) values, but only mentions human rights once. Largely, the strategy envisions a world in which U.S. power rests on its military might. As Jon Alterman writes, “The president’s new strategy prioritizes building strength rather than agility, but given the strength we already have and the world that we are facing, greater agility is the more urgent need.” U.S. policymakers and analysts must not only address increased polarization, rising populist sentiment, and low citizen engagement, but also navigate external threats that undermine democracy both within the United States and around the globe. Indeed, this requires agility. It would be in the United States’ national security interests to strengthen both its own institutions and those of its allies.

At its prime, the democracy playbook included providing democracy and governance assistance and enhancing influence through soft power means such as exchanges, among other tactics. This playbook must be dusted off and updated. As threats to democracy continue to morph and become more insidious, a renewed democracy playbook must be nimble and innovative to fight back against democracy’s steady decline.

Lauren Mooney is a program manager and research associate with the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Shannon N. Green is a senior fellow and director of the CSIS Human Rights Initiative.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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