The state of democracy and how to defend it
Eyoel is the founder and CEO of Keseb, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization building an entrepreneurship ecosystem to advance inclusive democracies.
From the insurrectionist movement that shook our nation on Jan. 6, 2021, to the ongoing war in Ukraine to political turmoil across the world, we are gripped by the increasing precariousness of democracy.
Navigating this moment in history as citizens, community members and institutional leaders requires us to 1) deepen our understanding of the underlying drivers of democratic regression, 2) identify the solutions that hold promise to counter rising authoritarianism in the short and long term and 3) pave a path toward a more inclusive model of democracy.
In pursuit of this goal, my nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, Keseb, partnered with the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University in May to host the inaugural Global Democracy Champions Summit, which featured 25 speakers from 12 countries. With more than 400 registrants from 48 countries, the summit created a forum to uplift compelling ideas and create a global network of leaders committed to building inclusive democracies.
We have gathered 14 key takeaways from the summit that we hope will spur ongoing dialogue, learning and action.
Part I: Threats to democracy are multifaceted and evolving.
“Democracy is really unique as a form of government because it asks people to accept uncertainty over outcomes in order to have certainty over process. The conditions under which people are willing to accept that uncertainty are more fragile than [what] we might have understood in the past.”
- Hahrie Han, inaugural director, SNF Agora Institute
1. There are unique features to today’s authoritarianism.
Globally, autocrats increasingly collaborate. Despite representing different ideologies, they’re united in opposition to liberal democracy. Trends show that these strongmen employ a common playbook to seize and solidify political power.
2. Authoritarians are increasingly gaining political power through democratic processes.
Elections are central to, not synonymous with, democracy. Recent global trends, from Europe, Latin America, Southeast Asia and the United States, demonstrate that authoritarians are increasingly coming to power via electoral means, often with broad popular support, but subverting democracy once in power. This has given rise to the phenomenon of “elected authoritarians.”
“The nature of modern autocracy is changing. Autocracies now increasingly think of themselves as first of all as working together. They see as their common enemy the language of democracy, of liberal democracy, the activism of democrats inside their own political systems.”
- Anne Applebaum, staff writer, The Atlantic
3. The crisis of civic trust shakes the foundation of democracy.
Democracy is built upon trust. However, trust in institutions and citizens has consistently declined, leading people to disengage with the political process and increasing the potency of disinformation.
4. Mis-/disinformation is both the driver and symptom of massive technological and cultural disruption.
The misinformation and disinformation crisis goes beyond social media. It is occurring and accelerating at a moment of seismic change in the media landscape, a low point in institutional trust, and a lack of trusted messengers.
5. The allure of conspiracy theories lies in their simplicity.
Belief in conspiracy theories is deeply connected to a sense of powerlessness, which often has to do with historical, cultural and economic change. Conspiracy theories offer simplistic narratives that satiate the need for meaning and agency.
6. The United States is facing an identity crisis.
The U.S. faces more than just a political crisis, but also spiritual and identity crises among its diverse populace. “Who are we as a nation?” “Who matters?” These fundamental questions are connected to, but extend beyond, politics.
Part II: Solutions to defend and strengthen democracy require local, national and global strategies.
“Citizens of the United States care as much about their democracy as citizens of Togo who do not even have democracy, because they aspire to also live in countries where they could choose their leaders and hold them accountable for their actions. So the time calls for more collaboration among citizens.”
- Farida Nabourema, executive director, Togolese Civil League
7. This moment calls for a solidarity movement for democracy.
With eight out of 10 people across the world living in a “not free” or “partly free” state, citizens of all countries need to be involved in the project of conceptualizing 21st century democracy. We need to build solidarity across cultures, creating bridges for democracy champions everywhere.
8. We need to practice humility and civility.
Both online and offline, we need ways to humanize each other and engage with civility. We need to revisit our social contract and norms that promote a sense of trust and belongingness for diverse groups to coexist in a democracy.
9. The media needs to evolve to empower audiences.
Today’s media needs to meet people where they are and address the conditions that create proclivity for believing in conspiracy theories. This requires journalists to change their modus operandi from “beaming down the truth from on high” to engaging audiences.
10. It will take an ecosystem and a collaborative approach to reverse the crisis.
Building civic trust necessitates the engagement of all sectors and should not be relegated to political leaders and parties; there is a role for new and long-standing civil society organizations, philanthropy, businesses, social movements, and government.
11. Democracy entrepreneurship unleashes innovation that is both responsive and forward-looking.
Democracy entrepreneurship is a vehicle through which organizations and movements drive pro-democracy structural, relational, cultural and behavioral outcomes. There is a strong need and opportunity to define and support the sector.
“There used to be no such thing as social entrepreneurship. And then there was the Skoll foundation, Ashoka, really helpful networks, financial support, peer mentoring, and sharing across borders. Nothing was perfect, but there’s a lot to learn from the social entrepreneurship movement that we need in the democracy entrepreneurship movement.”
- Lisa Witter, co-founder of Apolitical and CEO of Apolitical Foundation
12. We need to invest in the leadership of young people.
13. Philanthropy has a historic role to play in strengthening civil society.
As the engine of civil society, philanthropy should prioritize consistent and long-term funding of democracy work akin to the arts, education, poverty alleviation and health care.
14. Everyone needs to be involved.
As citizens and community members, each of us has a responsibility for engaging in the active work of strengthening and defending democracy. As Gabriel Marmenti, a young Brazilian democracy entrepreneur articulated, “I found a problem and I just started doing something.”
The decline of democracy requires strategic action. The aforementioned takeaways illustrate the complexity of the problem and call for time-tested and novel approaches.
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