Democratic resilience for a populist age

How to make our democracies more resilient, if not altogether immune, to anti-democratic threats is a central question of our time, writes Helmut K. Anheier.

The enemies of open, liberal societies have gained disconcerting influence in recent years, demonstrated most recently by the Polish government’s bid to place the country’s courts under political control. Although many democracies are plagued by serious maladies – such as electoral gerrymandering, voter suppression, fraud and corruption, violations of the rule of law, and threats to judicial independence and press freedom – there is little agreement about which solutions should be pursued.

How to make our democracies more resilient, if not altogether immune, to anti-democratic threats is a central question of our time. Fortunately, we have not yet reached William Butler Yeats’s bleak scenario, in which “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” On the contrary, many citizens and some governments have been actively standing up against authoritarian challenges, and are discovering new ways to defend democratic values and institutions. After massive protests, Polish President Andrzej Duda vetoed two of the three bills that sought to curtail the courts’ independence.

Today’s defenders of liberal democracy recognize that nothing can be taken for granted. Any democratic system can develop deficiencies over time. No democracy is perfect or constant. It is a dynamic system that requires calibration and innovation to adapt to changing circumstances and emerging threats. After all, as former US Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson once put it, a “constitution is not a suicide pact.”

Democratic resilience demands that citizens do more than bemoan deficiencies and passively await constitutional reform. It requires openness to change and innovation. Such changes may occur incrementally, but their aggregate effect can be immense.

One can find powerful examples of democratic resilience in Central and Eastern Europe, which is also home to brazenly populist regimes, not least in Hungary and Poland. In this region, mass protests have traditionally been a weapon of last resort. Today, they have become a primary vehicle for citizens to speak out against overweening and abusive governments.

Earlier this year, tens of thousands of Romanians took to the streets to protest a government decree that would have decriminalized certain forms of corruption committed by public officials. Not long after, Hungarian citizens congregated in Budapest’s public squares to protest Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s attacks on civil-society institutions, particularly Central European University.

And in 2016, Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) government faced mass demonstrations in response to many of its policies, including measures aimed at banning abortion and limiting the independence of the Constitutional Court. When such protests have been large enough, and sustained over a long enough period of time, they have forced governments to withdraw or soften their proposals.

Beyond protests, another way to improve democratic resilience is to equip political institutions with internal safeguards. For example, the United States has term limits and sunset provisions for the appropriation of funds; and the United Kingdom has the Investigatory Powers Tribunal and other special agencies to hold the government accountable for its actions. Such mechanisms are crucial for ensuring that civil and political rights are protected, especially when governments are responding to multiple safety and security threats simultaneously.

These mechanisms can take different forms, depending on the country. Some actions are appropriately initiated by governments “from above,” in response to pleas by political movements and civil-society groups. Other actions are taken by citizens “from below,” to give a voice to excluded groups, improve access to voting, and strengthen democratic processes.

Governments and citizens thus have a rich set of options – such as diversity quotas, automatic voter registration, and online referenda – for addressing democratic deficiencies. Moreover, there are measures that can also help citizens mount a defense of democracy against authoritarian assaults.

To that end, organizations can be created to channel protest and dissent into the democratic process, so that certain voices are not driven to the political fringe. And watchdog groups can oversee deliberative assemblies and co-governance efforts – such as participatory budgeting – to give citizens more direct access to decision-making. At the same time, core governance institutions, like central banks and electoral commissions, should be depoliticized, to prevent their capture by populist opportunists.

When properly applied, these measures can encourage consensus building and thwart special interests. Moreover, such policies can boost public trust and give citizens a greater sense of ownership vis-à-vis their government.

Of course, some political innovations that work in one context may cause real damage in another. Referenda, for example, are easily manipulated by demagogues. Assemblies can become gridlocked, and quotas can restrict voters’ choices. Fixing contemporary democracy will inevitably require experimentation and adaptation.

Still, recent research can help us along the way. The Governance Report 2017 has compiled a diverse list of democratic tools that can be applied in different contexts around the globe – by governments, policymakers, civil-society leaders, and citizens.

In his contribution to the report, German sociologist Claus Offe, Professor Emeritus of the Hertie School and Humboldt University identifies two fundamental priorities for all democracies. The first is to secure all citizens’ basic rights and ability to participate in civic life; the second is to provide a just and open society with opportunities for all citizens. As it happens, these two imperatives are linked: democratic government should be “of,” “by,” and for the people. 

Many of the innovations highlighted in the report are meant to enhance citizen engagement. The goal is to encourage citizens to defend not just their own interests, but also those of the larger civic community.

Some might think that this is asking too much. But democracies fail when citizens become complacent or alienated, and when populists are allowed to exploit such sentiments. Democracy will always have imperfections. Only by working together can citizens inoculate it against the most dangerous threats to its survival. 

This article was published by Project Syndicate on 27 July.

More about the author