Rising to the Challenge: Building Democratic Resilience and Countering Pessimism

By: Sara Lehtiniemi

Photo credits: Hans Reniers via Unsplash

According to the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) research institute, the degree of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2022 has regressed to levels recorded in 1986. It can be argued that the world underwent a process of democratic recession, characterised by a decline in political rights and civil liberties. European countries like Hungary and Turkey have become increasingly authoritarian, and in the United States and other Western countries, illiberal populist and nationalist movements are shaking democracy as a reaction to anxieties over the fading of traditional cultural norms and concerns about demographic and technological change

In comparison, democratic resilience can be defined as the ability of a democratic system, its institutions, political actors, and citizens, to prevent and react to both external and internal challenges or attacks. A resilient democratic system means maintaining institutions that secure representative government and participatory engagement, a respect for fundamental rights, checks of government, and the support of an impartial administration. It is furthermore characterised by a continuous search for trust, which guarantees that democratic governance improves. This reminds us that democratic resilience is not only about resilience against foreign threats, but also about resilience against threats evolving within a state. 

This article will discuss how to build democratic resilience and aims to give a rather optimistic outlook on our capabilities to affect the world around us. This article relies in part on the broad approaches developed by Carl Gershman, founder of the National Endowment for Democracy Institute. In his article “The Instinct for Freedom” he addresses the problem of defending democratic values against growing illiberalism and intolerance, as well as countering authoritarianism’s malign influence. In the present article, these topics shall be addressed through a variety of examples, albeit within the constraints of brevity. The goal of this article is to provoke contemplation about how democratic resilience can be fostered.

Knowing history is the start

One tool used in authoritarian warfare against democracy is historical negationism, which refers to falsification or distortion of the historical record. An example of this tactic is the Russian portrayal of the events that led to the annexation of the Baltic states by the USSR in 1940, which Russia has tried to convey as having happened voluntarily. Russia has also deployed the use of historical negationism in justifying the war of aggression against Ukraine. It includes narratives of Ukraine as a “Nazi-run” country, which allows Russia to frame its operation as a war of liberation. Moreover, Russia employs tactics that aim to destroy the Ukrainian nation by destroying its memory; for example by changing the teaching staff in Ukraine in an attempt to Russify education, robbing museums, and destroying people’s homes and objects that hold memories.

Raising historical awareness can help people defend their democracy against not only authoritarian states, but also the growing popularity of anti-democratic actors like extremist parties that are taking a stronger hold in Europe. It could be assumed that when it comes to people with strong democratic principles, they seek out leaders with similar values. Now, European voters are increasingly  choosing extreme right-wing leaders. For example, the recent winner of the Dutch general elections, Geert Wilders, has been prosecuted for inciting hatred and discrimination, and found guilty of the latter. Italy’s Giorgia Meloni became the first far-right prime minister in postwar Western Europe, and the once marginal Sweden Democrats have become the biggest right-wing party in Sweden, normalising illiberalism in a traditionally liberal society

During times of increasingly illiberal attacks on democracy, it is crucial to understand the hard-won achievements of democratisation and liberalisation against the expanding authoritarian influence and anti-democratic interests of the past. The achievements of democracy have undeniably been the creation of a general climate of peace, prosperity and social justice in the Western world. These battles, whether it be against the powers of Hitler and Stalin, or the fight for human rights in general, should demonstrate the value of democracy. Looking back at democratic achievements can serve as a strategic response to potential threats that anti-democratic leaders are posing to the democratic system. Without awareness of history, a society lacks the common memory of where it used to be, what its core values are, and what past choices contribute to present conditions. Without knowledge of history, people cannot undertake a sensible examination of the society’s political, social, or moral issues. In such circumstances, people are unable to achieve the informed, discerning citizenship crucial for effective participation in democratic governance. Nonetheless, while acknowledging today’s difficult times there must also be a focus on shaping a brighter future. This orientation does not entail insensitivity or ignorance of current issues, rather, it is through such optimism that nations gain resiliency. 

Winning the battles of technology and information are essential for democracy’s resilience

Building democratic resilience also requires battling dis- and misinformation. Whereas disinformation has a deliberate intention to mislead, misinformation spreads inaccurate and misleading information regardless of an intent to deceive. The presence of disinformation online is a threat to democracy because it triggers popular distrust in democracy amongst various communities, divides the public, decreases the chance that people vote in their own interests (referred to as “correct voting”), and it fortifies disbelief in key issues such as climate change. In general, authoritarian states are interested in groups who feel distrust towards the institutions of their home country. This is often difficult to counter, as it requires states to be able to face their own societies’ discriminatory practices, such as racism, that can be used to create polarisation and conflicts between different groups within a society.

A common tactic of foreign information manipulation campaigns is to amplify the most extreme views within a target society to weaken it from within. Meanwhile, domestic distributors of disinformation often strive to demonise political opponents for electoral advantage. Taking the example of Finland, which also shares a 1,340 km border with Russia, most disinformation campaigns play on issues like immigration, the EU, and — before Finland joined NATO last year — on whether it should become a member of the alliance. These campaigns are put into effect by a network of alternative media and individual actors actively producing and spreading disinformation, calling themselves “The Truth Seekers”. This group, for example, rejected official polls, according to which most Finns support the country’s NATO membership. The sentiments against NATO are often in alignment with popular sentiment of EU scepticism that resonates well with Russian disinformation campaigning.

Building democratic resilience essentially involves open discussion on the sources of information and whose interests they advance. A response to these challenges ought to incorporate initiatives uncovering the dangers of manipulation of political processes and information; fortifying open-source research and journalism revealing corruption and abuses; and increased global efforts to influence the policies of internet-governance bodies and major technology firms. Many share the argument that social media platforms, which are enablers of, for instance, trolls and bots, should be regulated. State-level actions against disinformation campaigns have for now included teaching campaigns for residents, students, journalists, and politicians on countering false information, as done in Finland. Similarly, the German government has recently passed a law to fine technology platforms that fail to remove hate speech, while France has introduced a law in 2018 that bans fake news on the internet during election campaigns.

Countering growing intolerance and illiberalism

Awareness of history as well as the battle on information calls for investments in education. If we take again the example of Finland, the country’s resilience against disinformation and information warfare has been largely based on the high quality of the Finnish education system and a long tradition of media literacy, besides a generally high level of institutional trust among the population. This is especially important to acknowledge at a time when many factors threaten the quality of education even in the oldest democratic states. In the United States, politically motivated censorship has led to the removal of hundreds of books dealing with topics such as slavery and LGBTQ+ identities, especially in the Southern states. Moreover, in Europe and specifically Hungary, academic freedom, i.e., the ability of researchers and teachers to engage in independent thought and contribute to the advancement of knowledge, is threatened. This censorship threatens democratic values such as liberty, equality, and justice that should be instead promoted through education in democracies. 

Resilience-building education is not only a matter of the capabilities of educational systems. The greater question is, for what purpose is education effective and efficient? Educational systems should be effective in promoting democratic values and democratic citizenship. Teaching how one can take part in a democratic society and its politics, as well as teaching critical literacy, all contribute to the safeguarding of democracy. Moreover, education is a significant tool of power for citizens, and helps to keep decision-makers from undermining democracy, as it teaches voters how to participate in democratic politics and empowers them to do so. On all these bases, it could be interpreted that cuts on education, especially when aimed at students, as witnessed or planned in countries like Germany, Finland, and the UK, point towards a shift of power away from citizens in democratically weak grounds. Moreover, democratic systems thrive on the active engagement of citizens. Therefore, democratic participation is also reliant on an optimistic belief in political influence, empowering people to act. As such, optimism levels can also be increased by providing factual information. It has been demonstrated that, in general, people have a negativity bias when they do not have an accurate view of the world, that is, positive developments will not be as highly acknowledged as negative developments are. 

Last but not least, it is important to address how supporting women’s political participation is a key entry point to building democratic resilience and promoting two of its critical values: equality and freedom. This is especially important given the currently growing illiberalism, intolerance, and patriarchal backlash. However, there are many challenges to overcome in this battle, given that in many European countries, such as Poland and Slovakia, women’s bodily autonomy rights are being threatened. Similarly, according to the Reykjavik Index for Leadership, only around 44 percent of Italy’s population, 43 percent of France’s population and a mere 37 percent of the German population are “very comfortable” with the idea that a political leader could be a woman. This, in turn, points towards the ground yet to cover to ensure better democratic representation and participation, especially in face of threats to democracy. 

Conclusion

Democratic resilience can be built in various ways, and the examples above reflect just a few approaches. To reiterate, those include protecting democratic values against growing illiberalism and intolerance, countering authoritarianism’s malign influence as well as dis- and misinformation. Resilience is needed now more than ever, especially following the increase in polarisation and division between citizens. While democratic backsliding is a very present threat, being pessimistic about the future of democracy only means that those who do not expect that things can get better are unlikely to demand action, and thus unlikely to act themselves either. Instead, we need optimism, and the political will to defend democratic practices and values. This is necessary because polarisation, mis- and disinformation, and the loss of trust in democratic institutions only play into the hands of anti-democratic actors. 

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