Democratic Resilience for a Populist Age

Helmut K. Anheier at Project Syndicate: “… 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. …

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…

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….(More)”.