How Democracy Can Win

Essay by Samantha Power: “…At the core of democratic theory and practice is respect for the dignity of the individual. But among the biggest errors many democracies have made since the Cold War is to view individual dignity primarily through the prism of political freedom without being sufficiently attentive to the indignity of corruption, inequality, and a lack of economic opportunity.

This was not a universal blind spot: a number of political figures, advocates, and individuals working at the grassroots level to advance democratic progress presciently argued that economic inequality could fuel the rise of populist leaders and autocratic governments that pledged to improve living standards even as they eroded freedoms. But too often, the activists, lawyers, and other members of civil society who worked to strengthen democratic institutions and protect civil liberties looked to labor movements, economists, and policymakers to address economic dislocation, wealth inequality, and declining wages rather than building coalitions to tackle these intersecting problems.

Democracy suffered as a result. Over the past two decades,as economic inequality rose, polls showed that people in rich and poor countries alike began to lose faith in democracy and worry that young people would end up worse off than they were, giving populists and ethno­nationalists an opening to exploit grievances and gain a political foothold on every continent.

Moving forward, we must look at all economic programming that respects democratic norms as a form of democracy assistance. When we help democratic leaders provide vaccines to their people, bring down inflation or high food prices, send children to school, or reopen markets after a natural disaster, we are demonstrating—in a way that a free press or vibrant civil society cannot always do—that democracy delivers. And we are making it less likely that autocratic forces will take advantage of people’s economic hardship.

Nowhere is that task more important today than in societies that have managed to elect democratic reformers or throw off autocratic or antidemocratic rule through peaceful mass protests or successful political movements. These democratic bright spots are incredibly fragile. Unless reformers solidify their democratic and economic gains quickly, populations understandably grow impatient, especially if they feel that the risks they took to upend the old order have not yielded tangible dividends in their own lives. Such discontent allows opponents of democratic rule—often aided by external autocratic regimes—to wrest back control, reversing reforms and snuffing out dreams of rights-regarding self-government…(More)”.