As democratic institutions continue to erode globally, it has become increasingly important to not only defend existing democracies, but actively promote democratic resilience. Within the increasingly challenging political economy, how do we engage in cross-sector collaboration to address issues related to technology and disinformation, disparities of economic opportunity, and the universality of democratic principles?
“We have been on the defensive too long and it is time we go on offense. We can both defend democracy and advance freedom,” said Damon Wilson, President and CEO of the National Endowment for Democracy when he kicked off this year’s FEDN conference with his keynote speech. In his address, he prompted conference attendees to explore solutions addressing democratic backsliding, with the goal of moving from ideals to action. “Democracy gives people the choice to determine their own future, their own destiny, and our work is to bring this promise to life,” he reminded attendees.
As part of the Year of Action announced in last year’s Summit for Democracy, the Free Enterprise and Democracy Network (FEDN) held their second annual conference under the theme Rallying for Freedom: From Ideals to Engagement, focused on actionable solutions to address threats to democracy and uphold democratic resilience. The two-day event built on the foundation of ideals discussed during last year’s conference, which focused on the future of democracy while moving into a post-Covid world.
This year, the conference honed in on four key thematic areas: the role of technology and combatting disinformation, economic inequality, communicating democratic principles, and resilience in crises — drawing from the Ukrainian experience.
Technology and Disinformation
Access to reliable internet is key in a functioning democracy, yet disinformation is threatening independent media and transparent internet infrastructure, and government regulations cannot keep up. Laura Agosta, Deputy Director of Information & Media at IREX, kicked off the first session on Threats to Democratic Resilience by saying “there is a widespread phenomenon of manipulative information across the board and this of course undermines democratic institutions, polarizes societies, and exacerbates conflict.”
As governments try to regulate this disinformation, they find there is often a tradeoff between curbing the spread of false information and allowing freedom of expression online. Government regulations and technology firm business models are unable to keep up with technological growth to strike a balance between stopping disinformation and allowing transparent media. Because of this, populations lose trust in platforms or websites, and some are seeking cyber sovereignty. Authoritarian governments are taking advantage of the lack of clear regulations and public trust to command the nature of the internet and control populations.
Solutions to the technology issue will require agency at the individual level to discern reliable information in addition to creating an advocacy movement demanding technology companies and media outlets to produce and share quality information. Promoting media literacy among populations is essential in developing holistic solutions and creating a demand within communities to invest in an open and fair internet. Heavy government regulations will not solve this issue, and communication across the public, private, and civil society sector must increase to seek solutions in regulating technology. Regulatory measures such as the Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act in the United Kingdom will move technology governance in the right direction, but the implementation and enforcement of laws like these must include cross-sector collaboration. The conversation on transparent technology must include all stakeholders to find solutions that eliminate access barriers and develop governance that is inclusive and participatory.
Economic inequality poses a significant threat to democratic institutions because it creates a social and political divide among citizens, fostering a sense of disillusionment with democracy. Reducing this inequality will reinforce civic engagement and stability in democracies. The existing phenomenon of accumulation and concentration of wealth exacerbates economic inequality, increases the risk of populism on either side of the political spectrum, and is incompatible with the values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies. A system will not be equal nor inclusive if it neglects democracy while developing markets because markets produce some degree of economic inequality.
To address these issues, state apparatuses must adopt accountability measures to protect democracy and decrease inequality. There must be a cohesive balance between democracy and markets, ensuring fairness and inclusivity among all stakeholders.
“For the private sector we need people and planet at the center, not profit and rate of return,” said Dr. Posh Raj Pandey in the Threats to Democratic Resilience session.
Communicating Democratic Principles
“If people can see a future, then they will support democracy. Democracies have to deliver for as many people as possible,” said conference speaker Ann Bernstein, Executive Director for the Centre for Development Enterprise in South Africa. “The challenge is to make the case, but we also need to show proof rather than just talk.”
To increase constituent buy-in to democratic institutions, the value of democracy must be made clear. Despite the wealth of success stories of both democracy and markets, there is a lack of information and outreach around those stories. As Kim Bettcher, Director of Policy & Program Learning at CIPE said during the Making the Case for Democracy and Markets panel, “a degree of success in itself might not be sufficient to make the case. If you create millions of jobs but people don’t see that hose jobs have been created, there must be something else in the discourse or the experience.”
It is important to consider what is being communicated and how. In terms of communicating the positive returns of democracy, emphasis is often placed on sharing evidence; however, the impact of evidence can be limited and context specific, as people are often swayed more by emotion than evidence. As we have seen in the work combatting disinformation, often the more you argue against something, the more you push people away from your end goal. Rather than merely pushing back against autocracy, it is important to shift to storytelling and creating a compelling narrative telling the story of democracy to capture personal accounts of what democracy that delivers can look and feel like, while simultaneously showcasing concrete evidence.
Resilience in Crises
“Ukraine needs to maintain its sovereignty and continue being a nation that is self-governed – the democratic world needs to show that democracy is stronger than autocracy,” said Hlib Vyshlinsky in the Fireside Chat session of the FEDN Conference.
Ukraine is still facing conflict on several fronts, but the country must form a plan to rebuild now. Remarkably, Ukrainian democracy has progressed amid occupation and continued aggression by an authoritarian neighbor who fears that Ukraine’s democratic aims will serve as a catalyst for similar demands inside Russia. Vladimir Putin sees democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and legitimate elections on his borders as existential threats to his political survival. Ukraine has come to embody all of these threats.
The legacy of the current war will be determined by Ukraine’s and the international community’s ability to honor the sacrifices of those Ukrainians killed in the war by advancing the nation’s democratic development. Post-war, the process of rebuilding will require public-private dialogue and multi-stakeholder partnerships to reconstruct critical infrastructure and transform key institutions to global democratic and free-market standards. Ukrainians will embrace this opportunity to rebuild the Ukrainian society and economy, making it healthier and more robust, said Vyshlinsky. “Certainly, Ukraine is facing its overwhelming share of adversity right now, from my point of view … Ukraine will come out stronger on the other side both as a nation and as a people,” session moderator Eric Hontz remarked.
The three types of action that will carry us forward to maximize the ideas and solutions proposed throughout the conference are preventative, responsive, and restorative action.
In her closing remarks, FEDN Steering Committee Member Camelia Bulat encouraged attendees to take preventative action to predict and preempt potential threats to democracy, be responsive to ongoing threats, and restore what has been undermined. To adopt these actions and move from ideals to engagement, Soji Apampa posited that networks like FEDN must be able to exist in the field and provide the necessary support on the ground, making the case for successful democratic societies. As we look to the future, we must use the lessons learned in the conference and continue promoting FEDN’s mission to strengthen democracy and champion the exchange of ideas and support among members.