Can Biden’s Summit for Democracy restore shrinking freedoms?

Susan Walsh/AP
President Joe Biden speaks as he meets virtually with Chinese leader Xi Jinping from the White House on Nov. 15, 2021. The Biden administration has invited Taiwan to its upcoming Summit for Democracy, prompting sharp criticism from China.
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President Joe Biden’s big Summit for Democracy is coming up next week, the centerpiece of his campaign to lead a democratic fightback against autocratic regimes such as China and Russia.

But there are growing signs that the deeper challenge to the future of liberal democracies may lie within themselves.

Why We Wrote This

President Biden convenes a Summit for Democracy next week, rallying forces against autocracies like Russia and China. But what if the real challenge lies within democracies themselves?

Beset by a lack of public trust in the institutional pillars of democracy, increasingly uncivil public debate, and a reluctance among political leaders to compromise, democratic governments must demonstrate that they work, and that they can deliver on issues that affect voters’ everyday lives.

Several reports recently have found that democracy is on the wane globally. One even classed the United States as a “backsliding” democracy. The overall picture seems bleak for democrats.

It will not be easy for politicians to recover their credibility and relearn how to make compromises. But it can be done: Israel is now ruled by a coalition of parties with deep differences but a shared determination to make the government work, and a coalition of three very different parties is about to take power in Germany.

Both countries’ leaders will be at Mr. Biden’s online summit. Perhaps they might offer a glimmer of hope.

The planning started within days of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, and now it’s happening: a gathering of more than 100 world leaders to launch a democratic fightback against the rising influence and assertiveness of autocracies like Russia and China.

Yet in the run-up to next week’s Summit for Democracy, there are growing signs that the deeper challenge to the future of liberal democracies may lie within.

A series of recent surveys has charted the trouble that even the oldest democracies are in. Last week, one influential report – on “backsliding” democracies – included, for the first time, the United States itself.

Why We Wrote This

President Biden convenes a Summit for Democracy next week, rallying forces against autocracies like Russia and China. But what if the real challenge lies within democracies themselves?

So while the summit will highlight what Mr. Biden has termed a historic struggle between democracy and autocracy, it will also inevitably focus attention on what’s ailing democracies themselves, and what might be done about it.

The encouraging news for democracy advocates is that Mr. Biden has recognized that challenge. Along with this virtual summit, there are plans for an in-person meeting next year to encourage, and gauge, progress.

The less encouraging news? The list of what needs repair is long and daunting: 

How to revive belief and trust in the institutional pillars of democratic government: the rule of law, civil liberties, freedom of expression, fair elections, and the peaceful transfer of power?

Paula Bronstein/AP/File
Distrust that democratic institutions are working, as shown by these supporters of President Donald Trump at a "Stop the Steal" rally in Salem, Oregon, on Nov. 14, 2020, may be a greater threat to democratic nations than autocracies, experts warn.

How to restore civility to public debate, a shared commitment among political parties to democratic norms and values? And, distant though that prospect may now seem in the U.S. and numerous other democracies, how to rebuild compromise in service of the public good?

Finally, and perhaps most critically, how to demonstrate democratic government works, that it can deliver on issues affecting voters’ everyday lives?

If there were any doubt of the erosion afflicting all these fronts, pre-summit reports from internationally respected democracy monitors – Freedom House in Washington and a pair of Sweden-based organizations, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, and Varieties of Democracy – have painted a similarly sobering picture. 

“This is the fifteenth consecutive year of decline in global freedom,” Freedom House reported. “Countries experiencing deterioration outnumbered those with improvements by the largest number since the trend began in 2006.”

In fact, of the 110 countries invited to next week’s summit, nearly a third were defined as “not free” or “partly free” in this year’s assessment by Freedom House.

The “decline in global freedom” is all the more stark given the trend toward democracy at the end of the Cold War, leading the distinguished political scientist Francis Fukuyama in 1992 to suggest that liberal democracy and free market economies had definitively won the contest of ideologies, and to declare “the end of history.”

Since then, there have been serial shocks to the democratic system: the global “war on terror,” the world economic crash, and the rise of strongman populist politicians. Their underlying message, echoed by Moscow and Beijing: Liberal democracies are too slow, too bound by rules and institutional limits, too remote or corrupt or uncaring, to fix the problems of people’s day-to-day lives.

Mr. Biden told Congress a few months ago that “autocrats think that democracy can’t compete in the 21st century. We have to prove that democracy still works.”

With the summit drawing nearer, a London webinar brought home last week the scale of that task, but also points to how it might be accomplished.

The speaker was the British philosopher and writer A.C. Grayling, whose most recent books have focused on the future of democracy. He began with a salutary reminder that democratic government has been the historical exception, not the norm. Indeed, it’s only in the last century that two of the world’s leading democracies, Britain and America, extended the vote to women.

He also unpicked how, in both Britain and the U.S., the voting system had reduced politics to a contest between two major political parties, leaving large numbers of voters feeling that their own voices went unheard. That fed a sense of disengagement that is easily amplified, and weaponized politically, through “microtargeting” of divisive, or even false, messages on social media.

Professor Grayling recognized that his own preferred recipe for fixing things – proportional representation electoral systems such as those used in many European countries, for instance, and web transparency to end microtargeting campaigns – might face serious head winds.

But what stuck with me were the pair of sea changes that he saw as critical: a two-way reconnection between the government and the governed, and a rekindling of can-do political compromise among political groups across the partisan divide.

Will that be hard? You bet.

But possible? Two very different countries suggest the answer might yet prove “yes.”

The first is Israel, where years of increasingly divisive, populist-style government by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have given way to a coalition of parties with deep differences but a shared determination to make their government work.

And even as Professor Grayling was speaking, three quite different political parties in Germany – the Social Democrats, the pro-market Free Democrats, and the Greens – agreed on unified Germany’s first three-way coalition, vowing to “dare more progress” following Angela Merkel’s 16-year tenure.

Both countries’ leaders will be at Mr. Biden’s online summit. And while their models might not necessarily work elsewhere – each country is different – they’ll at least offer an example of what’s possible, and a glimmer of hope.

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