Highlights: Lessons from The Democracy Playbook on how to prevent and reverse democratic backsliding

French flags are seen on the desks of Members of the Rassemblement National (RN) far-right party ahead of a debate at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, September 17, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler - RC134C0960B0

Around the world, democracies are under stress. According to Freedom House, 2018 marked the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. In Europe alone, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has sought to consolidate control over the judiciary and the media, eliminate checks on power, rig elections, and stifle independent civil society organizations and academia. The populist PiS government in Poland has attempted a partisan takeover of the previously independent judiciary. Moreover, Western European populist parties, including the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany and the Rassemblement National in France, continue to see successes; in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime is increasingly autocratic; and concerning trends are emerging in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, as outlined in a February 2019 Brookings report, The Anatomy of Illiberal States.

Supporters of liberal democracy, then, “desperately need a game plan to counter what’s happening globally” and domestically, as Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) declared in a sobering keynote address at the Brookings Institution on November 5. To powerful foreign actors like the United States, the senator insisted: “[w]e need to invest in democracy [abroad]—it’s in our national security context.”

Senator Cardin, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, offered these timely reflections at the launch event for The Democracy Playbook: Preventing and Reversing Democratic Backsliding. A collaboration between the Transatlantic Democracy Working Group (TDWG) and the Governance Studies and Foreign Policy  programs at Brookings, the Democracy Playbook offers precisely the toolkit for combatting democratic backsliding called for by Senator Cardin.

Following Senator Cardin’s remarks, four of the report’s co-authors gathered for a panel discussion on the evidence-based tools and strategies laid out in the report to strengthen democratic institutions. The event featured Susan Corke, Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and Director of Secretariat of the TDWG; Alina Polyakova, Director of Brookings’s Project on Global Democracy and Emerging Technology and Fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe (CUSE) in Brookings’s Foreign Policy Program; Torrey Taussig, Nonresident Fellow at CUSE; and Norman Eisen, Senior Fellow in Brookings’s Governance Studies program, who offered opening remarks and moderated the discussion.

The November 5 event was held just days before the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which marked the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent spread of democracy across Europe. The panelists thus began by offering reflections on the current state of democracy, agreeing that it was not “in crisis,” but rather experiencing natural “ebbs and flows.” The democratic project envisioned in 1989 should not be thought of as a failure, Taussig and Corke argued, but rather as an ongoing process. And in fact, as Polyakova noted, pockets of resistance to authoritarian trends at the local level in the former Soviet bloc—such as the October mayoral race in Budapest, Hungary, which the opposition won—offer reasons for optimism.

Next, the panelists discussed the responsibility of specific domestic and international stakeholders to preserve and strengthen democratic institutions. Taussig highlighted the role of members of the political establishment in resisting authoritarian tendencies. In response to the specific threat posed by disinformation campaigns and interference in foreign elections in the digital age, Polyakova called for a “democracy playbook for the twenty-first century” to address challenges posed by new technologies. Drawing on her background in human rights advocacy, Corke emphasized that international support for pro-democracy actors ought to be guided by deep engagement with domestic stakeholders.

Finally, Eisen asked the panel to reflect on the role of the private sector, and specifically, of social media companies, in promoting democracy. Senator Cardin, in his keynote address, had called for an end to propaganda and disinformation through “guardrails on social media” in the United States. While the panelists agreed that social media companies play a crucial role in countering illiberal trends, Polyakova and Taussig noted that content control on social media can be a slippery slope to censorship—a hallmark of authoritarian regimes. As Corke argued, the private sector should not “be a puppet for the government and help them to do their dirty work.” Nonetheless, Polyakova noted optimistically, social media companies are “not the enemy” of democracy: many recent popular protest movements such as the Arab Spring have been enabled by platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

You can watch a video of the event online.