Democratic resilience is a new concept that has emerged in the context of democratic backsliding around the world.  While some countries are experiencing a decline in their democratic practice and culture, a handful of countries have managed to navigate turbulent waters and have adapted their democratic systems to new and emerging challenges, including authoritarian, populist, and strongman rule.  As recently as a decade ago, holding relatively free and fair elections would not only confer legitimacy to a democratic governance process but would also strengthen the peaceful transfer of power.  Today, elections are used by autocrats to legitimize their undemocratic rule, and in other cases, losing candidates are questioning the legitimacy of the process and results, simply because they did not win. The entire democratic governance ecosystem is under stress, including key elements such as independent media, the rule of law, and civil society. Meanwhile, autocratic rule has expanded worldwide at the expense of norms, democratic values, and human rights. Governments and leaders with authoritarian tendencies have presided over democratic backsliding, dismantling, and attacking institutions such as courts and the media, and closing the civic space.  How can we understand democratic resilience in this context? What makes a democratic country resilient?

Democratic Resilience

When one hears the term resilience, it is generally linked to environmental and ecological frameworks and natural disasters. Resilience is used to describe an ecological system and is a measure of the amount of perturbation the system can withstand and still maintain the same structure and functions.  As such, resilience addresses the ability of a system to survive in the face of change. When the concept is transferred to the socio-political realm, it acquires a somewhat distinct framework, but nonetheless with similar elements. For example, when applied to democracy resilience refers to the ability of a democratic socio-political system to cope, survive and recover from complex challenges and crises that represent stresses or pressures that can lead to a systemic failure. But is not that simple, as democracy is a complex system with different standards across contexts.  For example, the very closed and authoritarian regime of North Korea is known as the “Democratic People’s Republic” of North Korea. Russia, China, Nicaragua, and Cuba claim their regimes are “democratic,” on the argument that they hold their own type of elections.  In reality, elections in these autocratic regimes are used as tools to elect unopposed incumbents, sons, wives, and other family members or proxies to extend autocratic rule.  As such, it can be argued that these types of regimes enjoy relative longevity because they have rigged the democratic system, and as such are not naturally resilient or democratic.

When democracy is highlighted in its more genuine terms, even elections are no longer intimately linked to the concept. In the 21st Century what matters instead is democratic governance performance or the ability to guarantee the will and consent of the governed, accountable institutions, rule of law, and respect for human rights. As I wrote in the inaugural article of this blog, democratic governance is more than holding periodic, open, and competitive elections.  Having freedoms and the right to vote are important ingredients of democratic governance, but not sufficient for democratic resilience.   As Francis Fukuyama points out in his book Political Order and Political Decay, in addition to elections other key ingredients of democratic resilience could be a modern state (vis-à-vis a neo-patrimonial one);  the rule of law as a means to constraint power and discretion; and a socio-political system of democratic accountability to demand and apply oversight and avoid impunity.   In turn, the dynamics of democratic governance play out not only during elections but most importantly after and in between elections when the election winners have the responsibility to govern and continue to improve and strengthen the democratic governance system while planning and strategizing for the next competitive election within a determined reasonable period of time (3-6 years). Unlike autocratic and authoritarian systems, the architecture of democratic governance in any given country has to offer the space and elasticity to articulate political and policy processes with discourse between elections, and ensure government and citizens reach a minimum consensus on several “public good” policy areas, such as regulations, human rights, laws, justice, welfare, and environmental protection. 

Democratic governance as a system, without viable institutions that reflect people’s aspirations, can become atrophied.  And this inflection point can create an opportunity for democrats and for autocrats.  Autocrats in particular use the inflection point to their advantage, as their argument on the problem is simplified and meant to cast further doubt on the current democratic governance system.  In most cases, autocrats do not have a viable strategy to improve or strengthen the system, but their goal instead is focused on taking power.  On the other hand, most democrats understand that the inflection point involves reform, but the democratic process itself makes the obvious solution more complicated and necessarily involves compromise and consensus.  Ultimately, democratic resilience involves the ability of the system to: absorb stress or pressure (elasticity); overcome challenges or crises (recovery); change in response to stress in the system (reform/adaptation); and reform to address challenges or crises more efficiently and effectively (innovation/expansion).  Mutually reinforcing elements or their absence, such as those exercising power being subject to checks both within and outside the state (i.e., independent courts, an independent press, and civil society); openness to alternations in power; and leveling the playing field for human rights, also contribute to democratic resilience.

Democratic Resilience in Practice 

Democracy is also more than just an ideal. It is a practical engine of self-correction and improvement that empowers people to constantly and peacefully struggle toward that ideal. To be resilient, the democratic governance system needs to have in place tools to be elastic, recover, reform/adapt, and innovate/expand.  In other words, the ability of the democratic governance ecosystem to self-correct.  This is what ultimately distinguishes autocratic from democratic regimes, as autocratic regimes do not have incentives to self-correct.  Their motivation is to spread fear and disinform and through these, root power for themselves, their families, and a handful of faithful followers.

In democratic systems, policymakers, academics, civil society, and the business sector can be the source of identifying necessary changes to the system to assure that increased elasticity is exercised in a manner that is legitimate and responsive to the democratic governance system.  Change and reform can occur through constitutional reforms.  However, incremental steps across time rather than grandiose changes are likely to produce more optimal outcomes for democratic resilience.  As such, democratic resilience can be measured as the continuation of democratic governance over time, without substantial or sustained declines in its quality, that is, the avoidance of authoritarian rule.  As can be seen in see Figure 1, democratic resilience can be analyzed in two dimensions and stages.  First, based on the type of regime (closed autocracy, electoral autocracy, electoral democracy, liberal democracy). And second, based on two scenarios or stages. In the first stage or onset resilience, democracies exhibit resilience by maintaining or improving their level of democratic governance and avoiding backsliding towards authoritarian rule. The room to maneuver in onset resilience is wider.  In the second stage, democracies that are experiencing authoritarian pressures and practice can promote resilience by avoiding a further democratic breakdown. The room to maneuver in this stage is narrow.  

Data and analysis from Freedom House, Idea International, V-Dem and others seem to nourish the theory that democratic resilience in practice is driven by three institutional design features:

  1. The devolution of public decision authority to localized decision-making units.  The more centralized and top-down structures and institutions are, the harder would be to promote conditions for democratic resilience and vice versa, and the easier for authoritarian regimes to backslide and capture power.
  2. Accountability and respective consequences for lack of accountability; and
  3. The effective use of current institutions, the generation of new institutions, and civic practices to enable conditions for problem-solving efforts.

The goal behind these institutional features is to develop democratic governance structures geared to resolve genuine and concrete concerns (opportunities, services, public goods, transparency) in the ecosystem. It is a way to make headway in resolving issues and offer a potential retort to widespread doubts about the efficacy of democratic action. More importantly, they would help to deliver goods and services to sectors of society that have often been denied and/or excluded.  Finally, these institutional arrangements help to promote critical engagement by constituencies and stakeholders beyond the actual electoral process. In essence, this builds the democratic experience or also called democratic stock.  By engaging in conversation and dialogue, citizens and government officials find minimum acceptable reasons to work together under collective action.    

The Politics of Democratic Resilience

Democratic resilience is inescapably political, more than managerial and/or administrative. It involves decisions on how resources are to be used, invested, or distributed, and finding a middle ground and compromises for the inevitable disputes arising from calculations by individuals and party interests as to who will win and who will lose.  As Bertrand de Jouvenel suggested politics must be defined not only according to institutions, agents of the state, and socio-political actors but also according to two basic presumptions: 1) that actions become political whenever the help of other people is necessary to achieve a goal; and 2) politics occur whenever a project requires the support of others will.  Therefore, a more relevant definition of democratic resilience would be, the systemic capacity to bring into being a stream of wills to achieve a previously agreed goal (i.e., change in response to stress to the system or how to address challenges and crises more efficiently and effectively).  The idea of politics then, would be associated with the social nature of human beings and their ability to use power to act in concert, and as Hannah Arendt, suggested, to “construct political institutions as manifestations and materializations of power.” In this vein, politics would involve the use of power, derived only from a willingness of individuals to act collectively for democratic governance.

In essence, democracy is a simple idea, although, in the forms in which it is expressed in practice, it is anything but simple. After the end of the Cold War, through the so-called third wave, and at the turn of not only the century but also the millennium, democratic governance, in some form and in a variety of institutional guises, has become the main locus of political legitimacy and an antidote to autocratic rule. However, democratic governance is not inevitable or irreversible. Democratic governance requires a community, but it has become more difficult today to define who are members of that community. Living or being a resident of an electoral district is no longer enough to define that community (the governed and/or beneficiaries).  Also, representation is no longer a given in democratic communities, and old tools like restricted electoral districts and forms of gerrymandering create artificial communities.  Diverse classical theories have attempted to delineate the parameters of community.  In some, like Rousseau‘s contract theory, individuals are banded together in a formal arrangement with responsibilities and obligations to terminate life in a solitary state of nature; in Hobbes’s version, the contract supports absolute sovereign without giving any value to individuals who surround their self-sovereignty to a higher civil authority, or Leviathan; and in Rawls’ modern version, individuals hid behind a “veil of ignorance” congregate to create a just society and its governing apparatus. 

The world of the 21st century is very different from two or three centuries ago, and community and representation are not yet realigned with politics.  The world is more dynamic and diverse, more educated, and rapid socio-economic and political transformations have fostered a natural social disintegration process.  Today news media outlets and social media play a key role in furthering social disintegration and promoting conflict and violence through disinformation. While social media has a potential role in peace and community building, often it has become a source of division, polarization, and disparaging. In large part driven by declining audience and revenues, the news media today is less independent and fact-based.  For democratic resilience, independent media is a key pillar as a source of uncovering truth and promoting accountability and producing widely accessible information, unconstrained by institutional bias or censorship, and cultivating a well-informed civil society.  When autocratic actors use censorship, target journalists, and curb press freedoms, they pose a threat to democratic governance and resilience.  The Covid-19 pandemic further weakened democratic governance and prospects for resilience and put a dent to trust in democratic institutions and interpersonal trust.

As I argued before, in theory, democratic governance stands opposite to the notion of absolute ruling based on privileges of birth, ethnicity, religion and/or gender, or based on repression and oppression.   It is clear that there is no pure or perfect governance regime, but economic and social modernization, education, and knowledge have helped move most of humanity closer to pluralistic ideals and aspirations.  While some humans may still show preferences for a hierarchical, authoritarian, and individualistic rule, the new more complex emerging and divergent societies need new approaches to reinvent community and representation for a new era of democratic governance. Democratic resilience involves reshaping the socio-political matrix and institutional logic.  That means strengthening existing institutional mechanisms to absorb stress or pressure; overcoming challenges or crises; adapting in response to stress to the system; and reforming to address challenges more efficiently and effectively. 

I continue to argue that democratic governance is both about government and citizens, not only about government.  Countries that have shown democratic resilience over time provide evidence. Promoting government and societal resilience as well as the resilience of democratic institutions and processes are interrelated, as they are integral parts of the democratic governance ecosystem. Similarly, democratic resilience building must be context-specific as there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to absorb and recover from any kind of stress and shock, although localized efforts can also benefit from regional and global efforts and cooperation.  As we have seen during the last decade, local or national democratic governance resilience challenges can have regional and global ripple effects.  It is thus necessary to have on the one hand specific resilience-building measures, to ensure and increase democratic participation, respond to disinformation campaigns, and enhance institutional infrastructure resilience, but on the other hand, it is also important to coordinate at the intergovernmental level.  The advance of democratic governance is the best option for humanity.  Unlike autocracies, democratic governance cannot control and or impose decisions.  Any effort to invest in solid legal and regulatory structures and an informed and active citizenry will favor resilience in the long term. 

*Source of the photo: Pexels, 2022

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