We need all sectors to understand that democracy is not only a values proposition, but is key to our security, geopolitical governance, and economic stability, Laura Thornton, Senior Vice President of Democracy, Alliance for Securing Democracy, German Marshall Fund, said in an interview with the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA-MPA) ahead of the Athens Democracy Forum to be held in Athens on September 27-29.
Asked on the reasons of democratic deficits, she said that people in democratic nations worldwide increasingly believe that their governing systems favor elites, through overt corruption or legal influence avenues (lobbying, political finance). “People have increasing distrust of government and think politicians and parties are self-interested and unrepresentative,” she noted adding that some analysts also point to cultural divisions and polarization on traditional values issues.
However, she underlined that “the road to healing this decline will be a long one” and it will involve a wide range of approaches from civic education to depolarization efforts and dialogues, investments in independent local media, enhanced civic watchdogs, experiments in sortition and citizen’s assemblies, as well as community building.”
“We also need partnerships across sectors to make democracy work,” she stressed.
As for the role of the media and their role in safeguarding democracy, she estimated that there is much to be done. “Investments in independent media, particularly at the local level, are needed. More oversight of media outlets, holding them to account, is needed. Public broadcasting with citizen ownership could also be a model for trusted news.”
Thornton spoke also of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and warned the international community that losing its resolve to support Ukraine would allow autocracy a better foothold in the world. “Ukraine is defending democracy against autocracy on behalf of us all,” she said.
The full interview of Laura Thornton to the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA-MPA) and Lila Chotzoglou follows:
– Severe democratic backsliding has been lately recorded across the globe with the simultaneous rise of the far-right parties. What do you think went wrong? Where do democratic deficits stem from? And what can be done to prevent dangerous political fissures?
– I don’t think there is one clear answer to what went wrong. Some point to a failure of democracies to deliver equitable economic growth, represent citizens’ needs adequately, and provide equal justice. Publics in democratic nations worldwide increasingly believe that their governing systems favor elites, through overt corruption or legal influence avenues (lobbying, political finance). People have increasing distrust of government and think politicians and parties are self-interested and unrepresentative. That most party officials and candidates are old, male, rich, and from a dominant ethnic and religious group compounds the problem. In many countries, candidate selection is determined purely by an individual’s donations to a party, not by a competitive contest of ideas and policy on a level playing field. It is not surprising that citizens are unhappy with their representatives and democracy. Other democracy analysts point to cultural divisions and polarization on traditional values issues — such as those relevant to women’s rights, immigration, the LGBTQ+ community, and the role of religion — as challenge democracy. Many see cultural changes as threats to hierarchies of power and gravitate toward the transgressive political leader. The “ great replacement theory” is based on this feeling of lost power, pushing people to question majority rule. Tapping into these cleavages, malign forces internally and externally propose alternative governance models. Right wing authoritarianism is increasing in many countries. It’s not just the rise of far right parties, it’s the demand from citizens, who feel a strong leader willing to “ fight” is more important than protecting individual rights and democratic principles. Fear — of others, change, and difference-makes the simple solutions that illiberal populists promise alluring. Rising domestic authoritarians also have external support, forming alliances (and meeting up at CPAC) and receiving financing from foreign actors aiming to degrade democracy worldwide. Fueling these challenges, false narratives and lies, that divide democratic societies, erode trust in their institutions, and prop up autocrats, pollute information spaces, pushing people into tribal information bubbles. Online disinformation has exploded as independent media shrinks, particularly at the local level. While an old phenomenon, information disorder is lubricated by cheap, fast, and universal online access.
I think the road to healing this decline will be a long one. It will involve addressing those supply side problems – fixing our institutions, rethinking representation, curbing money in politics, electoral reform, and enhancing citizen oversight. It will also involve addressing the demand side, we the people. How do we build back communities that are resilient to the siren calls of illiberal leaders? How can we build tolerance and societal trust and cohesion? I think this will involve a wide range of approaches from civic education to depolarization efforts and dialogues, investments in independent local media, enhanced civic watchdogs, experiments in sortition and citizen’s assemblies, and community building.
– Do you think that the private, public and civil sectors can cooperate to come up with solutions to bolster democracy? Can they join forces to persuade that democracy is the best regime that delivers for its citizens?
– We need all sectors to understand that democracy is not only a values proposition (though you had me at values) but is key to our security, geopolitical governance, and economic stability. That many of our economies are entangled in dependencies on autocracies is not helpful, and we continue to do business with countries that chop up journalists, for example. Or let autocratic nations build our ports. I had hoped we learned from Russia’s war in Ukraine that dependencies on dictators will hurt us in the long run, as we saw with Europe’s gas dependency. If we continue to be so closely tied, we set ourselves up for blackmail. And I hope we can dispense from the naivety that engaging with autocratic regimes through business will make them more democratic, as that clearly hasn’t worked with either Russia or China. I hope all sectors can make the case for democracy and understand values are our interests and key to our stability.
Internally, we also need partnerships across sectors to make democracy work. Countries like Sweden and Finland are ahead of us here and have embraced ambitious “whole of society” programming to build support for democracy and national resilience, programs that involve the private sector, civil servants, schools, the military, politicians, and citizens.
– The power of democracy is evident in Ukraine’s fortitude against Russian invasion. However, the repercussions of the war will be serious for the country itself, but also for the entire world. In your opinion, what are the most serious consequences of this ongoing fight?
The most serious consequence is if the international community loses its resolve to defend Ukraine. Ukraine is defending democracy against autocracy on behalf of us all. Russia’s invasion was about democracy – it is what it fears most, a democracy on its borders.
Democracy is contagious and the Kremlin is threatened by it. If we lose interest and stop supporting Ukraine, then what message do we send? That the world is up for grabs and autocrats can just invade sovereign nations? Where will Russia go next? Georgia (the country) was my home for 7 years, and I’m terrified of what’s next. Defending Ukraine is thus key to our geopolitical security.
– What is the role of advancing technology for democracy? How can it help?
– Of course tech can be a force for good or evil. We have countless examples of how technology has advanced the interests of autocrats against democracy. In my organization we have tracked, for example, how malign actors can use technology in their information operations, surveillance of political opponents, election interference, etc. But there are interesting advancements in democracy-affirming technology. For example, how can we use AI to work against deep fakes by establishing provenance of materials and information?
– When threats are invisible; for example, cyber-attacks, how dangerous are they? Given reports about possible Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, what are your thoughts on the coming 2024 elections.
– Not only cyber attacks, but all the tools of malign interference – finance, information operations, tech – are dangerous. We are of course worried about the 2024 elections, particularly as Russia has more incentive than ever to interfere as it will be the difference in whether the US President supports Ukraine or does not. Trump is the clear front-runner in the Republican Party, and he has vocally supported Putin and said he would stop support for Ukraine. Of course Russia would prefer that outcome! Furthermore, Putin himself has already said as much, expressing his criticism of Trump’s indictments. Given the low level of trust among many Americans in our elections, based on disinformation, it will be easy for the Kremlin to contribute to chaos in 2024.
– Media are often criticized for spreading fake news. How can free and democratic media be ensured?
Investments in independent media, particularly at the local level, are needed. More oversight of media outlets, holding them to account, is needed. Public broadcasting – like that in Germany, with citizen ownership – could be a model for trusted news.
Social media regulations that force platforms to change the algorithms that push bad information over good, violent, harmful content over positive, are needed. There is much to do.