Storytelling about democracy has become a gloomy affair. Democratic values are under attack worldwide from a classic villain: authoritarian forces from China to Russia to Iran have gained in global influence, and once-promising emerging democracies have been captured by autocrats.
This narrative is compelling. Everyone loves a story that has clear heroes and villains. But the battle against authoritarianism, while crucial, is only one thread in democracy’s narrative. A victory here cannot guarantee a happy ending.
The upcoming Summit for Democracy—the second of two Summits organized by the Biden administration to “renew democracy in the United States and around the world”—is an opportunity to bring attention to another important plotline. Democracy faces an internal struggle: the failure to live up to its promise and project a positive vision for the future. Focusing on tackling authoritarianism without also ensuring democracies are delivering on their promise will inevitably lead to disappointment. To yield meaningful, lasting results, the upcoming Summit should encourage governments to make—and fulfill—realistic commitments and hold themselves accountable for delivering for their people.
"But the reality is that the appeal of autocracy is ephemeral."
The Subplot: A Battle Against Authoritarianism
There is no denying that democracy has lost some ground over the last two decades, with increases in the number of closed autocracies globally and the proportion of the population living in them. The world is experiencing an “epidemic of coups,” aggressive rollbacks of fundamental freedoms, and attacks on mechanisms of accountability by elected leaders with authoritarian tendencies. These leaders— including Hungary’s Orbán, Turkey’s Erdoğan, and Brazil’s former President Bolsonaro—have often come to power with compelling messages that touch on common grievances and democracy’s shortcomings.
But the reality is that the appeal of autocracy is ephemeral.
As the Varieties of Democracy’s (V-Dem) “Case for Democracy” project shows, democracies tend to perform much better than autocracies across multiple indicators, from economic growth to provision of public goods and peace and security. People in democracies also tend to be happier overall. By objective measures, autocracies cannot compete. What is more, successive years of public opinion surveys show that democratic values, emphasizing fundamental individual freedoms, choice, and opportunity, are increasingly preferred over the deference to authority, stability, and conformity that characterize authoritarian regimes. Increasingly, people in authoritarian regimes are protesting and revolting against their governments despite the repression and violence these movements face (e.g., in Iran, Myanmar, and China).
The Main Plot: Meeting Democracy’s Promise
So, if the battle against authoritarianism is not the only plot, what else is in democracy’s story? The same data gives us the answer. V-Dem findings caveat that democracy’s dividends depend on how robust that democracy is. While people living in hybrid and flawed democracies are still happier than people in autocratic regimes, for example, they are less happy than citizens in “full” democracies. In other words, democracy is not a binary variable but a scale. Countries at the lower end of that scale are not getting the full package of benefits that are supposed to come with membership in the community of democracies.
Research shows that when democratic institutions fail to meet citizen expectations, support for those institutions begins to slip. It should come as no surprise then that several of the world’s largest democracies, across all hemispheres—including the United States, Nigeria, and Brazil—have experienced declines in democratic satisfaction, the immediately observable effects of economic downturns, political scandals, poor governance and service delivery, and security crises. On the other hand, residents of smaller, high-income democracies like Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Denmark have higher and more consistent levels of support for democracy.
This gap between expectations and reality has been deepening for decades. In Europe, for example, the fall of the Soviet Union prompted great optimism that democracy and the transition to market capitalism would usher in freedom and prosperity. But it quickly became evident that elections and liberal economies are not automatic proxies for democracy. The ability to vote and to buy could not immediately overcome the problems of poverty, unemployment, corruption, and inequality entrenched by decades of authoritarianism. Satisfaction with democracy in Eastern Europe has dwindled over time—not because these countries are inherently anti-democracy, but because expectations have not been met. Over the same time period, the Global South experienced a similar cycle of optimism and disappointment in democracy as the social, economic, and political landscape did not change as much as people hoped.
"Strengthening our democracies will illustrate how 'full' membership in the democracy community delivers tangible benefits and protections to citizens, laying bare the tall tales told by authoritarians. We must continue to work to give the public a vision and hope for the future—a story truly worth telling."
Changing the Story at the Summit for Democracy
During the first Summit for Democracy, world leaders made more than 750 commitments to build more resilient democracies. While laudable, an entire body of international laws and obligations already commits much of the world, in principle, to protecting fundamental freedoms and promoting democratic values.
Later this month, the U.S. will co-host the second Summit with the governments of Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Zambia. Participating governments intend to showcase progress and make still more commitments leveraging the momentum of the event. How can a new set of commitments change our story? Actual progress—and real change—require more than a showcase.
To turn the Summit into a launching pad for a better democracy story, governments need to prioritize realistic, specific goals over grand promises. They should select commitments that will resonate with the public—with tangible improvements in the everyday provision of services and quality of life. This may require smaller and less splashy investments at the community level.
To move in this direction, governments should make concerted efforts to identify shortcomings, and figure out why needs are not being met—to understand the gap between democracy’s promise and its practice.
Then, countries should develop pathways to fulfilling their commitments that are enforceable and visible to their primary constituents and allow the public to weigh in on and monitor change over time.
These steps are not easy, but they are the best hope for making the Summit a success in the eyes of the public. As a bonus, by helping to bring countries closer to the end of the democracy spectrum where dividends are higher, we also minimize the desire to look elsewhere—such as to authoritarianism—for a better future.
Strengthening our democracies will illustrate how “full” membership in the democracy community delivers tangible benefits and protections to citizens, in contrast to the tall tales told by authoritarians. We must continue to work to give the public a vision and hope for the future—a story truly worth telling.