Surveys indicate that while most people support the idea of democracy, the term evokes little enthusiasm in many countries. There is widespread disagreement over what democracy even means. Adding to the confusion, authoritarian rulers have long counterfeited and manipulated the term – either to denigrate democracy or to claim their own regimes are democratic.
Campaigns for true democracy, therefore, may be unwise to link their success too heavily to a Greek political science term that can be so differently understood. In many places, advocates of democracy should focus their campaigns on specific rights rather than on general calls for democratic government. The various parts of democracy can carry more value than the whole.
The word has long been under stress, both from friends and foes.
For decades, authoritarian rulers have coopted the term to legitimize non-democratic rule. The “people’s democracies” of the Cold War used sham constitutions, parliaments, courts, and elections to disguise the fact that their people had very little power. Vladimir Putin’s “managed democracy” continues that tradition, as it continues to erode or simply remove personal liberties.
After the collapse of communism, some, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, viewed democracy as a system that would automatically yield prosperity and end corruption. And indeed these countries are all substantially richer now than in Soviet times — Polish GDP has tripled since 1990, while Hungary’s has almost doubled. But when they failed to reach the economic heights of advanced Western states, corruption endured, and poorer sections of the population were left behind, “transactional democrats” blamed the democratic system.
Many people are also unclear about what democracy means. In Hungary, where during Victor Orbán’s rule opposition voices have often been suppressed (Freedom House’s 2022 report gave the country poor ratings for independent media and democratic governance), a third of citizens say democracy has improved. In a survey of 34 countries, most people said an independent judiciary is essential to democracy, but fewer thought democracy requires freedom of the press, a vibrant civil society, or active opposition parties.
Authoritarian propaganda often conflates Western democracy with liberal social values such as access to abortion, LGBT+ rights, and openness to migrants. Authoritarians then assert that their rule, even though it may lack traditional democratic institutions, is more “democratic” than democracy as defined in the West. To some citizens, a government that reflects their own prejudices is democratic by definition.
Western nations have chosen to make “democracy” their banner, using it to justify great swathes of actions including intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. When these military-led campaigns end in failure (see Afghanistan in 2021) the D-word understandably suffers.
All in all, the word democracy no longer casts the spell it once did. In many situations, it is a term too broad and too contested to generate support. Younger generations are the most disappointed with how democracy has worked in their countries. Significant numbers of people are so unhappy that they would consider exchanging representative democracy for rule by technocrats, an autocrat, or the military.
We should never completely abandon the word. Such a move would only cede the term to those who distort it the most, and betray those who do understand and fight for it. But in our communications to at-risk populations, we can often do better than the D-word.
Some simple word substitution would be a good start. Liberty and freedom are better terms because they directly evoke the rights of individuals rather than a complicated political system.
People usually strongly support democracy’s key component parts, including freedom of speech, the right to vote, and the critical importance of trustworthy judges. They also understand how authoritarianism and corruption impede these freedoms.
Democracy advocates should agitate for the specific liberties that mean the most in each country. This means building narrowly focused campaigns on, say, the suppression of opposition voices, government control of the judiciary, or official corruption. (The Transparency International corruption index is now broadly accepted as a useful tool to measure compliance with liberal democratic values, and can be used as a means to push for reform.) This may prove more successful than campaigns for wide-ranging democratic transformations that can seem complicated and unrelated to people’s immediate needs.
The United States can be proud of how its democracy has stood up to repeated blows, but many abroad have lost confidence in the US as a democratic model. Jessica Brandt of Brookings recommends that US public diplomacy “focus on themes that continue to attract global audiences, including the United States’ capacity for innovation and entrepreneurship, its technological and scientific achievements, and its support for freedom of expression.” It is far more effective to highlight these aspects of US life than to suggest that other countries should accept a whole “democratic” package as practiced in Western nations.
America’s founders managed to get through the entire Declaration of Independence and Constitution without ever using the word “democracy.” They simply enumerated the rights the American Revolution sought.
Today’s advocates for freedom could profit from emulating that approach.
Thomas Kent is a consultant on Russian affairs and the information war and teaches at Columbia University. His book, Striking Back: Overt and Covert Options to Combat Russian Disinformation,” was published by the Jamestown Foundation, where he is a senior fellow.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.