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Democracy Now?

As more than 100 world leaders gather online for US President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy, many commentators think that the size of the invite list will preclude reaching any meaningful consensus. But there may be steps democracies can take to safeguard their values and defend their institutions from authoritarian threats.

In this Big Picture, Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation, and Mark Malloch-Brown of the Open Society Foundations urge global leaders to invest much more in supporting the civil-society organizations that provide a critical check on state power. Elections matter, too, and Federico Fubini of Corriere della Sera, noting that almost all of the world’s democracies are old societies, thinks it may be time for summit participants to consider lowering the voting age to 16.

But, writing in February, Javier Solana, a former EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, highlighted several drawbacks with Biden’s summit, and argued that a piecemeal, bottom-up approach to strengthening democracy may prove more effective. Likewise, Francesca Binda of Binda Consulting International calls on democracies to address institutional weaknesses – particularly the failure to reform skewed election systems and the inability of mainstream political parties to connect with voters.

But is this enough to overcome autocratic and populist challenges? Princeton University’s Jan-Werner Mueller warns that, since the end of the Cold War, democracies have tended to underestimate authoritarian regimes’ ability to learn from their – and others’ – mistakes and self-correct. On a more optimistic note, Carisa Nietsche of the Center for a New American Security and Jeff Cirillo argue that recent elections in Central Europe and Turkey show how liberal democratic opposition parties can learn from each other as well, boosting their chances of defeating populist demagogues.

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