Protest in Warsaw Nur Photo/Getty Images

Democratic Resilience for a Populist Age

Those who oppose open, liberal societies have garnered a disconcerting level of influence in recent years. At the same time, current debates about the state of democracy have focused too much on problems, and not enough on how to protect democratic institutions from illiberal threats.

BERLIN – The enemies of open, liberal societies have gained disconcerting influence in recent years, demonstrated most recently by the Polish government’s bid to place the country’s courts under political control. Although many democracies are plagued by serious maladies – such as electoral gerrymandering, voter suppression, fraud and corruption, violations of the rule of law, and threats to judicial independence and press freedom – there is little agreement about which solutions should be pursued.

How to make our democracies more resilient, if not altogether immune, to anti-democratic threats is a central question of our time. Fortunately, we have not yet reached William Butler Yeats’s bleak scenario, in which “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” On the contrary, many citizens and some governments have been actively standing up against authoritarian challenges, and are discovering new ways to defend democratic values and institutions. After massive protests, Polish President Andrzej Duda vetoed two of the three bills that sought to curtail the courts’ independence.

Today’s defenders of liberal democracy recognize that nothing can be taken for granted. Any democratic system can develop deficiencies over time. No democracy is perfect or constant. It is a dynamic system that requires calibration and innovation to adapt to changing circumstances and emerging threats. After all, as former US Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson once put it, a “constitution is not a suicide pact.”

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