But what shocked Nemat the most was the speed of her nation’s descent into a theocratic regime in 1979. Within a matter of months, she and her fellow Iranians lost the limited rights they had enjoyed under the country’s previous government, itself a repressive monarchy.
Though at first she thought he was being treated well, the iron bars that prevented her from embracing her father soon jolted Wai Hnin to reality. In that moment, she says, a child became an aspiring voice for human rights, one who would speak out over the nearly three decades since that meeting — as her father was repeatedly imprisoned, most recently after the military’s February coup.
Wai Hnin, now living in exile, writes that her father’s “commitment to helping build a lasting democracy in Burma has taught me that an equal and just political system is not a guarantee. It requires hard work.”
Decline of global freedom
As she has struggled to build a young democracy in her home country, Manneh writes, “it wasn’t just American influence that made me demand better from the Gambian government — it was knowing that America was there that made me believe that I could succeed.” Imperfect and as unequal as it may be, she says, the United States “is still the most potent global force for freedom, and without it the world… faces a dark future.”
There is a point to this game of political semantics, says Stone Fish. It forces a debate within the US and other western democracies about something that should be obvious — that China’s government does not meet any internationally accepted definition of democracy. It also helps to distract from allegations of human rights abuses against ethnic minorities, censorship of the press and crackdowns on civil society (all of which the Chinese government denies).
The hallmarks of democracy
There is one feature all democracies share in common — they give power to the people, whether directly or through some form of elected representation. For activist and RDI chairman Garry Kasparov, who has been on the frontlines of battling Russian repression for over three decades, that’s a system worth fighting for — even if it comes at great cost.
Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College, tells CNN that an active citizenry is a hallmark of democracy. She argues that strong democracies have robust civil societies capable of engaging in the kinds of collective action Kasparov initiated in Russia but was arrested for partaking in.
Simply put, citizens living in democracies should be able to express their dissent without risking retribution. And, Berman explains, they have multiple mechanisms to do so — whether by voting in elections in which two or more political parties are on the ballot, bringing lawsuits before an independent judiciary, writing or calling their elected leaders or taking to the streets in protest.
Beyond the political characteristics that define a democracy, there are the social and economic factors that are critical to its success, says Berman. A real democracy must provide some form of social equality to all of its citizens, regardless of gender, race, religion or ethnicity.
For Wai Hnin, social equality is one feature that has been sorely missing from Myanmar’s government, even as it instituted some democratic reforms prior to this year’s military coup.
The battle for freedom
Bolsonaro’s campaign was built on one of the biggest criticisms of western democracy today — that even though citizens may still freely vote for their elected leaders, many of those leaders are self-serving elites who are out of touch with the economic and social needs of those they supposedly serve. That logic, Stuenkel explains, “makes putting a radical who…lacks any qualification to govern a more appealing option.”
It goes far beyond Brazil. Across the world, far-right and far-left leaders have exploited people’s dissatisfaction with political elites and their maintenance of the status quo, Michael Abramowitz, President of Freedom House, tells CNN.
The threat of misinformation
According to Abramowitz, this is part of a dangerous pattern of copycat behavior among autocrats — learning worst practices from each other and using them to undermine trust in democracy.
Turning the tide on authoritarianism
This is no easy task. Hahrie Han, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, explains to CNN that democracy is only as strong as people’s commitment to it, and that commitment has waned in recent years. However, civic institutions — from schools to houses of worship to social clubs — can play a key role in strengthening democracies at home and abroad.
Fundamentally, democracies demand that citizens accept they may not always get the electoral outcome that they want. Civic institutions, where people begin to encounter individuals and ideas they may disagree with, can teach the values of negotiation, compromise and even acceptance of a less than desirable outcome, she says.
Linda Chavez, a conservative political commentator and RDI board member, believes the most important civic institution may be schools. In the US, she tells CNN, many students have received a “comic book version of history with superheroes and supervillains,” but without a deeper understanding of the struggle to expand American democracy to more and more citizens.
Proving democracy works
While civic education is a critical piece of the democratic puzzle, there are additional efforts that must be taken to strengthen US commitment to democracy. And one of them must target the many Americans who have come to believe Trump’s election lies.
Chavez says that conservatives must lead that effort. “The Constitution — which conservatives have always claimed to owe allegiance to — is under attack. Trump’s tenure was marked by his flouting of the rule of law and separation of powers, and now he is being aided by those who previously claimed to [be] champions of those very principles,” she writes to CNN. Chavez hopes that Republicans like Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, though in the minority, can serve as models for speaking truth to Trump and his allies’ dangerous assertions of power.
Beyond outreach to disbelieving Republicans, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, tells CNN that democratic activists must tap into the American population which does not vote or participate in the political process at all.
Ben-Ghiat explains that voter registration and mobilization efforts must target these potential voters — and must do a more effective job at explaining how their votes can translate into concrete actions by elected representatives.
Carothers says one way to plead this case is to show proof of concept. When Congress and the White House are able to work together to solve pressing issues facing the American public — such as economic inequality or aging infrastructure — they can argue that a system of governance, often plagued by gridlock, can also be a force for good in people’s day-to-day lives.
And while this may seem an impossible task against the backdrop of America’s fractured politics, it is urgent that the nation’s elected leaders and citizens model the kind of behavior befitting a democracy. After the events of Jan. 6, RDI began hearing from activists and dissidents about the need for the US to quickly change course and set a worldwide example for true freedom. They wanted to “remind us of the importance of America’s founding values to our own success and to the global community as a whole,” Uriel Epshtein, Executive Director of RDI, tells CNN.
Beyond a firm commitment to secure voting rights and uphold democratic election results, those principles include protecting free speech and free press rights. As the signatories explain, we cannot defeat “illiberalism with illiberalism,” but rather with the creation of a space where ideas and opinions, however controversial or provocative, may be shared and debated.
Inspiring bold citizens
As democratic legislative bodies debate the parameters of these freedoms, they can still invest time and resources in strengthening civil society. And while a robust civil society is critical to the maintenance of democracies, it is perhaps even more critical in countries where activists are trying to lay the foundations of democracy.
For example, retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a whistleblower during the Trump administration, and Belarussian dissident Andrei Sannikov write that for Belarus to succeed in moving away from an autocracy that has governed its country for over 25 years, it “will require the collective action of other western nations committed to the values and principles of basic human rights and freedoms.” The United States could take lead on this by “providing material and ideological support to the country’s pro-democracy elements.”
This kind of aid is far more practical, explains Roland Rich, an assistant teaching professor at Rutgers University and former Australian diplomat. Government-to-government aid, especially when one of the parties involved is not a democracy, is often highly ineffective in bringing about tangible change. However, he argues, “people-to-people aid” can empower citizens and civil society to organize and push for the freedoms they deserve.
For Mawarire, who continues the struggle for democracy in Zimbabwe, Rich’s thinking mirrors his mobilization efforts on the ground. He explains that one of his country’s democratic slogans has become, “If we cannot cause the politician to change, then we must inspire the citizen to be bold.”
And while international support for democratic efforts can often play a critical role, Mawarire believes that much of the push for freedom must come from within countries where citizens are struggling against the weight of autocracy. The beauty of his advocacy work, he says, is helping fellow Zimbabweans recognize their agency in the political process and then driving them to say, “I’m not going to sit in the terraces or bleachers to watch other people [build democracy]. I’m doing it myself.”
Democracy does not blossom overnight. Mawarire compares it to growing a garden and waiting patiently for the seeds of freedom to blossom. It may take time, but “there’s going to be a generation that’s going to harvest the fruits of democracy,” he says. Until then, all those who believe in the values of a free and open society must tend to the garden, watering, cultivating, and, when necessary, removing the weeds of autocracy that threaten to compromise its growth.
Update: After the piece published, one RDI project signatory decided to remove her name.