Democracy Is In Recession. How Can We Restore Faith In It?

The 1/6 insurrection highlighted the fragility of US democracy. Its aftermath provides an opportunity to strengthen democracy that we shouldn't squander.
Trump supporters assembled outside the Capitol Building after the insurrection – January 6, 2021. (Tyler Merbler, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Trump supporters assembled outside the Capitol Building after the insurrection – January 6, 2021. (Tyler Merbler, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Jared Shurin is Strategy Director at M&C Saatchi’s Social Impact Practice and is a Practitioner Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.

Faith in democracy is declining. According to Pew Research Center, 52% globally are dissatisfied with democracy, having lost faith not only in their government, but also in the idea of democracy – with ‘underwhelming percentages describ[ing] democratic rights and institutions as very important.’ That resonates with a study by Cambridge University’s Centre for the Future of Democracy, which found a rising ‘democratic malaise,’ with 57% of individuals in ‘developed countries dissatisfied with democracy.’

Experts point to a ‘democratic recession,’ and the deterioration of democratic rights, but, as the Pew research indicates, this challenge is as much a matter of perception as function. Democracy can be seen as exhausted, or ineffective. There’s a new notion of ‘democracy fatigue’: a passivity and disgruntlement that stems from emotional exhaustion; endless electoral politicking, but never the feeling of action or change.

With the constant barrage of existential crises, from security, covid, or climate change, the stodgy ideals of compromise and letting everyone have their say, can feel sadly dated. What we need, many joke, is a ‘benign dictatorship.’ Because democracy, although nice, doesn’t seem to get things done. There are also more pernicious political actors, who argue that the notion of equal governance, or even universal suffrage, is anathema; who would prefer more brutally efficient ethnonationalist forms of government, solely for the benefit of a particular group. Although an extreme variant, it stems from the same sense of disillusionment: a disbelief that democracy, as a system or an idea, is incapable of tackling the crises that we face.

Democracy needs a rebrand. The focus on the democracy ‘brand’ may feel frivolous: something best reserved for fast food chains and cleaning products. Yet a brand is how audiences perceive and understand the nebulous collection of intangible values that surround a product, service, or even idea. It is the vehicle by which rational benefits are translated into an emotional connection, be that one’s loyalty to a burger chain, lust for a new car, or faith in a political system.

Addressing democracy’s brand means the opportunity to develop a new narrative around democratic values and institutions: not only what they are, but why they’re meaningful and relevant. A stronger brand can help shift the conversation away from democracy’s failures (perceived or otherwise), and towards its distinctive offer.

Throughout the Cold War, democracy was more easily branded; presenting itself as one half of a binary. There was a clear division between democracy (and all that included) and the ‘other’ (and the danger that it presented). Post-Cold War, and into a more fragmented world order, democracy can no longer be defined solely as a clear alternative to an ominous out-group. The most pressing threats we face are global and apolitical – ranging from Covid-19 to climate change. Democracy can no longer be defined simply as an alternative to these threats, it to present itself as a positive option.

More importantly, democracy also needs to feel relevant. It cannot be a high-functioning ideal, but a system that can demonstrate meaningful impact on an individual’s daily life. Research by GfK highlighted the importance of ‘quality of experience’ in building loyalty to a brand. What are the tangible benefits of living in a liberal democratic system? What opportunities do they perceive as a result? What in the world around them, or in their experience, can they point to as a direct consequence of, or benefit from, democracy?

The answers will vary by geography and audience, but democracy needs to be meaningful, and not simply a glorious abstract. Proponents of a democratic world order cannot rest on their laurels, or gesture towards a hostile ‘other’ in the vain hope that will persuade skeptical audiences. The benefits of democracy need to be based in fact, not rhetoric, and convey real value for the audience.

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Similarly, democracy, as a brand, needs to reevaluate its reliance on American exceptionalism. Democracy’s most prominent celebrity brand ambassador is reeling from scandal. On January 6, the world saw the ‘temple of democracy’ invaded, a painful demonstration of the flaws within America itself. The insurrection came off the back of four years of an openly self-absorbed, nationalist American foreign policy. There are continuously prominent stress lines along voting rights and social justice, further undermining America’s historic positioning as a beacon of traditional democratic values.

(Although other Western nations and multilaterals have proven similarly flawed when placed under the spotlight of modern media, they have never served as prominently as democracy’s ‘brand ambassador.’) Democracy’s brand advocates can no longer simply point to America as a case study.

The new need for humility can be an opportunity for the democratic brand. Democracy can now paint a picture of progress, not perfection; admitting its failures while still reinforcing that the system is predicated on the will, and the capability, to do better. Advertising pioneer David Ogilvy wrote that brands should ‘tell the truth, but make the truth fascinating.’ Two clear benefits of democracy are the capacity to handle adversity with resilience and the commitment to transparency. America can demonstrate both. By doing so, it can still serve as role model for democratic values, if by standing on a much shorter pedestal.

The danger of a rebranding approach is that it mistakes communication as a substitute for action, rather than its partner. Democracy needs to communicate humility, equality and progress, but it can only do so if those attributes are grounded in truth. A rebrand needs to amplify meaningful action, for example, long-overdue voting rights reform in the United States. There cannot be a ‘say/do gap’ – real or perceived – between the words of democracy and its actions.

The communications strategy for democracy should therefore be, in and of itself, democratic. Democracy is fundamentally about participation. Pew’s research shows that 64% of those dissatisfied with democracy don’t think elected officials ‘care what they think.’ It is therefore critical to create opportunities for audiences to take part in a democratic process, even as a microcosm of the whole. Democracy is best expressed through engagement, not posters and slogans. It is more important for audiences to speak and be heard, to understand the power of getting to set their own agenda – and have the satisfaction of seeing it delivered. A co-creative process shows that democracy is about the reciprocation of trust between people and their government, and, most importantly, demonstrates that democracy is truly about a freedom to engage and participate.

As a final note, democratic ‘brand builders’ cannot avoid the unfortunate reality that this is now an adversarial space. Extremists, for example, offer sweeping solutions that either play on false histories or entice with impossible Utopian futures. The incremental progress offered by democracy is less dramatic, and extreme groups will be quick to point out its failures. Hostile actors will always be quick to identify perceived hypocrisies within liberal democracies, or to exacerbate the tensions within liberal societies.

Successfully communicating democracy means being prepared for these domestic and international counter-narratives. It reinforces the need not only for long-term trust-building between democratic actors and their audiences, but also to create a contemporary narrative around democracy that is both grounded and relevant, and therefore harder to discount.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world. Rantt has been partnered with CARR for 3 years. We’ve published over 150 articles from CARR’s network of PhDs, historians, professors, and experts analyzing extremism and combating disinformation.

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