The Washington Symposium Six Steps: Recommendations for Building Resilient Democracy in the 21st Century

In April 2019, the Bertelsmann Foundation convened two dozen international leaders from the fields of business, politics, nonprofits, and the arts for the Washington Symposium, which asked how to make democracy resilient enough to face the challenges of the 21st century. 

Democracy as we have come to understand it over the last century is vulnerable from every angle. Participants at the 2019 Washington Symposium were tasked with shining a light on the path that will restore faith in democracy, first by identifying the critical threats it faces – from without and within. By preserving what the enemies of democracy are trying to destroy, participants concluded, our societies will be less vulnerable to outside influence and internal decay, and our newly resilient democracies will begin to flourish again.

The six themes below emerged from the lengthy discussions among participants at the 2019 Washington Symposium. Much like democracy itself, this document is a work in progress; it is incomplete and will evolve with time and further input. The recommendations are purposefully broad, because, though democracy faces many common threats across the globe, solutions will need to be tailored to each unique location. Our hope is that by sharing what we have learned from each other, we will spark ideas for concrete action. 

1. Reconciliation

Challenge: Many of our societies have been set back by a flawed vision of democracy, where elites hold a disproportionate amount the power and access to opportunity is restricted. Many ordinary people have been left behind and excluded from the system from which others prosper. It is not an exaggeration to say that physical and psychological violence has, at times, been used as a political tool, leaving in its wake resentment and mistrust. Our democracy cannot be truly healthy until we come to terms with the shameful parts of our history and correct the institutionalized injustices that continue to this day. To varying degrees, discrimination persists on all levels –  religion, race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation – and it is undermining our democracies, putting the credibility of our institutions into question and rendering cooperation nearly impossible.

Recommendations: 

  • Convene face-to-face, representative dialogues at the community level
  • Revise school curricula to accurately reflect history
  • Codify equal rights by protecting all identity classes from discrimination

2. Active Inclusion

Challenge: Contrived barriers have been erected for women, minorities, and youth, and the leadership of powerful bodies tends not to reflect the constitution of the general population. Excluding a multitude of voices from the decision-making process not only sows mistrust and resentment, it also deprives our societies of innovation and stifles accountability.

Recommendations: 

  • Set a national target of 50/50 gender representation in the public sector
  • Promote mentoring programs to encourage young women and all underrepresented groups to aim for the highest positions
  • Achieve pay equity as a means of increasing women’s confidence in themselves and their ability to contribute

3. Structural Reform

Challenge: For reasons ranging from unfair voting districts in certain places to out-of-touch candidates whom they feel neither represent nor understand them, many voters are convinced that their vote does not matter. Apathy, combined with voter disenfranchisement and mistrust in the integrity of the vote has led many to question whether the decisions made on election day represent the true will of the people. Meanwhile, they perceive their system of governance as riddled with corruption, and lacking in both transparency and accountability. 

Recommendations: 

  • Make voter registration more convenient and accessible to all eligible voters
  • Eliminate physical and economic barriers to voting
  • Provide public financing of elections and ban private money from elections
  • Expand the pool of eligible voters by, for example, reevaluating eligibility based on criminal record
  • Adequately fund and support secure, accessible election technology and systems

4. Equality of Opportunity

Challenge: A great disparity exists at almost every level of our societies: decision makers and ordinary citizens barely speak the same language, economic inequality is stark (and amplified by social media), and quality education – often considered the gateway to social mobility – is increasingly costly and inaccessible. This inequality and disconnect allows fissures in our communities to become chasms, making our democracy vulnerable to actors who would seek to undermine it. 

Recommendations: 

  • Reevaluate tax structures and invest new revenues into social safety nets and common goods
  • Create policy that incentivizes businesses to prioritize their employees’ wellbeing and to invest in the communities in which they operate
  • Provide equal education opportunities for all

5. Reliable Information

Challenge: Disinformation puts the very notion of truth into question. Hyperpartisan news outlets offer only one-sided opinions, removing nuance from the story. The defunding of local media has elevated national debates at the expense of community issues. At the same time, the freedom and safety of journalists are at risk, and much of what they cover is driven by clicks and shares instead of the pursuit of the truth. Our current technology and its algorithms amplify unreliable information and often bury verifiable stories, resulting in a polarized society saturated with information, yet starved of knowledge. And, in a matter of years, AI and deep fakes will make all this seem like child’s play. 

Recommendations: 

  • Increase coordination on threat detection and share information across borders
  • Invest in independent journalism, media literacy training, critical thinking education, civic programs, and efforts to counter disinformation
  • Adopt a digital rights agenda based on transparency, accountability, privacy, and competition
  • Avoid the trap of blocking free speech; the most democratic countries are also the most resilient to disinformation

6. Engagement

Challenge: When citizens see no end in sight for unresolved injustices, systemic exclusion, a broken system, rampant inequality, and untrustworthy information, they simply stop participating. A disengaged, divided population is more susceptible to exploitation from anti-democratic actors, foreign and domestic. Democracy dies in small increments, especially when civil society – the guardians of democracy – is disempowered and its activities restricted through laws that undermine NGOs.

Recommendations: 

  • Increase public and private funding for civil society organizations
  • Reverse crackdowns on domestic and international NGOs
  • Leverage technology to demonstrate that engagement yields results
  • Create new public spaces where the community can interact with one another

 

This document is based on conversations that occurred during the Washington Symposium convened by the Bertelsmann Foundation on April 11 and 12, 2019. Experts in democracy from the fields of business, politics, nonprofits, and the arts contributed to the discussion that lead to these recommendations, including:

Anne Applebaum, Historian and Journalist (United States/Poland)

David Becker, Center for Election Innovation and Research (United States)

Ouided Bouchamaoui, 2015 Nobel Peace Laureate (Tunisia)

Irene Braam, Bertelsmann Foundation (United States/The Netherlands)

Carla Canales, The Canales Project (United States/Mexico)

Mete Coban, My Life My Say (United Kingdom)

Markus Dohle, Penguin Random House (Germany)

Aart de Geus, Bertelsmann Stiftung (Germany/The Netherlands)

Judith Goldstein, Humanity in Action (United States)

Atifete Jahjaga, Former President of the Republic of Kosovo (Kosovo)

Harold James, Princeton University (United States)

Amit Kapoor, Institute for Competitiveness (India)

Andrew Keen, How to Fix Democracy (United Kingdom)

Daniel Mitov, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs (Bulgaria)

Irene Natividad, Global Women Research and Education Institute (United States)

Rob Riemen, Nexus Instituut (The Netherlands)

Emily Rodriguez, Bertelsmann Foundation (United States)

Laura Rosenberger, Alliance for Securing Democracy (United States)

Philipp Rösler, Cihang Charity Foundation (Germany/Switzerland)

David Rothkopf, The Rothkopf Group (United States)

Majid Sattar, Journalist (United States/Germany)

John Ralston Saul, Writer and Political Philosopher (Canada)

Annika Savill, UN Democracy Fund (United Kingdom/Sweden)

Anthony Silberfeld, Bertelsmann Foundation (United States)

Stephen Szabo, American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (United States)

Ann Telnaes, Editorial Cartoonist (United States)

Contact:

Emily B.R. Rodriguez
Director of Communications
+1 202 384 1996
emily.rodriguez@bfna.org