Seeking Global Lessons for US Democracy

Some of the current challenges to American democracy are unprecedented, and require a collaborative and globally contextualized effort to fully understand risks and help prevent the erosion of foundational democratic norms and values.

This is why Global Integrity, the Sunlight Foundation and the Open Gov Hub recently convened a small, diverse group of US and international democracy experts to brainstorm how to best help provide relevant international experiences to strengthen the critical efforts of American democracy advocates.

This initial meeting included participants from over 15 organizations, most focused on American democracy. As conveners, we presented and solicited feedback on the preliminary framework we have developed thus far to inform this emerging work. The ultimate objective is to connect American democracy organizations and journalists to international actors with experience dealing with closed/authoritarian governments, in order to strengthen the resilience, efficiency, and effectiveness of US democracy protection and promotion efforts. We hope to accomplish this through facilitating solidarity, strategic lessons, and increased coordination within and across US and international democracy actors. This gathering gave us helpful feedback to identify our key challenges, key actors, and key activities.

Participants first discussed how to prioritize which contemporary challenges to American democracy could benefit from global comparisons. While the US democracy movement has, for decades now, focused on several critical issues (for example related to corruption and voter reform), participants felt that it would be helpful to learn about global experiences on challenges that are new to American democracy advocates. Money in politics, political polarization, and voter rights are still major issues to contend with, but new challenges such as cyberattacks, external interference in elections, and unprecedented attacks on free press have brought us to a new precipice. Many democratic norms that have long been taken for granted in this country are now under threat.

Other participants emphasized the benefit of focusing on domestic issues that have significant international spillover (ex: changes in American aid or America’s leadership in combating corruption globally). Also noted was the way in which some of these challenges have become more pervasive, entrenched, and difficult to root out due to their technological underpinnings. For example, misinformation that is spread throughout various filter bubbles online has created a growing distrust in the press, while greater global connections lead to more vulnerabilities to cyberattacks and external interference.

Second, in discussing key actors to engage, participants agreed on the importance of considering how to reach Americans outside the Beltway, who may not immediately identify the value of learning from experiences abroad. Others agreed that there is great potential to engage local journalists and help provide them resources to give global comparative context for their stories about challenges to American democratic norms and values. Working together with local news outlets, who are often hungry for good content, might help combat the rise of misinformation online, and help restore faith in the press.

Third, participants brainstormed key activities to facilitate this work. Working with subnational political leaders and democratic organizations, who may be eager to learn best practices to protect democratic norms, could help create stronger ties between citizens and local political leaders. Joint contingency (“day after”) scenario planning was also identified as a possible activity, allowing actors to respond quickly and in a coordinated fashion to new threats. Finally, participants emphasized that this work should build on any existing research about international lessons for US democracy, and that all activities should be designed around more narrowly defined, practical issues in order to be most actionable.

The meeting last week was an exciting foray into refining how we scope this work, and affirmed to us that there is significant interest from several actors in meaningfully exploring global lessons for US democracy. We recognize that today’s unprecedented challenges are far too complex for any one group to tackle on their own, and look forward to collaborating with many and continuing the conversation in order to protect and support the resilience of American democracy.

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