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Davos 2022: How to properly debate the future of democracy

Prof. Timothy Snyder.

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Public officials and a prominent scholar discussed current threats to democracy.
  • They acknowledged the temptation to admire the efficiency in authoritarianism.
  • But they agreed democracy is worth fighting for perhaps now more than ever.

A lively panel gathered on the first day of Davos 2022 to discuss the future of democracy, demonstrating the sort of healthy debate required to nourish it.

Democracy: the current threats and future scope

“Democracy is wonderful,” Timothy Snyder, the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University, felt compelled to state.

True, said Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Climate Change, though “different countries experience democracy quite differently.”

Egils Levits, the President of Latvia, was able to point to at least one enemy of democracy everyone could agree on: populism. It “offers wrong answers to the right problems,” he quipped.

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US Senator Chris Coons said there’s one, fundamental thing any country interested in promoting democracy can do to help its cause. “The single most important thing we can do to advance democracy globally is to advance democracy domestically,” he asserted.

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Sure, that sounds right, but Snyder said we’re also going to have to acknowledge how much we’ve taken democracy for granted over the years.

Many of us have succumbed to the temptation to assume it’s the default, he said.

“That was always just silliness.”

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We’ll also have to start doing our homework, Snyder added – literally.

He argued that a loosened embrace of the humanities – not just the study of history, but of literature and philosophy, too – has led us astray in recent decades. That’s because it’s weakened our ability to explain to each other just what’s at stake if we let democracy decline.

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Minister Rehman was asked about the temptation, particularly during times of crisis, to admire the efficiency of authoritarian regimes.

“Wash my mouth out with soap and water if I suggest that authoritarian systems are better at solving things,” she said. “Looking to the authoritarians to solve the problem is what we have to guard against.”

Democracy will always necessarily be a messy, difficult process, the panelists agreed – and fostering it globally will require vigilance.

Minister Rehman said mutual understanding is key. She cited a “growing chasm” between the Global South and the West in terms of perception, illustrated by an overwhelming focus in the West on the crisis in Ukraine that may distract from other parts of the world in need of aid, such as Afghanistan.

She also noted it might help matters to hear a “mea culpa” for the fallout from military incursions into that country and Iraq. Snyder and Coons promptly complied.

“The United States needs to recognize that we need some humility,” Coons said.

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