As 2020 draws to a close, one can’t help but reflect on how fragile our lives, communities and institutions have seemed this year. And yet in the face of so much fear and loss, an honest stock-taking also shows the human capacity to adapt and remain resilient, including in political affairs.
Over the past year the pandemic admittedly empowered many authoritarian-minded leaders to suppress democratic practice in the name of national security.
Yet we also witnessed brave citizens in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Bamako, Belarus, and elsewhere who continued the pre-pandemic trend of peaceful protest to demand their voices be heard, and democratic rights respected. Many elections went forward, millions braved difficult conditions to cast their vote, and NDI continued to adapt its work to help support their efforts. The courage and resilience of citizens all over the world has been inspiring to witness.
Elections, wherever they take place, are pivotal moments, as they exercise every democratic muscle in a society. They serve as a kind of temperature check and stress test for democracy.
The recent U.S. elections were no different.
Thanks to election officials - party observers, judges and volunteers of all kinds, who did their jobs with integrity and honor despite multiple risks to their health and well-being, the recent U.S. election was held smoothly and successfully - to the point of being called the most secure in its history.
Civil society stepped up to secure the vote and ensure broad participation. Cybersecurity experts in and out of government protected the system from potential subversion by malign actors. And U.S. citizens turned out in historic numbers at a rate unseen in more than a century, including those traditionally marginalized, despite a myriad of obstacles - pandemic-related and otherwise.
For all its apparent success, however, these elections also laid bare the fault lines in U.S. democracy - fault lines that were hardly a secret to any casual observer of U.S. affairs.
Since my return as NDI president two years ago, I have often been asked in both public and private settings how the Institute can promote democracy abroad when so much work needs to be done “at home.” Isn’t it contradictory - or worse, hypocritical - to “tout the American model” when U.S. democracy appears to be in crisis?
My answer has been straightforward: first, while the U.S. experience has much to offer the world, NDI has never claimed U.S. democracy was perfect, or pressed other countries to replicate any particular model of democracy, U.S. or otherwise. We have always provided assistance with due humility by sharing democratic lessons and experiences – the good, bad and ugly - from around the world, including the United States, from which other countries can learn and adapt for themselves as they choose.
I add that those abroad struggling for democracy are not seeking democracy for America’s sake, or waiting for our democracy to be perfected as a prerequisite for advancing their own. They continue to welcome whatever solidarity and assistance they can find to support their democratic aspirations - including from NDI.
But I never fail to acknowledge that the health of the U.S. model matters in the work we do. It is folly to deny that when U.S. democracy falters, authoritarians feel empowered. When U.S. leaders fail to combat its democracy’s degradation, the world notices. When U.S. politicians fail to adhere to basic democratic norms, those norms are weakened everywhere.
The Institute has witnessed first-hand, in country after country, the importance attached to U.S. democracy as a measure against which our partners defined political possibilities for themselves. U.S. institutions, processes and actions have served as an unspoken lodestar for millions around the world.
But such status is not a birthright. It must be earned: by safeguarding the integrity of U.S. democracy for every generation, and continuing the Republic’s historic journey toward realization of its founding promise.
If the United States wants to assist those striving for democracy abroad, therefore - whether for national security, humanitarian or other interests - its leaders and citizens across the political spectrum must act urgently to reverse degradation of democratic norms at home.
They must commit themselves to adhering to the informal guardrails that bound a healthy, vigorous and open political system: a commitment to truth and facts, to conduct public affairs in a spirit of mutual tolerance and forbearance, within a political culture of comity, cooperation and compromise, and by prioritizing country and law over faction and expedience.
2021 offers an array of both opportunities and challenges, particularly with the prospect of a pandemic’s end. We sincerely hope the upcoming Biden administration, the incoming Congress, state and local leaders, civic activists and U.S. citizens across the political spectrum will find common cause to work together to address the deficits in U.S. democracy - not only for its own citizens, but also for “small d” democrats everywhere.
And to all of you who support the work of NDI, thank you so much as always. The hard task of democracy continues. We wish everyone a safe, healthy and happy holiday season - and a more free, just and democratic new year!
Derek Mitchell, President