Last night, I had the privilege of moderating a World Economic Forum dinner panel entitled, "The Future of Democracy," asking the following broad question that left ample room for debate: "How are established and nascent democracies being reformed and shaped to meet the challenges of the 21st century?"
The topic and a great group of panelists -- including Professor Timothy Garton Ash (U.K.), Archbishop Thabo Cecil Makgoba (South Africa), Kenneth Roth (U.S.), Amira Yahyaoui (Tunisia), and Jean-Francois Copé (France) -- made it easy for me to facilitate a spirited discussion. It largely revolved around one important theme: determining to what extent anti-democratic tendencies are on the rise globally.
Europe was an area of particular interest, where this threat broke down into two main categories: the disintegration of democratic institutions under the watch of Viktor Orban in Hungary, and a more general anti-immigration far right populism throughout Europe. There was general consensus that the threats to democracy don't extend as far as consolidated democracies like France, but with austerity in the equation for the foreseeable future, the periphery is poised to see this threat grow. An interesting debate arose between the Economist senior editor, who didn't see any of this as significantly anti-democratic, and Timothy Garton Ash, who certainly did.
It's interesting to examine this in countries that are bastions of democratic values and juxtapose it with tendencies in authoritarian states. Take the perceived trend in the other direction in Russia, for example, as we see the middle class publicly speak out and air its grievances.
Davos generally has a Western bent, with an underlying mentality that its customs and ideals will win out. Even with this in mind, there was a lot of talk about avoiding hypocrisy and the importance for Europe and the United States to get their own houses in order democratically before they champion these values abroad. This criticism was especially pointed with regard to the U.S., as people highlighted issues of wealth disparity and corporate influence on politics as areas where democracy seems to be eroding.
There was not as much on the role of technology as I would have liked, nor on the treatment of populations as consumers rather than citizens. But I tried to incorporate these trends into a broader question that I asked the entire audience. Given the following three trends, I asked, is the global environment becoming more supportive of democracy?
1. Exponential technology boosting communication avenues and the greater immediacy and availability of information
2. Volatility and the economic disparity of wealth
3. Challenges to an outmoded western model of international governance
I didn't take a formal poll, but responses came back roughly as follows:
- 60 percent thought the environment was becoming more favorable for democracy.
- 20 percent thought less favorable
- 20 percent were mixed.
Where do I stand? I'm mixed, perhaps with a toe in the "less favorable" camp.
The first day at Davos took its toll on me. A civilized 8 a.m. start, but then it was full tilt until 10 p.m., bouncing from one event to another. And I turned in early, which won't be an option from here on out. After all, the can't-miss evening events come tonight and tomorrow.