The 1/6 uprising highlighted the fragility of American democracy. Its consequences offer an opportunity to strengthen democracy that we should not waste.
Jared Shurin is Director of Strategy at Social Impact Practice at M&C Saatchi and is a practicing member of the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right.
Faith in democracy is declining. According to the Pew Research Center, 52% in the world are dissatisfied with democracy, having lost confidence not only in their government, but also in the idea of democracy – with “disappointing percentages[ing] democratic rights and institutions as very important. which resonates with a to study by Cambridge University’s Center for the Future of Democracy, which found growing “democratic malaise”, with 57% of people in “developed countries dissatisfied with democracy”.
Experts point to a “democratic recession” and the deterioration of democratic rights, but, as Pew research indicates, this challenge is as much a question of perception as it is of function. Democracy can be seen as exhausted or ineffective. There is a new notion of ‘weariness of democracy‘: a passivity and dissatisfaction that arise from emotional exhaustion; endless electoral politics, but never the feeling of action or change.
With the constant barrage of existential, security, covid or climate change crises, the weighty ideals of compromising and letting everyone have their say can seem sadly outdated. What we need a lot of joke, is a “benign dictatorship”. Because democracy, although attractive, does not seem to to make things progress. There are also more pernicious political actors, who argue that the notion of equal governance, even universal suffrage, is anathema; who would prefer more brutally effective ethno-nationalist forms of government, only for the benefit of a particular group. Although being an extreme variant, it stems from the same sense of disillusionment: an unbelief that democracy, as a system or idea, is unable to cope with the crises we face.
Democracy needs a new brand image. The emphasis on the democracy “brand” may seem frivolous: something best reserved for fast food chains and cleaning supplies. Yet a brand is how the public perceives and understands the nebulous collection of intangible values that surround a product, service or even an idea. It’s the vehicle through which rational benefits translate into an emotional connection, whether it’s loyalty to a burger chain, thirst for a new car, or faith in a political system.
Addressing the brand of democracy means the opportunity to develop a new narrative around democratic values and institutions: not only what they are, but why they are meaningful and relevant. A stronger brand can help steer the conversation away from democratic failures (perceived or not) and toward its distinctive offering.
Democracy was more easily stigmatized throughout the Cold War; posing as half of a binary. There was a clear division between democracy (and all of that included) and the other (and the danger it presented). After the Cold War and in a more fragmented world order, democracy can no longer be defined solely as a clear alternative to a threatening subgroup. The most pressing threats we face are global and apolitical, ranging from Covid-19 to climate change. Democracy can no longer be defined simply as an alternative to these threats, it is presented as a positive option.
More importantly, democracy must also feel relevant. It cannot be a high level ideal, but a system that can demonstrate a significant impact on an individual’s daily life. GfK research highlighted the importance of “quality of experience” in brand loyalty. What are the tangible benefits of living in a liberal democratic system? What opportunities do they see as a result? What in the world around them, or in their experience, can they point fingers as a direct consequence of democracy or as a benefit of it?
Answers will vary by geography and audience, but democracy needs to be meaningful, not just a glorious summary. Advocates of a democratic world order cannot rest on their laurels, or make a gesture towards a hostile “other” in the vain hope that will persuade a skeptical public. The benefits of democracy must be based on facts, not rhetoric, and convey real value to the public.
Likewise, democracy, as a brand, must reassess its dependence on American exceptionalism. Democracy’s most prominent celebrity brand ambassador is reeling from the scandal. On January 6, the world saw the “temple of democracy” invaded, a painful demonstration of America’s own flaws. The insurgency came after four years of a overtly egocentric and nationalistic US foreign policy. There are continually significant stress lines along voting rights and social justice, further undermining America’s historic positioning as a beacon of traditional democratic values.
(Although other Western and multilateral countries have proven to be just as flawed when brought into the limelight of modern media, they have never played such an important role as the ‘brand ambassador’ of the Democracy.) Democracy brand advocates can no longer simply point to America as a case study.
The new need for humility can be an opportunity for the democratic brand. Democracy can now paint a picture of progress, not perfection; admit failures while reinforcing the fact that the system is based on the will and capacity to do better. Advertising pioneer David Ogilvy wrote that brands should “tell the truth, but make it fascinating.” Two obvious advantages of democracy are the ability to deal with adversity resiliently and a commitment to transparency. America can demonstrate both. In doing so, it can still serve as a model for democratic values, if standing on a much shorter pedestal.
The danger of a rebranding approach is that it confuses communication with action rather than its partner. Democracy must communicate humility, equality and progress, but it can only do so if these attributes are grounded in truth. A rebranding must amplify a meaningful action, for example, a long-awaited reform of voting rights in the United States. There can be no “say / do” gap – real or perceived – between what democracy says and what it does.
The communication strategy for democracy should therefore be democratic in itself. Democracy is fundamentally about participation. Pew’s research shows that 64% of those who are not satisfied with democracy think that elected officials “care what they think”. It is therefore essential to create opportunities for audiences to participate in a democratic process, even as a microcosm of the whole. Democracy is best expressed through engagement, not through posters and slogans. It is more important for the public to speak up and be heard, to understand the power of setting their own agenda and to have the satisfaction of seeing it carried out. A co-creative process shows that democracy is about the reciprocity of trust between people and their government, and, more importantly, shows that democracy is really about the freedom to engage and participate.
Finally, democratic “brand builders” cannot avoid the sad reality that this is now an adversarial space. Extremists, for example, offer radical solutions that play on false stories or to seduce with impossible utopian futures. The gradual gains that democracy offers are less spectacular, and extremist groups will soon point out its failures. Hostile actors always be quick to identify perceived hypocrisies within liberal democracies, or exacerbate tensions within liberal societies.
To successfully communicate about democracy, one must prepare for these national and international counter-narratives. This reinforces the need not only to build long-term trust between democratic actors and their audiences, but also to create a contemporary narrative around democracy that is both grounded and relevant, and therefore more difficult to ignore.
This article is brought to you by the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through its research, CARR intends to conduct discussions on the development of radical right-wing extremism around the world. Rantt has been a CARR partner for 3 years. We have published over 150 articles from CARR’s network of doctors, historians, professors and experts analyzing extremism and combating disinformation.