Democracy Is Broken. Here’s How to Fix It.

And why we can't afford to fail.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
Cover illustration for Foreign Policy magazine of a cracked monument declaring: Democracy is broken. Here's How to Fix It.
Cover illustration for Foreign Policy magazine of a cracked monument declaring: Democracy is broken. Here's How to Fix It.
Tyler Comrie Illustration for Foreign Policy

Debates about the effectiveness of democracy are as old as democracy itself. But in the broader span of history, people power has only ever gotten more desirable. It was the quest for democracy that dominated so much of the last century, especially after World War II, when there was an unprecedented wave of independence movements and decolonization across Africa and Asia. In the following decades, amid the Cold War, democracy was pitted against communism in a grand clash of ideas. But the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union settled that debate.

Democracy continued to make further inroads around the world. By the early 1990s, it was difficult to imagine an appealing or feasible alternative. The mood of that moment was summed up in The End of History and the Last Man, in which Francis Fukuyama put forward the idea that Western liberal democracy was the “final form of human government.” But with the turn of the millennium, global sentiment was shifting. As China’s growth accelerated and Western democracies struggled to enact economic reforms, a line of thinking began to emerge that democracies weren’t well-equipped to tackle the world’s toughest problems. Jean-Claude Juncker, who was then prime minister of Luxembourg, famously remarked: “We all know what to do. We just don’t know how to get reelected after we’ve done it.”

Juncker’s words, so widely quoted in the years before and following the 2008 financial crisis, now seem quaint. Today, “we all know what to do” feels glib. We don’t. The reality is that a number of factors have dampened global confidence in democratic institutions—and in democracy itself. A combination of urbanization, globalization, and rapid technological change has led to a weakening of local communities in almost every country. Political parties have diverged from the center. Technology and social media have brought the world many benefits but not without inflicting a certain toxicity on public discourse, not to mention mass surveillance and cyberthreats. Trust in the media has declined. Inequality is rampant. People in the United States and elsewhere openly question whether capitalism is fair. The system seems rigged in favor of elites. Meanwhile, nationalists, extremists, and autocrats have exploited each of these factors to further their own ends. It’s not surprising, then, that democracy is at its lowest point in a generation. Freedom House, an organization that measures levels of democracy, reports that freedom has declined around the world for 15 consecutive years. 

Debates about the effectiveness of democracy are as old as democracy itself. But in the broader span of history, people power has only ever gotten more desirable. It was the quest for democracy that dominated so much of the last century, especially after World War II, when there was an unprecedented wave of independence movements and decolonization across Africa and Asia. In the following decades, amid the Cold War, democracy was pitted against communism in a grand clash of ideas. But the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union settled that debate.

Democracy continued to make further inroads around the world. By the early 1990s, it was difficult to imagine an appealing or feasible alternative. The mood of that moment was summed up in The End of History and the Last Man, in which Francis Fukuyama put forward the idea that Western liberal democracy was the “final form of human government.” But with the turn of the millennium, global sentiment was shifting. As China’s growth accelerated and Western democracies struggled to enact economic reforms, a line of thinking began to emerge that democracies weren’t well-equipped to tackle the world’s toughest problems. Jean-Claude Juncker, who was then prime minister of Luxembourg, famously remarked: “We all know what to do. We just don’t know how to get reelected after we’ve done it.”

Juncker’s words, so widely quoted in the years before and following the 2008 financial crisis, now seem quaint. Today, “we all know what to do” feels glib. We don’t. The reality is that a number of factors have dampened global confidence in democratic institutions—and in democracy itself. A combination of urbanization, globalization, and rapid technological change has led to a weakening of local communities in almost every country. Political parties have diverged from the center. Technology and social media have brought the world many benefits but not without inflicting a certain toxicity on public discourse, not to mention mass surveillance and cyberthreats. Trust in the media has declined. Inequality is rampant. People in the United States and elsewhere openly question whether capitalism is fair. The system seems rigged in favor of elites. Meanwhile, nationalists, extremists, and autocrats have exploited each of these factors to further their own ends. It’s not surprising, then, that democracy is at its lowest point in a generation. Freedom House, an organization that measures levels of democracy, reports that freedom has declined around the world for 15 consecutive years. 

The problems I describe aren’t limited to any one part of the world. No country can afford to be smug. But despair won’t help. Instead, we decided to focus our Winter 2022 print issue on how to fix things. We assembled 10 public intellectuals and scholars to propose ways in which to reform democracy. Click here to read how Lee Drutman, Toomas Hendrik Ives, Yascha Mounk, Eduardo Porter, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Josh Rudolph, Marietje Schaake, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Fareed Zakaria, and Shoshana Zuboff applied themselves to come up with ideas to fix arguably one of the biggest problems confronting the world. From ending the two-party system to destroying surveillance capitalism, the ideas you’ll read range from sensible to revolutionary; they are all worthy of serious consideration.

In a separate essay, Hélène Landemore makes the case that democracy as we know it—as designed by America’s Founding Fathers—was never meant to enable real people power. True democracy, she argues, would entail more inclusive mechanisms such as citizens’ assemblies. Sound fanciful? It’s already happening, from France to Iceland to Chile.

Climate change is likely the greatest challenge our world will face this century. Are democracies equipped to tackle it? FP’s Cameron Abadi explores that question in his thought-provoking essay. Meanwhile, Jan-Werner Müller reviews two important books about democracy as he assesses the best ideas for reversing political polarization.

Finally, a year on from Jan. 6, 2021, what lessons has Washington really learned? How would the United States deal with another armed insurrection, and what if it were more organized next time? Stephen Marche has delivered an essential read for an election year as he walks us through the national security options available—and unavailable—to policymakers in the event of further civil unrest.

The world is a difficult place in 2022. But there is value in hunting for solutions to our challenges—however outlandish they may seem at first. There is hope in debate because as the cornerstone of democracy, it’s our best shot at saving it, too.

As ever,

Ravi Agrawal

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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