The departure of the disgraced former president was one step in shoring up democracy, but the damage has yet to be repaired. “Fifteen years of backsliding on democracy and human rights means hundreds of millions more living under oppression,” the report asserts. “As democracy’s wave recedes, authoritarianism surges. Autocratic regimes have studied the tools of open societies — free speech, financial flows, technological innovation, international cooperation — and weaponized them against democracies and their own people.” While welcoming the expression of support for democracy from the new president, the authors argue that we need “a broad set of ideas to rebuild democratic alliances; strengthen institutions essential to democracy; address the challenges posed by technology; counter disinformation; address corruption and kleptocracy; and harness US economic policy to support democracy.”
The report urges greater investment “in the pillars of open, accountable, inclusive, democratic society: free and fair elections; independent media; and a vibrant, active civil society.” For example, the report recommends creating “a new Center for Integrity in Elections that works closely with elections officials and bodies in the United States and overseas to safeguard the integrity of elections.”
That is the sort of proposal that should attract bipartisan support, since the GOP is ostensibly interested in election security. But without reforming our voting system to guarantee access to the ballot, such a proposal falls regrettably short. Secure systems that disenfranchise groups of voters do not promote democracy.
Another proposal concerns the effort to counter “the rampant spread of intentional disinformation, state-sponsored propaganda, unintended citizen-spread misinformation, and online hate and harassment are interfering with basic democratic processes.” The authors recommend “building global societal resilience to disinformation, online hate and harassment” by, for example, creating “digital and media literacy and cybersecurity education.” Once again, this is a useful suggestion, but without serious measures to address social media companies’ lack of transparency (e.g., how their algorithms work), the dearth of accountability on the Internet (e.g., reforming the blanket protection afforded by Section 230) and monopoly power online, the recommended measure will be insufficient.
Likewise, the report sets forth the admirable goal of “combating corruption, kleptocracy, and state capture …[with] a whole-of-government approach to implement it.” It recommends “an anti-corruption agenda across international bodies.” Here, too, international efforts fall flat without a commitment to combat corruption, kleptocracy and state capture at home. To shore up our own democracy, we must institute new and stringent disclosure and divestiture requirements for lawmakers and executive branch officials; bar officials from directing business to their own holdings; mandate the disclosure of tax returns; and enact real teeth to enforce the Hatch Act, to list a few reforms.
The report’s authors have crafted a useful foreign policy and national security agenda, but if we have learned anything in the last four years, it is that we cannot be a model for other democracies while our own democracy lies in tatters. That raises the most troublesome domestic development in recent years: One of our major parties no longer embraces the sanctity of elections, inclusive multiracial democracy or even fact-based reality. Until we address that elephant in the room, we will be ineffective in helping allies to do the same.