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A global Summit for Democracy won't mean anything if we don't protect our own

This week’s Summit for Democracy, hosted by Biden’s White House, is meant to demonstrate America's global commitment to democracy.
IMage: People protest in Washington on the eve of the presidential election certification on Jan. 5, 2021.
People protest in Washington on Jan. 5, 2021, the eve of the presidential election certification that declared Joe Biden president-elect.Spencer Platt / Getty Images file

After the Jan. 6. insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, President Biden reminded the nation that “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.” This week’s Summit for Democracy, hosted by Biden’s White House, is meant to be a key step toward that goal. But a global presidential summit won’t help us to reinforce democracy if we are not also strengthening it in local communities right here at home.

A global summit won’t help us reinforce democracy if we are not also strengthening it in local communities right here at home.

Our democracy is only as good as the individuals who constitute it. And right now, we have a nation of individuals who readily embrace undemocratic beliefs (including authoritarianism), refuse to accept the results of a legitimate presidential election and, in increasing numbers, support political violence. The best pathway out of this mess requires us treating the signs of democracy failure—such as the spread of disinformation and rising political violence—as a public health crisis that warrants community-level intervention and education.

In the public health space, the U.S. has made radical changes in the way we approach disease prevention, recognizing that we can’t only focus on proper diagnosis and treatment of conditions such as diabetes and cardiac disease, but that we must also work to promote health in positive ways, by educating communities about behavioral changes that can reduce the onset of health problems. Public-health approaches engage in community-level engagement, integrating health promotion efforts with classes in schools, public libraries, community centers and through a wide variety of local partnerships.

In my own city of Washington, for example, diabetes prevention classes are offered in English and Spanish through partnerships with dozens of organizations, from the YMCA to senior and veterans affairs centers, medical clinics and more. Across the nation, a quick online search in any community turns up countless opportunities to learn about healthy aging and fall prevention, mental health and wellness, stress reduction, heart-healthy nutrition and more. Many of these programs are free to the public, funded by government initiatives or private and foundation support.

We need the same community-based commitment to strengthening our democracy through public education aimed at renewing commitment to civic engagement, building critical thinking skills and improving understanding of the rights and responsibilities of democratic life. Every individual, from eighth graders to 80-year-olds, needs media and literacy training to help recognize and resist propaganda and persuasive extremist rhetoric, conspiracy theories and other forms of online manipulation. Those skills will become even more important as “deep fake” technology becomes more widespread. Parents, teachers, school counselors, mental health experts and other mentors need training, resources and support to recognize the red flags that signal exposure to conspiracy theories, disinformation or extremist ideologies and training on how to proactively engage with a young person, a relative or a colleague who is expressing them.

Americans also need to be reminded that as much as we need to protect our freedoms, we also need to preserve our obligations to the common good. Democratic engagement is as much about responsibility as it is about rights. So much of our current polarized discourse revolves around what we are legally allowed to do as individuals—by the First or Second Amendment, say—rather than what we should choose to do as members of inclusive, multicultural and diverse political and social communities. Renewing democracy has to start with restoring each individual’s commitment to engage in ways that benefit the common good.

As much as we need to protect our freedoms, we also need to preserve our obligations to the common good.

In the U.S., where educational content is left wholly to local authorities, it has been harder to think about what a national commitment to restoring democracy might look like—whether through public civic education or broader community democracy strengthening initiatives. For good reasons, the U.S. has been reluctant to engage in work to combat rising extremism or political violence through initiatives that directly address ideology or beliefs and has focused instead on mitigating and preventing violent outcomes. This is an important distinction: No one wants the government policing ideas. But teaching people how to be more engaged community members and critical consumers of the information they encounter isn’t policing ideas or censoring beliefs. Promoting media literacy skills and cultivating stronger democratic values does not infringe on any rights to free expression or ideas; it simply helps people be better information consumers and more engaged members of a democracy.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel, either. Other countries offer models for how to do this, including Germany, where entire federal and state agencies are devoted to the task of shoring up democratic values and critical thinking or media literacy skills in the public. Germany’s Federal Agency for Civic Education and state-level agencies across the country offer classes, subsidized and free books and curricular materials, workshops, retreats and a wide variety of online resources to help the public understand, recognize and resist threats to democracy from the extremist fringe and from within the mainstream. It’s not an impossible ask to think about a similar kind of nationwide investment in addressing our crisis of democracy here in the United States.

The world is understandably worried about the state of American democracy. Concerns about rising support for political violence, voter participation suppression efforts, declines in civil liberties and increased polarization landed the U.S. on a global list of “backsliding democracies” for the first time last month. In this sense, Biden’s democracy summit is an important signal that should reassure global leaders that the U.S. remains committed to addressing these threats to democracy and to strengthening democratic values and commitment. But this reassurance will fall flat if it’s not met with a plan to go beyond words and show that the U.S. is committed to fixing our democracy. Developing a nationwide, community-rooted strategy to strengthen democratic values is an essential first step.