How Do Democracies Win?

Fillippo Minelli via flickr // CC 2.0

“How Do Democracies Win?” was the main theme of this year’s edition of Freedom Games, an annual prestigious forum of ideas organized in Lodz, Poland. Needless to say, the title of the forum is a question uneasy to answer. I would also not dare to provide a straight-forward answer to it.

I do believe, however, that while pondering over this dilemma, it is crucial to refer to two important books: How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, and Enlightenment Now penned by Steven Pinker. These two publications, although very much different, illustrate two crucial perspectives on the topic.

When we look at the media landscape in Poland (but also abroad, as similar phenomena may have been observed in various Western countries as well), we see a rather grim picture. We may even doubt the future of liberal democracy.

The media report on numerous crises, conflicts, problems, and dangers. Populists are successful in many countries – politicians who are irresponsible and ready to take the steps that are detrimental to the prospects of their own homeland (as is the case of Brexit).

Anti-freedom and anti-enlightenment rhetoric has been strengthened. In Poland, this has been done by ultra-conservative Catholic Church and the efforts of Jarosław Kaczyński, the notorious leader of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. Abroad, the same is being done by Trump, Johnson, Salvini, Orban, and Erdogan.

After four years of the highly controversial rule of PiS, Polish liberals are faced with the reports of the support for Law and Justice at the level of astounding 40%, what, until recently, seemed inconceivable. And this scares them.

Is Liberal Democracy Failing?

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt describe a series of steps undertaken by the enemies of liberty after they take the power in order to dismantle the system of liberal democracy.

Even though the authors do not really tackle the Polish case, the sheer number of similarities between Poland and other countries is very significant. The book constitutes a handbook for all democrats, showcasing the phenomena that need to be addressed and the problems that must be solved. It is a pessimistic warning that illustrates how fighting for freedom is a never-ending and arduous task.

This bleak outlook on reality that is fed to us on a daily basis via computer or TV screens makes many liberals doubt their beliefs. If in a situation when the enemies of liberty are successful in their endeavors we are also to face a crisis, then the very foundations of our ideology must have been built on a faulty premise – they conclude.

We often hear self-criticism, liberals saying “we were foolish”, or may see doubt in their eyes. We hear tirades, read books and commentaries in which after a crisis economists proclaim the demise of capitalism as we know it and advocate a need for extensive changes – which, in turn, are a content-based justification of the emergence of populist leaders.

Many citizens feel increasingly lost. They hear either that liberal democracy has failed, or are bombarded by news of the demise of the system. They see that liberals are loosing the elections. And so, even though the nonsense uttered by populists does not seem to make any sense, they choose a safe course of withdrawing into the sphere of their private life.

Thus, a vicious circle of sorts is being perpetuated. The reality created by the media becomes larger than facts.

History and Statistics

Is everything really that bad? Is the future of democracy really so bleak? In order to answer this question one must forget the media and political feed and instead resort to the two greatest teachers: history and statistics.

If one wants to conduct a rational evaluation of the ongoing processes happening all around us, these shall be analyzed in a long-term perspective. This is what Steven Pinker does so skillfully in his book.

Pinker analyzes with precision the key indicators of the quality of life and prosperity, combining them with indicators of the condition of democracy and freedom in the world in a historical perspective, focusing on hard data.

With the emergence of the Enlightenment, the period embracing reason and science, paired with the industrial revolution and the formation of the capitalist system, the humanity was faced with unprecedented progress, which still continues to accelerate.

Pinker proves that, in a historical perspective, we live in the best time possible, which none of our ancestors could not have experienced.

Let me now introduce a few examples mentioned by Pinker. According to Our World in Data, in 1920, the average life expectancy was 35 years old, while by 2020, it is estimated to reach 72 years. In 1920, 73% of all people lived below the extreme poverty level. In 2020, this percentage is predicted to drop by app. 10%.

We live in the times of unprecedented peace. The tragedy of the Syrian war is undeniable, true. However, in comparison to the data from the past, there is no doubt that we are extremely lucky in a global perspective.

After all, not so long ago, in the 1970s, for every 100,000 inhabitants of the planet there was app. 9 battle casualties; in 2015, this number decreased to 1 death, according to Human Security Report Project.

Let us also emphasize the revolution in the way we think about wars. Between the 16th century and the beginning of the 19th century, over 50% of all global powers were at war. Later came the age of significant fluctuations in terms of the intensity of armed conflicts, and since the beginning of the 21st century, the indicator has reached 0%, which is an absolute historical sensation.

Struggle for Equal Rights Vs. Democracy

In many countries in the world, including Poland, the fight for equal rights has not yet been completed. However, it must be pointed out that in 1920, the number of states that officially decriminalized homosexuality reached mere 12%, in 1970 – app. 30%, whereas in 2015, 90% countries had such a measure in place.

The condition of democracy in the world is described well by Polity Project (, which measures it in various states on a scale from -10 (full autocracy) to +10 (full democracy). The creators of this index identify as democratic the states that score higher than +6.

Back in 1971, only 31 countries in the whole world were considered democratic. In 1982, this number increased to 52, whereas in 2015, record 103 states were identified. If you are interested in reading more about this, take a look at the work of Pinker as it is worth examining this exciting moment in history we are now facing, in an objective manner and with a historical context in mind.

Economy, Stupid!

The capitalist economy has been progressing in business cycles, which are reinforced or reduced by governmental activities and decisions made by various market players.

The 2008 economic crisis brought many negative consequences (although Poland dealt with them particularly successfully), but nowhere did it result in a collapse of a political system.

This, however, had happened in the past. The economic crisis in the early 1930s paved the way to power for dictators and thugs, and brought many countries and societies to poverty and totalitarianism.

The way in which the Western world handled the 2008 crisis shows that we are still learning and that democratic systems have become more resilient to instability.

Of course, there is always an expected wave of affinity to populism and anti-Enlightenment ideas (political proclivities of most societies may also be presented as a sine curve), but the harmful surfers of this wave – Donald Trump, Jarosław Kaczyński, or Viktor Orban – are nothing when compared with the dictators and totalitarian regimes of the past.

A Way Forward

Although noone knows their intentions, it is certain that enlightenment ideas advocated by liberal democracy have changed our societies to such an extent that introducing a fully dictatorial regime is now more difficult than ever.

This is not to say that Poland could never become another Belarus. Nevertheless, it would be very difficult, especially in light of the fact that the core voter base of Law and Justice crucial for ensuring the party’s success in the forthcoming parliamentary election is devoted to PiS solely due to large social transfers.

The strategy of offering benefits, however, will continue to be effective only if Poland remains a member of the developing liberal economy club.

So, instead of complaining about the difficult times we live in, let us acknowledge the historical momentum that we are now facing, and look at ourselves and “our” post-democratic communities.

First of all, we lack enough faith in democratic, Enlightenment-inspired, and liberal ideas.

The facts say it all, showing that these are the values that have been responsible for the spectacular progress of humanity and the improved quality of human life. This does not mean, however, that these values do not generate any issues, which need not to be addressed.

Even now, the battle between the enemies of liberty continues before our very eyes. Irregardless, I am convinced that in a long-term perspective, it will be liberal democracy that shall be the victor, as it simply offers every human being the best ther is.

No Westerner, nor any populist, has put forward a sensible alternative to liberal democracy. Their proposals have been well-known to have failed miserably in the past.

If there is anything that worries me as regards the future model of global development is the case of China. However, I do hope that this model will not find a fertile soil anywhere else, culture-wise.

And this is precisely why I pose the question of how to convince the swing voters, if we continue to blame ourselves, wearing a badge saying “we were foolish”? Once again, the intelligentsia shows how megalomaniac they are and that they have lost touch with reality. After all, the capitalist system of liberal democracy was not invented in Poland.

After 1989, we entered the stage of modeling our transformation on Western economic and political processes, which had already proven extremely successful.

Poland was surfing the geopolitical wave, and the main contribution of Polish politicians was the fact that they did not damage too much and, luckily, were unable to halt this process (as it happened, for instance, in Belarus or Ukraine).

So, no, it was not “foolish” of you that you did nothing to stop these developments. In the last thirty years, Poland made a spectacular socio-economic leap, which shall make all of us proud.

We should educate people in why liberal democracy is the best system to live in. People are different and this should be embraced. It is a true advantage of a democratic society, ona that has no totalitarian ambitions of creating homogeneous clones who all think alike.

Embracing Dialogue

Dialogue shall serve as the basis of democracy. Only then may we even begin to understand the motives of the other side and reach a compromise.

If anyone does not see the need for dialogue, they should imagine living in a country where every four or eight years one of the sides of a political conflict wins the election by mere 1% of votes and thus is legitimized to impose their own vision, values, and lifestyle on the loosing side. And then the other way around.

Liberal democracy is such a good system because it allows people who have different belief systems to live in harmony next to each other.

Being able to live comfortably in harmony with oneself and one’s own beliefs seems to be crucial for all those who have a moral spine – both an orthodox Catholic and an atheist. Wisdom lies in crating a framework that enables people to be subjects who can live in a symbiosis, instead of returning to the times of inquisition or those of Robespierre.

It is simple, but we tend to forget about it. Simply put, we need an army of determined defenders of liberalism.

Forming Liberal Community

Secondly, we need to form a liberal community. Yes, liberals should not only build a community, but also learn from the examples of creating various liberal-minded organizations.

What doomed many newly created institutions, or political groups was the lack of understanding on the side of liberal leaders of the fact that heading a political community is something completely different than managing a private organization.

A company, corporation, or private foundation may be created in such a manner so as to ensure continuous rule over it. A politically oriented group – be it a party or an association with a political agenda – has a completely different dynamics. In such a body, you may be the leader, but you work for the community the aim of which is taking over the power and introducing a pro-democratic agenda.

There is a need for rebuilding interpersonal relations in political organizations – and do not deem it a naive goal.

Of course, there is always room for in-fighting for power and influence in politics, as leaders will always compete. However, if the loser still has a place in the ranks of an organization after being defeated and may continue to work for the betterment of a community, then all is well.

Healthy competition is possible when there is a common goal, which cannot be holding all the power. Such an attitude, after all, has doomed many newly created groups. Instead of apologizing for the ideas we cultivate, let us think about the ways in which we built our communities in the past.

Another significant aspect is expanding the scope of such political structures. In large organizations with many members, the importance of successfully making deals by one particular party member or secretary is high.

Such groups attract only like-minded people, they are exclusive and inward-oriented. They also assign much value to the ability to keep the competition mechanism away from the existing structures. Only a mass-scale organization is capable of changing this exclusive mechanism and promote the value of knowledge, agenda, personality, and charisma of a candidate, instead of mere obedience of internal structures.


Will these two guidelines be sufficient to help democracy win? Of course not. There are hundreds of other factors that will contribute to the eventual outcome. These two are, however, of high importance. It is up to us whether they will make a difference. Other factors may be out of our reach.

Some mechanisms already work quite well, which is why it is my hope that liberal democracy survives the current crisis, without paying a horrible price for its survival, as it happened in the past.

Finally, on a more positive note, in a long-term perspective, the victory mustbe on the side of liberal democracy – the best system there is in these turbulent times. The question that remains is what will be the cost of our success and what kind of damage will be done and endured by the citizens before the winning battle ends.

The article was originally published in Polish at:

Translated by Olga Łabendowicz