Club de Madrid and its partners want to ‘Rethink Democracy’. Here’s why

It is common for people who live in a democratic society to take democracy for granted. But democracy needs constant nurturing. Regrettably, there are many places in the world where leaders, institutions and citizens have been unable to protect democracy.

Too often, democratic systems seem to be wilting away as they struggle to rise through divisive populist discourses, new disruptive technologies, polarised political landscapes and governance styles that test the limits of their institutions. At the same time, many democracies have also shown considerable resistance to their complete upheaval, indicating that citizens are not ready to give up on democratic rule.

Club de Madrid and its partners firmly believe that if we want to address the mounting challenges our societies face, democratic systems need innovation.

Today, on International Day of Democracy, we want to invite you to join our 2021 Annual Policy Dialogue  ‘Rethinking Democracy’, co-organised with Bertelsmann Stiftung, to be held on 27-29 October. Not registered yet? Register below and help us bring pluralist, transparent and accountable systems back in style!


The process of democratic backsliding, which raises our concern over the future of democracy, has been extensively measured and documented by analysts, organisations and political scientists alike, many of whom are partnering with us in this Policy Dialogue. Below you can observe how V-Dem, one of our working group members, measures the evolution of the quality of democracy for the past ten years and how Freedom House, also a working member of this Policy Dialogue, measures freedom between 2013 and 2021.

What can we do about it?

In order to offer concrete recommendations as the main final output, this 2021 Annual Policy Dialogue counts on three Working Groups, packed with organisations from academia, government and civil society. Each Working Group will help us distil recommendations that can breathe new life into democratic systems on the following respective themes:

The New Information Ecosystem: The transformation of the way humans share and process information has given rise to a set of phenomena that impact the public debate and, consequently, our ability to share a common understanding of what is true. And democracies, in order to survive and thrive, require their citizens to share a modicum of shared truth.

Online anonymity and zero-cost publishing on online and social media platforms have democratised our capacity to disseminate information, yet this has also brought a larger circulation of fake news and extremist ideas. Falsehoods and polarising ideas now spread seamlessly online and have the potential to reach large portions of the population. This challenge feeds into other phenomena that also impact democracy’s capacity to thrive: a more polarised and divisive political discourse and citizen’s declining trust in their leaders and institutions.

All these challenges strike at the heart of our democracies. Aside from polarisation and political tensions, disinformation has, on occasion, impacted our ability to have free and fair elections. Furthermore, any attempt to intervene or regulate the business models and systems behind this new information flow collides with a fundamental democratic value we all uphold: freedom of expression.

What should be the basis and values of a democratic information environment able to guarantee freedom of expression, evidence-based information sharing and trust-building? In the current context of constant technological transformation, how can democracies counter disinformation, guarantee free and independent media and ensure the integrity of elections? Rethinking Democracy will offer principles and values that can guide action in balancing all issues involved in the information ecosystem of the 21st Century.

Responsible Leadership and Democracy: To a large extent, democracies thrive if their leaders respect the fundamental norms and institutions that define democratic rule. But in recent years, we have seen a rise of demagogues and populist leaders that have undermined media freedom, civil society, political opposition, judicial independence, the rule of law and electoral processes. Democracies with such leadership in power are at risk of undergoing a dragged-out democratic backsliding. In the long run, they risk becoming hybrid or outright autocratic regimes.

Democracies worldwide need responsive, responsible and reliable leaders able to help citizens recover from COVD-19 and navigate through the deep existential transformations we need to tackle sooner than later, such as digitalisation, the rollout of AI and the transition to a green economy. These leaders should also have an inclusive leadership style, as the challenges of inclusion (widening inequality, discrimination and systemic racism, the exclusion of minorities…) are many.

Considering the myriad of crises and the far-reaching transformations that we are undergoing, what kind of leadership do we need to guarantee the survival and success of democratic rule? How can we regain citizen’s trust in their leadership and institutions? Rethinking Democracy will lay out the traits and style of the leadership we need to address current and future challenges in an inclusive manner.

Resilient Democracies, Resilient Institutions: In several countries, we have recently witnessed systematic attempts to undermine the foundations of democratic systems. With varied degrees of success and failure, leaders and other societal actors have questioned election results for political means, destabilised the separation of powers, undermined judicial independence, disregarded the rule of law and engaged in opportunistic rhetoric against political pluralism.

Populists and authoritarian leaders despise the sort of pluralist, independent and equitable institutions that make democratic systems flourish. Democracy relies precisely on the legitimacy, credibility and strength of its institutions, principles and values. For as long as they continue to be under attack by some political and societal actors, democracy will languish. So we need to strengthen, refine and energise these institutions.

How can we strengthen institutional structures so democracy can thrive? What are the best governance practices to sustain and develop democratic government, even in the face of emergencies, such as COVID-19?

Our 2021 Annual Policy Dialogue ‘Rethinking Democracy’, co-organised with Bertelsmann Stiftung and hosted by USIP, aims to offer innovative recommendations to challenge the notion that democracy cannot deliver anymore. In and after the Policy Dialogue, we will present far-reaching proposals to adapt our leadership styles, information ecosystems and institutional settings to the realities of the 21st Century.

Interested in the future of democracy? Help us craft a new vision for democracy. Join our Annual Policy Dialogue 2021