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Making Europe Resilient to Authoritarian and Illiberal Challenges: From Knowledge to Action

The V-Dem Institute launched a project on democratic resilience as part of its work on autocratization – the decline of democracy. Our Resource Guide “Defending Democracy against Illiberal Challengers” provides an overview of cutting-edge research and innovative ideas that democratic actors can enact for strengthening democracy. Democratic actors including politicians, activists, and journalists face dilemmas every day. This Resource Guide systematically analyzes strategies for addressing these dilemmas based on the available research evidence.

As a first step, V-Dem organized the Berlin Democracy Conference, November 11-12, 2019, in collaboration with the Open Society Foundation (OSF) and the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB). It brought together 100s key stakeholders who normally do not attend the same conferences: leading social scientists and decision-makers from key European civil society organizations and state institutions. The participants learned about current state-of-the-art democracy research, drew policy recommendations for civic education, political parties as well as public space. Together, academics and practitioners outlined ideas to facilitate future research and knowledge transfer.

The detailed conference program is available here, and videos are available here. OpenDemocracy has published a piece by Anna Lührmann, V-Dem Deputy Director, outlining initial thoughts on the topic. 

BDC 2019 – Resilient to Authoritarian and Illiberal Challenges

The opening plenary started with some mixed news. Anna Lührmann, Deputy Director of the V-Dem Institute, highlighted that despite mounting challenges, democracy in Europe is going strong. In most European countries, democratic institutions remain stable. Europe has the highest average regional level of liberal democracy in the world, according to V-Dem data. 

At the same time, democratic erosion is a real threat in Europe. In four out of 31 European countries – Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland – illiberals have so far succeeded in weakening liberal democratic institutions significantly. Moreover, illiberal and authoritarian-leaning parties are on the rise in almost all European countries, threatening democratic institutions and norms. Wolfgang Merkel, Director of the democracy and democratization research unit at WZB, emphasized that while European democracies are vulnerable, they are not in existential crisis.   

Matthew MacWilliams (University of Massachusetts Amherst) shared his research showing that in opinion surveys, voters for such parties hold authoritarian values and support far-right ideologies. In order to reach such voters, democrats need to understand their mindsets and better tailor their activities and messages. 

In the subsequent six ‘Knowledge Workshops’, scholars and practitioners took a first step towards this end. One workshop on ‘the Extent of the Authoritarian Challenge’ concluded that democratic erosion makes life difficult for journalists, opposition politicians and activists in several countries. Thus, recent declines in expert-coded data sets from institutes such as V-Dem, Bertelsmann Foundation, and Freedom House are more than a mere reflection of an increasingly pessimistic public discourse. Often, autocratizers erode the informal democratic norms, a process which in turn helps them to win elections and come to power. At the same time, Melis Laebens (Yale University) showed that elections played a key role in instances in which autocratizers were stopped. 

Overall, the ‘Knowledge Workshops’ were an exercise in the falsification of hypotheses of what might work to stop autocratization, as Staffan I. Lindberg, Director of the V-Dem Institute, summarized. Scholars presented several papers showing that a particular strategy, such as copying the issues of far-right parties, pro-democratic mass protests or judicial intervention, did not work in stopping illiberals. Autocratization can rarely be stopped once it starts to affect the core of the regime. 

One reason for this challenge is the societal polarization that accompanies and fuels autocratization. Illiberals divide the society into their supporters and enemies. Such polarization is pernicious – as Jennifer McCoy (Georgia State University) emphasized because it derails any trusting interaction between citizens with different views – unlike normal debates about policy preferences. Pernicious polarization enables illiberals to dominate the public discourse and shield their supporters from information that challenges their propaganda. Citizens that lack trust in other citizens and the political process are more likely to support policies, which challenge the rules and institutions that guarantee an impartial and fair political contest. Democrats react fiercely to such violations of democratic norms, which again pushes illiberals to stand closer together. 

How to stop this vicious circle?

The second conference day started with inspirations from model initiatives to this end. For instance, Komons analyses the media environment in Spain to help democratic groups target their message better. Aktion Zivilcourage provides local solutions to strengthen democratic civil society in Eastern Germany. The Volksverpetzer counters narratives, facts and frames by the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) online. 

Thomas Carothers (Carnegie Endowment) offered some ideas for what Europeans could learn from the democratic experiences in non-European countries. In particular, he emphasized three lessons for successful grassroots mobilization against autocrats in power. First, pointing to South Korea and Guatemala as success stories, he argued that activists should focus on combating corruption as a mobilizing force. Second, it seems that mobilization mainly works around specific thresholds and junctures, such as manipulated elections or attempts to remove term-limits. Thirdly, the Sudanese case suggests that professional organizations (e.g. doctors’ unions) may help to overcome collective action problems. He also pointed to successful civil society projects that brought together citizens across dividing lines in Kenya and an impactful coalition of think tanks, grass-roots organization and judges against state capture in South Africa. 

During the concluding session, Anna Lührmann (host, V-Dem) and panelists Daniel Ziblatt (Harvard University) and Gesine Schwan (Humboldt-Viadrina Governance Platform) engaged in a lively debate with the audience. Daniel Ziblatt analyzed that the erosion of the gatekeeper function of this political establishment had opened the doors for illiberal and authoritarian actors. Democratic actors can either treat them like any other political actors or address them with the help of instruments from the realm of militant democracy “wehrhafte Demokratie”, informal norms, civic education and social mobilization. Gesine Schwan emphasized that multi-level solutions are needed to deal with the challenges that emerge from today’s globalized economy and that politicians should be more responsive to citizens.

Overall, the conference generated considerable “food for thought” and initial ideas, but also highlighted major knowledge gaps: How can democrats delegitimize illiberal and authoritarian political actors without enhancing societal polarization? What role do emotions play in shaping anti-democratic behavior and how can democrats be more emphatic? What works in enhancing the resilience of democracies? 

The Berlin Democracy Conference was only the beginning. Now it is up to scholars to address these research gaps and practitioners to transfer the knowledge into action.

Key Themes

Identified Knowledge Gap

Action Areas

Civic Education


Civic education was prominently featured in keynote speeches and two of the workshops as a key strategy to strengthen democratic resilience. Several scholars (e.g. Anja Neundorf, Bettina Westle and Monika Oberle) presented evidence that civic education works in enhancing political knowledge and in some cases also support for democracy, democratic values and civic competence. A heated debate took place on whether civic education should be neutral or be partial to democratic norms and unambiguously democratic political parties.


  • How to reach adults without only preaching to the converted? 
  • What is the link between enhancing civic knowledge and democratic behavior? 
  • How to better communicate why democratic norms should trump policy divisions?
  • More civic education is needed inside and outside of schools.
  • Civic education teachers need to be better trained.
  • Civic education should use humor and emotions (e.g. simulation games, social media, popular sports). 

Parties and Institutions


Political parties are both a cause of the rising illiberal challenges in Europe and a potential key to the resolution of the crisis. Appropriate solutions depend on context and behavior of specific parties and range from reforms within established parties (“change of diet”) to informal strategies of disengaging with the far-right. Several scholars presented their research showing that merely copying the agenda and frames of far-right parties does not work. At the same time, the volatility of contemporary voters gives hope that the electoral success of far-right parties in Europe may fade.
  • How does the behavior of mainstream parties affect the success of illiberal/authoritarian challenger parties (in particular informal obstruction)? 
  • What input could other sciences such as anthropology, psychology, history and communication give to addressing the challenges to democracy? 
  • How can the fact that radical right parties are loved and hated the most (negative political identity) be used to combat them?
  • To what degree is the vote for radical right parties determined by specific policies such as immigration, redistribution, politics or ideology?
  • How are anti-elite narratives constructed? How can established parties react to anti-elitist narratives?
  • What unintended side-effects do appointment procedures for judges have during democratic erosion?
  • Nourish divisions within illiberal parties and shift the debate to substantial policy issues.
  • Established democratic parties should lead by example and deliver good policies that improve people’s lives and address the structural problems that motivate voting decisions for the far-right.
  • Lowering the voting age to mobilize young voters. 
  • Giving less space and media attention to radical right parties.
  • Explaining why political parties choose to implement certain policies over other alternatives. 
  • More transparency of the funding of both mainstream and radical right parties is needed. Private money (lack of transparency) increases votes for extreme parties.

Public Space


The debate on public spaces – online and offline – at the conference was quite gloomy. Challenges include shrinking spaces for civil society, a collapse of the traditional business model of the media and rising polarization and hate speech. In order to address these challenges, disagreement is not enough. Instead, more actors should get involved in fact-checking, frame-checking and development of counter-narratives with a view to provide diverse information to more people. In particular, the “invisible third” (the less positioned center of the population – see: More in Commons) that is not yet firmly rooted in the illiberal camp, should be targeted more.
  • What labels work best in deterring “fence-sitters” from supporting illiberal groups and ideas? 
  • How can moderate groups in society be understood and activated to support democracy?
  • Under which conditions does it make sense to talk with illiberals? How? 
  • Which depolarization strategies actually work? 
  • Under which conditions do substantial policy conflicts escalate to conflicts about the political system as such?
  • What is the best way to regulate social media and reduce hate speech?
  • Making civilized debate a goal in itself. 
  • Criticizing actions instead of attacking on a personal level. 
  • Identifying and cracking down on sources of false information.  
  • Regulating private social media companies more. 
  • Supporting and rewarding bridge-builders.