Why the Next Democracy Summit Must Go Beyond Civil Society Support

Why the Next Democracy Summit Must Go Beyond Civil Society Support

The summit presents an opportunity to elevate the commitment to strengthening democratic institutions generally, and political parties in particular.


Democracy was on the agenda at last week’s White House meeting between U.S. president Joe Biden and Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, with Biden calling on the two nations to support democracy “not just in our hemisphere but around the world,” and Lula affirming that the United States “can count on Brazil in the fight for democracy.”

Yet what are the United States and its allies doing to counter authoritarian aggression? The Biden-Lula meeting comes two months ahead of the Summit for Democracy, where the United States and other hosts will “reaffirm the vitality of the democratic model” to “meet the unprecedented challenges of our time.” The United States and co-hosts will also take stock of progress toward commitments they and others made during the first summit, held in 2021.


The inaugural summit provided a high-level platform for the Biden administration to repeat its rhetoric, affirming U.S. support for democracy overseas and warning of the escalating contest between democracy and autocracy.

Unfortunately, this position hasn’t always been backed by action. While the gathering highlighted the need to push back against authoritarianism, the administration undercut this aim by advancing too narrow of a solution—one focused disproportionately on supporting civil society and curbing graft without shoring up the institutions of governance that make democracy deliver.

Political parties are the most prevalent and efficacious forms of political organization and representation across the globe. Parties channel citizens’ views into platforms and are integral to democratic political competition. Victorious candidates transition their apparatus into office, making effective political parties essential to governing. 

Despite the central role parties serve in the democratic architecture of functioning societies, not a single 2021 U.S. commitment included a call to prioritize or expand support to them.

As the U.S. and allies develop commitments to announce during the summit, they have an opportunity to right-size their solution by elevating their commitment to strengthening democratic institutions generally, and political parties in particular. Doing so is in line with the stated aims of summit part deux to “reaffirm the central role of democratic institutions in delivering prosperity and safeguarding liberty.”

The following three actions—which can be adopted as summit commitments—would do well to reinforce political parties as a linchpin of liberal democracy and arguably the keystone to pushing back against domestic and foreign authoritarianism.

First, the United States and its democratic partners should expand funding to support nascent political parties that emerge from pro-democracy protest movements or respond to popular dissatisfaction with traditional parties.

From the Semilla Movement party in Guatemala to the Change Movement in Lebanon, these movements-turned-political-parties are one of the four most common types of parties today, and are increasingly prevalent in countries of strategic importance to the United States. Their leaders often win elections following a groundswell of public support and hopes for change. Yet these nascent parties face fundamental challenges in governing because they must translate loose networks of actors into a single, well-structured entity with finite views and policy proposals.

Momentum and public backing can wane as un-tested protest leaders turned government officials fail to deliver, leading to diminished support for democracy. Nurturing these parties promotes healthier multiparty competition by incentivizing out-of-touch parties to either adapt to the needs of voters or fall by the wayside (as opposed to becoming entrenched due to a lack of alternatives).

Augmenting support in the form of training and capacity building for these entities—provided they are committed to democratic practices and norms and equality for all citizens—advances the administration’s call to help so-called “bright spot” countries solidify their democratic progress. These initiatives should be complemented with debt relief and other steps to give these leaders time to show progress to their constituents.

The United States should also prioritize political party support as part of its efforts to defend, sustain, and enhance democratic resilience envisioned in the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal. Specifically, support should help political parties modernize their digital operations, including harnessing technology to deliver for citizens.

Traditional parties often lag and struggle to compete with political newcomers, populists, and authoritarian-leaning actors who employ digital tools more effectively. This has contributed to the delegitimization of the critical role political parties have as institutions of democracy. Political parties must digitize operations and use digital tools and technology to better reach new audiences and communicate their platforms. Moreover, with the increased threat of digital authoritarianism, political parties need urgent support to bolster their ability to protect themselves from authoritarian powers seeking to advance their own interests by eroding multiparty democracy.

Finally, the U.S. should cultivate the political and strategic skills of political parties and their leaders. While investment in political parties’ internal infrastructure remains crucial, this is not sufficient to ensure their survival. Parties have traditionally prepared political leaders to assume a role in governing. Successful candidates and elected officials require political skills: their ability to strategize, persuade, forge consensus, secure political support for their initiatives and ultimately work within the realities of their political environment to achieve their promises. Weakness in this area impedes an elected official from delivering solutions and further weakens an already fraying support for democracy.

For example, Peru’s current state of disarray is in due part to Pedro Castillo’s lack of strategy and political astuteness, leading to missteps that alienated him from his base. Castillo is but one of many candidates who get into office only to find themselves lacking the core skills needed to govern. Political skills are essential to successful elections and office.

A second democracy summit provides an opportunity for a well-justified call to action, but is not a substitute for a strategy for defeating authoritarianism. Reversing the autocratic tide needs to start with making the financial and diplomatic commitments necessary to enable core political institutions—political parties chief among them—to deliver on the promise of democracy.

Katya Rimkunas serves as the Director for Democracy, Rights and Governance, Technical Leadership for the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Center for Global Impact.

Patrick Quirk serves as Vice President for Strategy, Innovation, and Impact at IRI. In this role, Dr. Quirk provides the leadership, management, and vision to ensure that IRI is addressing global challenges to democracy by developing innovative and evidence-based programs, tools, and resources. He leads IRI’s organization-wide strategic planning as well as oversees institutional efforts on monitoring, evaluation, research, and learning.

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