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Should Democracy be Adaptive?

Updated: Feb 15

by Prof Thomas Bryer, Lead Investigator, USA Team

The name "adaptive democracy" emerged not as part of our grant proposal but from negotiation within our project team regarding the name of our website. Our formal project name does not roll off the tongue and is not descriptive of what we are striving to accomplish ("ERAC-DP" Exploring the Role of Adaptive Capacity for Democratic Performance).

The name of our website is quickly becoming our brand, but what does it mean?

Some team members had a negative or at least skeptical reaction to the brand name. Democracy should not be adaptive, it should be fixed and stable this is a gross simplification of one argument that was advanced.

Here is my interpretation, which is not necessarily reflective of the view of all team members. However, consistent with the norms of democratic practice, I encourage my team and all who read this blog to ask questions, challenge my assumptions, and state disagreement and to do all without timidity but with civility.

To be "adaptive" is to be flexible in structure, procedure, and, yes, maybe in values and commitments as the environment changes around us. (For a more complete reading of "adaptiveness" I invite readers to consult some of the published work that will be emerging from this project).

For democracy to be adaptive means exactly that; when there are new and emergent threats to democratic norms and practices, when the commitment to democracy in societies around the world appears to be or actually is weakening, democrats (not "Democrats" as in the political party in the United States) should meet the moment. They should do this by embracing change that strengthens democratic foundations and brings wayward travelers home who were tempted by the promises of leaders who reject aspects of democracy (e.g. commitment to the rule of law, enactment of free, fair, and inclusive decision-making and representation schemes).

Maybe these changes include altering the structures or processes of democracy to give or restore power to marginalized populations; maybe it means embracing technological advancements, including AI, to bolster transparency and confidence in public decision-making. Changes might even include changing power sharing relationships with citizens to mitigate against a minority or majority of people/groups from making policies that advantage some without consideration of all. The changes required to be adaptive will vary from country to country, city to city, and decade to decade. This is why democracy must be adaptive.

To have non-adaptive democracy might be like the story of the person looking for their lost wallet under the streetlamp in the dark of night. When asked why they were looking there, they said, "this is where the light is." Sometimes the light of democracy must shine in new places. We just have to remember that we have many of the tools we need to illuminate the world and must be prepared to inclusively deploy them.

Below is a photo of my son. My commitment to adaptive democracy is my commitment to him. When he is my age in 41 years, I expect our democratic institutions will be different than they are now, stronger in their own right, and fit properly to that time but also flexible enough to change for his children and grandchildren in the decades ahead. This is why our research is so important.

Thomas Bryer

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